U.S. Foreign Policy 101

Who Makes Decisions on International Relations?

President Trump, First Lady, Jordan's King Abdullah, and Queen Rania
President Trump and First Lady welcome Jordan's King Abdullah and Queen Rania to White House. (Pool/Pool/Getty Images)

The Constitution of the United States doesn't say anything specific about foreign policy, but it does make clear who is in charge of America's official relationship with the rest of the world.

The President

Article II of the Constitution says the president has the power to:

  • Make treaties with other countries (with the consent of the Senate)
  • Appoint ambassadors to other countries (with the consent of the Senate)
  • Receive ambassadors from other countries

Article II also establishes the president as commander-in-chief of the military, which gives him significant control over how the United States interacts with the world. As Carl von Clausewitz said, "War is the continuation of diplomacy by other means."

The president's authority is exercised through various parts of his administration. Therefore, understanding the executive branch's international relations bureaucracy is one key to understanding how foreign policy is made. Key Cabinet positions are the secretaries of state and defense. The joint chiefs of staff and the leaders of the intelligence community also have significant input in making decisions related to foreign policy and national security.

Congress

But the president has plenty of company in steering the ship of state. Congress plays a key oversight role in foreign policy and sometimes has direct involvement in foreign policy decisions.

An example of direct involvement is the pair of votes in the House and the Senate in October 2002 that authorized President George W. Bush to deploy U.S. military forces against Iraq as he saw fit.

Per Article II of the Constitution, the Senate must approve treaties and nominations of U.S. ambassadors.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Committee on Foreign Affairs both have significant oversight responsibilities with regard to foreign policy.

The power to declare war and raise an army is also given to Congress in Article I of the Constitution. The War Powers Act of 1973 governs the interaction of the Congress with the president in this most important foreign policy territory.

State and Local Governments

Increasingly, state and local governments exercise a special brand of foreign policy. Often this is related to trade and agricultural interests. The environment, immigration policy, and other issues are involved as well. Non-federal governments would generally work through the U.S. government on these issues and not directly with foreign governments since foreign policy is specifically the responsibility of the U.S. government. 

Other Players

Some of the most important players in shaping U.S. foreign policy are outside of government. Think tanks and non-governmental organizations play a major role in crafting and critiquing American interactions with the rest of the world. These groups and others -- often including former U.S. presidents and other former high-ranking officials -- have an interest in, knowledge of and impact on global affairs that can span longer time frames than any particular presidential administration.