The Instruments of American Foreign Policy

There are many different ways of conducting a government. In the United States the executive authority is both more formally centralized in the President and more sharply separated from the legislature than in most democracies. This is particularly true of the conduct of foreign affairs, where the authority of the President has been seriously challenged only in those rare instances, such as the Versailles Treaty or the Vietnam war, when he seems to be grossly ignoring or overriding the opinions both of the Congress and of the public.

In general, he has been free to conduct foreign affairs more or less as he chooses, to use traditional instruments, to set up new ones or to carry on diplomacy from his own hip pocket. There is little use arguing whether or not he has the constitutional right to do so. As our government is organized, he has both the responsibility and the power. Critics in or out of the Congress can make things difficult for him, but they can neither conduct foreign affairs themselves nor prevent him from doing so. Of course, a wise President will consult the Congress closely, in fact as well as in form, on matters of major import, which recent Presidents have often foolishly failed to do.

Our concern here, however, is with the instruments which Presidents use for the conduct of foreign affairs. Up until the 1930s the instrument was almost always the traditional one, the Secretary and Department of State, except in those not infrequent cases where a strong President, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, chose to carry on a particular exercise in diplomacy himself, sometimes with the help of a personal adviser or emissary. Nevertheless, as late as 1931, President Hoover, though not himself inexperienced in foreign affairs, relied on Secretary Stimson to deal, in so far as the United States was prepared to deal, with the Manchurian crises.

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