Since the founding of the United States of America, the country has engaged in diplomacy with countries from around the world. Today is no different, with relationships, treaties, and alliances playing an important role in public perception of the United States, both domestically and internationally. Currently, the United States divides its attention between a number of issues; major pressing wars in Israel and Ukraine, as well as rising tensions with global leaders like China and Iran, are recent examples. With all these competing interests and complexities, how does the U.S. government function on the global stage? The short answer: The United States Constitution provides the framework. The United States Constitution separates and balances the powers of the federal government. One critical area in which this separation of powers is evident is in the realm of foreign relations. The Constitution divides these powers between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches, ensuring that no single branch has unchecked authority in this crucial domain.
The Executive branch, headed by the President, plays a pivotal role in foreign relations. The Constitution grants the President the authority to negotiate and enter into treaties with foreign nations, as outlined in Article II, Section 2, Clause 2, which states, “He shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties.” This provision allows the President to engage in diplomacy and make foreign policy decisions on behalf of the United States. The President also serves as the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, as specified in Article II, Section 2, granting them authority over military matters in foreign affairs.
The Legislative branch, consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate, plays a significant role in shaping U.S. foreign policy. While the President can negotiate treaties, the Senate must ratify them by a two-thirds majority. This system ensures that the President cannot unilaterally commit the country to international agreements. Additionally, Congress has the power to declare war, provided for in Article I, Section 8, Clause 11, granting them a vital check on the President’s authority in military matters.
Finally, the Judicial branch also plays a role in foreign relations, primarily through the power of judicial review. Federal courts have the authority to review the constitutionality of foreign policy decisions, treaties, and executive actions, as established by the principles of judicial review outlined in the case of Marbury v. Madison (1803). This power ensures that actions taken by the President and Congress in foreign affairs must adhere to the Constitution and its principles.
Moreover, the Constitution establishes a system of federalism, which further divides powers related to foreign relations. States have limited authority in foreign policy, but they can engage in international trade and commerce. This division allows states to have some influence in foreign relations, particularly regarding economic matters.
As intended by the framers, the United States Constitution separates and balances the powers of foreign relations among the three branches of government, as well as between the federal and state governments. The intricate system of checks and balances established is a cornerstone of American democracy and is relied upon in navigating the complex world of today. This week’s Current Events resources examine the U.S. Constitution’s role in how the United States conducts foreign affairs. The resources shared provide information and context around how the U.S.’s foreign relations responsibilities are divided amongst both the states, the federal government, and the branches within the federal government.
Essential Questions, Vocabulary & Extend the Resources:
- What is Foreign Policy?
- How does the U.S. Constitution dictate the powers both states and federal branches have in foreign relations?
- What aspects of Foreign Policy are most important to a nation? In your opinion, which individual or branch should have a say in these affairs and why?
- In your opinion, does the U.S. Constitution do a good job of addressing how the United States must interact with foreign nations? Explain.
- Has the United States moved past the core elements of the Pacificus-Helvidius debates?
- Did the War Powers Act undercut the Constitutional Framers intent laid out in the U.S. Constitution? Explain.
- In your opinion, does the incorporation of separation of powers in the U.S.’s foreign relations act as a hindrance or benefit for the nation as a whole? Explain.
Click here for a hardcopy of the Essential Questions and U.S. Constitution & Foreign Affairs Vocabulary
Click here for a hardcopy of Extension Activities CLP suggests implementing with this content
60-Second Civics: Episode 1711, We the People, Lesson 28, Part 4: International relations and the Constitution, 60-Second Civics, Center for Civic Education
Starter Kit: Executive Branch, Civics 101: A Podcast
How is Congress Involved in Foreign Policy?, Understanding Congress
Zivotofsky v. Kerry: The Jerusalem Passport Case, Lawfare Podcast, June 12, 2015
Foreign Relations, Cornell Law School
Foreign Relations Committee About, United States of America Senate
Jurisdiction, Foreign Affairs Committee, U.S. House of Representatives
War Powers Resolution of 1973, National Archives
Policy Issues, United States of America Department of State
Gov. Abbott’s Policing of Texas Border Pushes Limits of State Power, New York Times, July 26, 2023
As President, Biden Sees Broader War Powers Than He Did as Senator, New York Times, Yahoo! News, September 16, 2023
20 years after Iraq invasion, Senate votes to repeal authorization for war, PBS NewsHour, March 29, 2023
Mexico says Texan buoys in Rio Grande breach water treaty, Reuters, July 14, 2023
Foreign Policy Isn’t Just Up To Trump, The Atlantic, November 23, 2019
When the Founding Fathers Settled States’ vs. Federal Rights—And Saved the Nation, History, April 30, 2020
How Presidents Wage War Without Congress, Weekend Edition Sunday, NPR, January 12, 2020
Restoring the Balance, The Wilson Quarterly, Winter 2021
The Senate’s treaty oversight has atrophied just as it’s needed most, Roll Call, April 2022
Ask the author: The imperial presidency and the Supreme Court, SCOTUS Blog, October 18, 2018
United States and the World, Lesson Plan Series, Bill of Rights Institute
World 101 US Foreign Policy Lesson Plans, Council on Foreign Relations
Farewell Address: Giving Advice and Leaving a Legacy, Washington’s Farewell Address, Mount Vernon
Lesson Plan: Goals of U.S. Foreign Policy, C-SPAN Classroom
War Making: Executive and Legislative Powers, National Constitutional Center
Resources for Younger Students:
Peace building Toolkit for Educators, Elementary, US Institute of Peace
The Power of Peace, The World’s Largest Lesson
Separation of Powers, Kids Britannica