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Foreign Affairs and the Constitution

The shadow of U.S. President Barack Obama is visible on a copy of the U.S. Constitution in the National Archives, May 2009. Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

FOREIGN AFFAIRS AND THE CONSTITUTION

Americans have been celebrating the bicentennial of their Constitution with visible pride and audible satisfaction. The national mood is one of appreciation of the wisdom and prescience of the framers.

Students of foreign affairs will have noted, however, that the bicentennial is the year in which Americans have breathed the Iran-contra miasma; followed with pained incomprehension the circlings of president and Congress over Nicaragua and its neighbors; heard the president and the Senate shouting disagreement over the meaning of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty; watched the United States slip into the Persian Gulf and the Iran-Iraq war, wondering who in Washington was in charge. If we have not verged on constitutional crisis, few have been moved to declare that the constitutional arrangements for conducting the foreign affairs of the United States are worthy of celebration.

"Foreign affairs" is not a term found in the Constitution, and what we characterize as foreign affairs is not a discrete constitutional category. Still, many of the provisions of the Constitution apply equally, and have had equal success, in foreign as in domestic affairs. Some particular constitutional dispositions for foreign affairs - for example, the grant to the federal government of virtually full authority, to the exclusion of the states - have surely proved their wisdom.

After 200 years the difficult constitutional issues of foreign affairs arise from the so-called separation of powers and the various checks and balances between Congress and the president. Some of the divisions of authority between the two political branches that apply generally have evoked special dissatisfaction as they operate in foreign affairs. Some of the allocations of authority that relate to foreign affairs in particular have at times left either the president or the Congress - or both - unhappy. Above all, the constitutional blueprint has proved to be unclear and incomplete as regards foreign affairs, and there is no agreed guiding principle to help make its provisions clear, or to fill the lacunae. National experience

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