How Congress and President shape US foreign policy

30-03-2017

The United States Constitution regulates the conduct of American foreign policy through a system of checks and balances. The Constitution provides both Congress and the President, as the legislative and executive branches respectively, with the legal authority to shape relations with foreign nations. It recognises that only the federal government is authorised to conduct foreign policy; that federal courts are competent in cases arising under treaties; and declares treaties the supreme law of the land. The Constitution also lists the powers of Congress, including the 'power of the purse' (namely the ability to tax and spend public money on behalf of the federal government), the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, the power to declare war and the authority to raise and support the army and navy. At the same time, the President is the Commander-in-Chief of the United States (US) army and navy and, although Congressional action is required to declare war, it is generally agreed that the President has the authority to respond to attacks against the US and to lead the armed forces. While the President’s powers are substantial, they are not without limits, due to the role played by the legislative branch. In light of the discussion of the foreign policy options of the new administration under President Donald Trump, this briefing specifically explores the powers conferred to conclude international agreements, to regulate commerce with foreign nations, to use military force and to declare war. It also explains how Congress performs its oversight – or ‘watchdog’ – functions with regard to foreign policy, the tools at its disposal, and the role of committees in the process.

The United States Constitution regulates the conduct of American foreign policy through a system of checks and balances. The Constitution provides both Congress and the President, as the legislative and executive branches respectively, with the legal authority to shape relations with foreign nations. It recognises that only the federal government is authorised to conduct foreign policy; that federal courts are competent in cases arising under treaties; and declares treaties the supreme law of the land. The Constitution also lists the powers of Congress, including the 'power of the purse' (namely the ability to tax and spend public money on behalf of the federal government), the power to regulate commerce with foreign nations, the power to declare war and the authority to raise and support the army and navy. At the same time, the President is the Commander-in-Chief of the United States (US) army and navy and, although Congressional action is required to declare war, it is generally agreed that the President has the authority to respond to attacks against the US and to lead the armed forces. While the President’s powers are substantial, they are not without limits, due to the role played by the legislative branch. In light of the discussion of the foreign policy options of the new administration under President Donald Trump, this briefing specifically explores the powers conferred to conclude international agreements, to regulate commerce with foreign nations, to use military force and to declare war. It also explains how Congress performs its oversight – or ‘watchdog’ – functions with regard to foreign policy, the tools at its disposal, and the role of committees in the process.