Foreign Policy and the Democratic Process: Making the Separation of Powers Work

The United States is faced with a critical problem today. How can Congress and the President work together most effectively to formulate and implement a foreign policy that is attuned to our national interests, consistent in all its facets, well understood at home and respected abroad?

Three decades ago, President Harry Truman could boast that he alone was the overriding force in American foreign affairs. A mere 15 years ago Secretary of State Dean Rusk could express the same categorical point of view in five simple words: The President makes foreign policy. For nearly 20 years, from 1950 to the mid-1960s, there was a national consensus on the main lines of foreign policy associated with the cold war; with strong executive leadership there developed a mystique of the President and State Department being absolutely in control, and of Congress, with rare exceptions, going along.

The national trauma over Vietnam ended this phase, both in terms of the consensus (and overriding emphasis on security issues that went with it) and in terms of congressional or popular willingness to accept executive leadership as had been done in the 1950-68 period. Over the past decade, and especially since 1974, Congress has assumed an ever greater role in security matters, and simultaneously the newly central importance of economic issues - always a congressional major responsibility - has thrust Congress more to the fore. Slowly and painfully at first, but later quickly and with much less effort, Congress has asserted the full range of its authority, and its members have developed both the concern and professional capability to participate in a new range of foreign policy decisions. And initial successes in the drive to reassert neglected powers have prompted Congress to involve itself even more deeply in the actual execution of policy.

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