Reading: Foreign Policy


In broad terms, America’s foreign policies are aimed at maintaining and promoting the favorable position and security of the United States in the international arena. The goals of American foreign policy, however, are not always clear. How involved should the United States be in the affairs of other nations? Should it only use its military might to defend its borders or should it be involved in peace-keeping efforts around the world? Should the United States attempt to trade “freely” with other nations, or should it enact restrictive tariffs to protect American companies and manufacturers?

As the United States faces the new millennium, there are familiar calls to become more isolated from the rest of the world while others argue that the nation must remain an active participant in the world community, even as the world becomes a more uncertain and dangerous place.

Who Makes Foreign Policy?

Photo of President George W. Bush in the Oval Office shaking hands with Prime Minister Marek Belka of Poland.

President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Marek Belka of Poland meet with the press in the Oval Office Monday, August 9, 2004.

The Constitution of the United States gives the president the clear upper hand in the conduct of foreign policy. The president is the Commander-in-Chief of the nation’s armed forces. As the single officer of the United States charged with receiving the leaders of other nations and with negotiating treaties, the president is also the nation’s Chief Diplomat.

The president, however, does not have the authority to make foreign policy independently. The Constitution gives the Congress the power to check the president’s foreign policy powers in important ways. While the president can order the United States military into action to respond to emergencies and threats to the security of the nation, only the Congress has the authority to officially “declare war.” Ultimately, it is Congress’s power of the purse that allows it to cut off funding to presidentially ordered military ventures of which it does not approve.

In treaty making, the president must also work together with the Congress. While the president is free to negotiate treaties between the United States and other nations, treaties must be ratified by the Senate before they are officially binding on the United States.

The budgets of the State Department and other foreign policy agencies, which are officially charged with implementing the president’s foreign policies, are also set by the Congress and overseen by foreign policy committees in both the House and the Senate. However, the ability of the Congress to influence foreign policy and check the president’s actions are limited. The president’s constitutional authority and ability to act unilaterally, juxtaposed against 535 often divided members of Congress, give the president a decisive edge.

What Is the Proper Role of the United States in the World Today?

While China’s military strength is increasingly formidable, the United States is arguably the world’s only remaining Superpower, with a long history of military involvement around the globe. While the United States has only declared war five times in its history, it has been involved in hundreds of armed conflicts in dozens of countries. These “undeclared wars” range in significance and scale from America’s prolonged involvement in Korea and Vietnam, to bombing raids on Baghdad and Kosovo, to post-9/11 actions in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The United States at War

The United States of America has only made an official declarations of war five times:

  1. The War of 1812 (Britain)
  2. The Mexican American War (1848)
  3. The Spanish American War (1898)
  4. World War I (1917)
  5. World War II (1948)
Photo of a B-2 Spirit fighter plane in the sky.

A B-2 Spirit. The U.S. Air Force’s superiority in the skies is one reason the United States is the world’s “super power.”

When should the United States military get involved in the affairs of another nation? Under what circumstances are United States’ interests threatened enough to justify a response? During the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was still in existence, these questions were easily answered. United States foreign policy was driven by its official commitment to contain the spread of communism and to maintain military superiority over the Soviets.

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the almost complete failure of communism around the globe (with the notable exception of China), the United States now lacks a clear set of goals and objectives to guide its foreign policy. Determining who America’s enemies and allies are is less straightforward than it once was. While al-Qaeda is clearly a deadly and determined enemy, it is a very different kind of enemy than the United States has faced in the past. al-Qaeda and its leaders and not formally affiliated with any nation-state. They operate independent across national borders and, as has been seen in Iraq, they do not wage war in traditional battle-field conflicts.

The so-called “War on Terror” has made articulating America’s place in the international arena is even more difficult. As it pursues its national security goals, the nation must also increasingly consider trade and economic goals as well. Moreover, increasingly complicated domestic policy problems make it easier to turn inward, rather than outward. But can America afford to ignore the problems and opportunities of the international arena? Such questions are at the heart of both presidential and congressional politics. They have significant implications for the future of America’s military forces, America’s relations with other nations and America’s status as economic and military power in the international arena.

Terms and Concepts

  • Chief diplomat: role of the president as the primary point of contact between the United States of American and other nations.
  • Cold War: “War” between the United States and the former Soviet Union, which involved no direct conflict between the two nations but instead was characterized by a multibillion-dollar nuclear arms race and numerous conflicts between secondary nations backed (sometimes publicly, sometimes secretly) by each nation.
  • Commander-in-chief: formal constitutional role of the president as leader of the nation’s armed forces.
  • Treaty: a formal agreement between two or more nations. Treaties ratified by the Senate are legally binding for the United States and its citizens.
  • War on Terror: term for the collective responsive actions taken by the United States military after the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centers and Pentagon. The most notable of these actions have been in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Think About It

  • What is the proper role of the United States in the international community?Is it different now than it was 200 years ago? Fifty years ago?
  • What should be the priorities of American foreign policy?

Foreign Policy Resources on the Web