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Foreign Policy

Foreign Policymakers

Regional Issues

Review Questions

Many people and groups shape American foreign policy, including the following:

  • The president
  • Cabinet departments
  • Intelligence agencies
  • Congress and the courts
  • State and local governments
  • The military-industrial complex

The President

The president is the primary architect of American foreign policy. Article II of the U.S. Constitution names the president commander in chief of the armed forces and designates the president as the nation’s chief diplomat. This role expanded and carried new weight as the United States became more of a global power during the twentieth century.

The National Security Council

The National Security Council (NSC) is a collection of security policy experts who are part of the White House Staff. The NSC, led by the national security adviser, advises the president on security issues.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff

Although the Constitution names the president as the commander in chief of the armed forces, each branch of the military also has its own head, known as the chief of staff. Together, these chiefs form the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), a group that helps the president make strategy decisions and evaluates the needs and capabilities of the military.

Cabinet Departments

Three cabinet departments usually take center stage in American foreign policy:

  • Department of State: Engages diplomacy with other nations
  • Department of Defense: Coordinates the American military around the world
  • Department of Homeland Security: Protects America from terrorist attacks domestically and deals with natural disasters
Other Agencies

Although the State and Defense Departments are the primary foreign policy organizations in the cabinet, sometimes other departments play a role. When negotiating agricultural trade agreements, for example, the Department of Agriculture might play an important role. Specialized government organizations, such as the Office of the Trade Representative and the Export-Import Bank, also affect and influence foreign policy.

Intelligence Agencies

Many intelligence agencies work to provide the president with accurate, up-to-date information about the rest of the world. At the top of the intelligence services is the director of national intelligence, who coordinates the information that the various intelligence agencies gather. These agencies include the following:

  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
  • National Security Agency (NSA)
  • Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)
  • Army, Navy, and Air Force intelligence

Domestic Influences

Although the executive branch plays the primary role in conducting foreign policy, the legislative and judicial branches play roles as well.


Although the president determines foreign policy, Congress has the power of the purse and can therefore fund or refuse to fund the president’s foreign policy programs. Congress can also force officials within the executive office to testify under oath about those policies and, in extreme cases, can pass laws to dictate policy to the president. The president sometimes also calls on Congress to endorse his choices, particularly with regard to the use of military force. Although the United States has not officially declared war on another country since 1941, the president has dispatched U.S. forces many times. In such cases, the president usually asks Congress to endorse the use of troops, and Congress usually complies.

Example: On numerous occasions, Congress has granted the president authority to use military force without declaring war. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution (1964), for example, authorized President Lyndon Johnson to use whatever force he deemed necessary to fight the Vietnam People’s Army. Before the United States ousted Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1990, President George H. W. Bush also sought approval from Congress.

The Courts

The courts do not usually play a major role in foreign policy, but at times they have ruled about what the president and Congress can and cannot do. Recently, for example, federal courts have ruled that President George W. Bush overstepped his authority in detaining enemy combatants and wiretapping phone calls without a warrant, but how this affects foreign or domestic policy remains to be seen.

State and Local Governments

State and local governments also play a role in foreign policy. These governments negotiate business deals with foreign governments and corporations, even hosting foreign dignitaries to promote trade deals. In some cases, local and state leaders work together with their foreign counterparts to reach informal policy agreements.

Example: The American city of El Paso, Texas, is directly across the Rio Grande from the Mexican city of Juárez. The mayors of the two cities frequently reach informal agreements on matters that affect them both, such as pollution control and border crossings.

Public Opinion

Public opinion often shapes foreign policy, especially in recent decades. Mass demonstrations, rallies, and letter-writing campaigns can sway the opinions of lawmakers and other government officials. In the 1980s, for example, vocal opponents of President Ronald Reagan’s policies in Central America contributed to Democratic electoral victories, which eventually changed American foreign policy in the region.

The Military-Industrial Complex

The defense budget of the United States is huge—about $400 billion a year. Many companies are eager to take advantage of that by getting defense contracts. Some people have argued that defense contractors play a major role in high defense budgets and foreign policy: Contractors actively work to increase the defense budget so that they can profit from it. Keeping the United States actively involved in conflicts around the world increases the defense budget and the demand for new weapons and technology. In his farewell address in 1961, outgoing president Dwight Eisenhower warned against the growing influence of the military-industrial complex, a coalition of defense contractors, the military, and members of Congress in districts that depend heavily on these contractors.

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