Congress Versus the President: The Formulation and Implementation of American Foreign Policy

Courtesy Reuters

The President is the sole organ of the nation in its external relations, and its sole representative with foreign nations.

-John Marshall

March 7, 1800

6th Congress

One of the oldest conflicts in the American system of government is that between Congress and the President over the right to formulate and implement foreign policy. Is the President solely responsible for the conduct of external relations? Is the Congress an equal partner? Or does Congress have the right to shape U.S. policy by enacting legislation which proscribes a President's flexibility? These are not just debating points for historians and constitutional lawyers, but critical issues which need to be addressed if we are to see the successful exercise of American diplomacy in the 1980s. Our effectiveness in dealing with the problems ahead, especially U.S.-Soviet competition in the Third World, will depend to a significant degree on our ability to resolve the adversary relationship between the President and Congress.

The struggle for control of foreign policy came to the fore in the twentieth century, with America's reluctant entry into world affairs, two World Wars, and a smaller, but more complex, postwar bipolar world characterized by the increasing interdependence of nations. The first significant Congressional challenge to the Executive's foreign policy prerogative occurred during the interwar years. After the Senate rejected President Wilson's Versailles Treaty in 1920, Congress continued to assert itself in the formulation of foreign policy. By the 1930s, a strong Congress was able to prevent presidential initiative in the critical prewar years. The almost universal consensus today is that this Congressional intrusion had been a disaster and had inhibited the United States from playing a useful role in Europe that might have prevented World War II.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and our entry into the Second World War, Congress and the President stood in agreement over the direction of American foreign and military policy. Congressional intervention all but ceased.

The post-World War II period was marked by a reasonable

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