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Foreign policy is not developed in a vacuum or by only one actor in the United States. In this lesson, you’ll learn about how the president, Congress and interest groups help develop U.S. foreign policy.

A short quiz follows.

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Foreign Policy Defined

Reginald is a lobbyist who works for one of several influential lobbying firms in Washington, D.C. Clients hire him to try to convince members of Congress and the president to pursue policies that align with their interests.

Reginald’s area of expertise and specialization is foreign policy. Foreign policy is the government’s strategic plan and course of action in dealings with other countries and other international actors, ranging from the United Nations to a terrorist cell, on the world stage.It’s important for Reginald to know the role all relevant actors play in developing U.S. foreign policy, so he can try to influence them. The major players in the formulation of U.S.

foreign policy include the president, including the executive agencies the president controls, Congress and numerous competing interest groups. Let’s take a look at each of them.

President of the United States

Reginald’s best chance to convince the government to align its foreign policy with the interests of his clients is to win over the most influential player in U.

S. foreign policy – the President of the United States. The president participates in the development and implementation of foreign policy by initiating foreign policy responses to events, proposing foreign policy-related legislation to Congress, implementing legislation, participating in international negotiations and agreements, issuing and implementing executive orders, and taking other independent policy action. Let’s take a quick look at each.

The president usually makes the initial response to international events that affect the national interest and require immediate action. While Congress is a major player in foreign policy, it is a deliberative body, and 535 politicians deliberating takes time, and some events must be addressed quickly and decisively. For example, the leaders of the international community must take quick positions on acts of war, terror and other forms of international aggression. An international crisis may place U.S.

citizens abroad at risk. Natural disasters suffered by our allies may also require a quick response. It’s the president that makes the initial responses to these crises abroad, and his initial response may set the country down a course that is not easy to change.The president has the power to propose legislation that affects foreign policy and also the power to veto legislation that he feels may threaten the country’s foreign policy. For example, the president may seek appropriations (that is, money) for new defense systems, for counter-terrorism, or for foreign aid to a strategic ally, such as Israel in the Middle East.

The president may also seek legislation to impose trade sanctions against rogue countries, like North Korea, or even for a formal Declaration of War. On the other hand, the president may veto legislation that he feels may harm the country’s national interest, such as legislation enacting trade barriers that may set off a trade war.The president is also responsible for appointing ambassadors, with the advice and consent of the Senate, and negotiating and reaching agreements with other countries. Treaties will need to be ratified by the Senate, but executive agreements do not require Senate ratification and are often used by the president. For example, many trade deals are based upon executive agreements instead of treaties.The president also has the constitutional duty and power to implement policy. Once Congress passes legislation, the president, through the executive agencies, will implement the policy.

Key federal departments and agencies that implement foreign policy include the Department of Defense, Department of State, Central Intelligence Agency, and National Security Agency. For example, the president will ensure that the Central Intelligence Agency fulfills its legislative mandate to effectively gather and assess intelligence across the world to protect the country from foreign threats.Finally, the president may implement foreign policy independently of Congress.

Aside from reaching executive agreements with other countries, the president also acts independently through executive orders, which are policy directives issued by the president to executive agencies, telling them how to implement a law or policy of the government. The president may sometimes engage military actions without express Congressional authorization, such as the operation to capture Osama Bin Laden or engaging in airstrikes in Libya.


Reginald’s job doesn’t stop at the White House. He must also try to make sure Congress is on board.

While Congress seldom takes center stage in foreign policy, it is a power to be reckoned with. Congress can pass legislation that affects foreign policy. One of the most important powers of Congress is control over the country’s purse strings. Congress can grant or deny funding for foreign policy activities. For example, it may appropriate foreign aid to a country that is hostile to a country or interest group Reginald represents. Moreover, Congress may decide to cut off appropriations important to some of Reginald’s clients who are defense contractors.

Congress can also influence foreign policy through its oversight authority, which is its power to watch and investigate executive agencies to ensure that they are correctly implementing legislation as Congress intended. For example, Congress has investigated charges that the National Security Agency has overstepped its authority in monitoring Internet traffic and cell phone communications. Congress has also investigated whether the U.S. has engaged in acts of torture in interrogating terror suspects.The Constitution also requires that the president seek the advice and consent of the Senate before any treaty is signed.

This means that the Senate has the power to ratify, reject, or attach a reservation to any treaty before it will bind the United States. A treaty reservation is a statement attached to a treaty that seeks to exclude or modify the legal effect of a treaty provision.Finally, while the president is center stage in most foreign policy matters, there’s one thing Congress can do that the president can’t. Only Congress has the Constitutional authority to declare war.

Special Interest Groups

Of course, Reginald also has to face the reality that he’s got competition. Capitol Hill and the White House are under constant barrage from special interest groups represented by lobbyists, like Reginald, trying to affect foreign policy. A special interest group is a group, individual or entity that tries to influence government policy to advance their narrow interests. An example of a special interest group concerned with U.

S. foreign policy is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). AIPAC seeks to cultivate a U.S.

foreign policy that is supportive of the nation-state of Israel.As Reginald knows, there are almost always interest groups that are on the opposite side of important policy issues. Each group attempts to convince the government that their position is the best policy position for the country to take. And that’s where Reginald comes in.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review what we’ve learned.

Foreign policy is the government’s strategic plan and course of action in dealings with other countries and international actors. Many different actors participate in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy. The President of the United States is usually the central figure in the development and implementation of foreign policy.

Congress influences foreign policy through its legislative and oversight activities. Additionally, special interest groups play an important role in the development of foreign policy by attempting to influence the foreign policy decisions of the White House and Congress so the policy aligns with their narrow interests.

Learning Outcomes

These goals will be within reach when you complete the video:

  • Provide the definition of foreign policy
  • Expound upon the many roles that the President of the United States, Congress and special interest groups have in deciding foreign policy

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