The 5 Major Differences on U.S. Foreign Policy: the U.S President vs. Congress

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It can be a bit confusing understanding the U.S. government, especially the differences in power between the President and Congress. ISV Reporter, Rustam Niyazov explains some of the major differences so you can better understand the role of the President and Congress in U.S. foreign policy.

If you follow me on Twitter or have ventured over and read my articles on the ISV website, you know that I take a big interest in networking, cross-cultural studies and foreign affairs.

This time I want to follow up on my previous article on the U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East by elaborating on who, how and what makes the U.S. foreign policy happen as it happens today.

This would be especially interesting for those international students in the U.S. who can’t take classes in American history or politics because of their majors or other limitations, but who still would like to understand the political environment in the country they are studying and will be living for the next four or more years.

It is my hope that the understanding of how the U.S. executive branches work will give you advantage over other candidates when you will be networking your career into your government or private sectors in your country that have diplomatic or business relationships with the U.S. government, American transnational companies, or other international organizations.

Foreign policy is an assembly of many different policy tools. Today, U.S. foreign policy employs a wide range of policies, including immigration, aid, monetary interventions, trade, sanctions, diplomacy, and military force. So, how important is the President vs. Congress for U.S. foreign policy? Let’s consider these five major constitutional and political differences:

1. The U.S. president is limited in his powers in foreign policy.

When Great Britain lost an empire, America was the inheritor because it economically had no rivals after 1945 and Britain became economically dependent on American loans. So, after WWII, the U.S. foreign policy changed from non-interventionism to active global involvement and it had all the means to sustain its new foreign policies. However, the framers of the U.S. Constitution have envisioned that foreign policy was too important to be left only to presidents. They also granted the power to declare war and raise military forces to Congress as legislative powers.

The president is the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces and he can negotiate treaties with foreign governments. He nominates U.S. diplomats and cabinet and other top policy officials, yet the Senate must confirm it. So, the need for Congress and Senate approval on certain issues limits president’s absolute influence in foreign policy.

Side note: However, if the president is not in frequent clash with the Congress or the courts, or if he’s not engaged in some kind of war or peace missions overseas, it is thought that he’s not doing a good job or that he’s a weak president and as a result of his passivity in foreign affairs he may face greater domestic political costs.


2. Congress plays a crucial role in foreign affairs.

Congress has the authority to approve trade agreements with foreign countries. It has the power to constrain the power of the president by delaying his policies. The balance is achieved by president’s ‘veto’ power to override bills passed by Congress. For example, President Woodrow Wilson attempted to take the U.S. into the League of Nations, but the Senate rejected the peace drafted at Paris and refused to join the League of Nations, the preceding organization to the United Nations.  

Side note: So the U.S. presidents are more afraid what Congress won’t do, than do.

3. The U.S. president has key legislative, judicial and executive powers.

The U.S. has three branches of government – the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial – with so called “checks and balances” system. For example, the U.S. president can nominate the judges, but the legislature can reject them. Only the president can recognize foreign countries. The president and a small circle of people around him, his appointed advisors, including the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, strategize on U.S. foreign policy and national interests. However, the State Department or the House Committee can’t have a policy unless the President supports it.

The U.S. Secretary of State is analogous to the foreign minister of other nations and is charged with state-to-state diplomacy. All of these branches employ more than five million people.

Side note: The U.S. president has more duties and powers than any emperor or a king, a Napoleon or Ivan the Terrible have ever had, but he rarely abuses his powers because of democratic principles embedded in the Bill of Rights. When the president abuses his powers, Congress can impeach him.


4. Congress controls all the money.

Congress is a legislative body with the power of purse and the power to tax, coin money and power to borrow money from foreign countries. So in budget negotiations, president may adjust his budget requests to what he believes Congress will endorse. Otherwise budget talks, especially concerning foreign aid or increasing the national debt ceiling, may take a while to approve.

The best and most recent example is when the U.S. government shut down because Congress could not approve the budget. See these previous articles for reference:

What Does the U.S. Government Shutdown Mean?  Oct. 3, 2013

Back to Work! U.S. Government Shutdown Ends Oct. 17, 2013

Side note: Cullen Hightower notes, “Talk is cheap – except when Congress does it.” Congress has a negative image that of slowness and political stalemate. Often Americans tell that they hate Congress, but love their Congressman.


5. The office of the U.S. president is one of the most powerful in the world.

Will Roger states, “Ohio claims they are due a president as they haven’t had one since Taft. Look at the United States, they have not had one since Lincoln.” Indeed, over time power has flowed increasingly to the Executive Branch thanks to the successful exercise of it by ambitious presidents from Abraham Lincoln to Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt’s.

However, it was Theodore Roosevelt who was considered as the first president in American history of modern type: during his tenure at the White House, he has shown how powerful that office could be. He believed that the president had to be responsive to the will of the people – the major source of its power – but that he also had duty to lead and not merely follow the mob.

Side note: Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was a relative of the Theodore Roosevelt, and unlike him FDR didn’t show his teeth while in public, but would always smile. After FDR, every U.S. president had to smile.

Also, the state of Ohio has been home to the most U.S. presidents, a total of eight. William Henry Harrison was actually born in Virginia, but lived in Ohio when he was elected.

To sum up, Presidents face various constitutional constraints as they construct U.S. foreign policy, but politically the executive branch dominates the foreign policy making.


Rustam Niyazov photoArticle written by Rustam Niyazov

ISV Reporter


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