International Relations

US Roles in International Relations

Today’s turbulent world has made the field of international relations more important than ever. Various branches of the federal government play important roles in making and implementing, or carrying out, foreign policy. The main goal of US foreign policy is to protect the country and its citizens. The United States also tries to promote US interests abroad and spread democracy when possible.

The President’s Role in International Relations

The Constitution grants the president four important foreign policy responsibilities:

  1. The power to make treaties and executive agreements
  2. The power of diplomatic recognition
  3. The power to act as commander in chief of the armed forces
  4. The power to appoint ambassadors

Treaties and Executive Agreements A treaty is a formal agreement between two or more nations. The president can negotiate, or work out, treaties with other countries. These treaties, however, must be approved by the Senate before the president can ratify the treaty. Once a treaty has been ratified, it is like a law passed by Congress; it must be followed by later presidents.

The president can also make executive agreements with other nations. An executive agreement, like a treaty, is an agreement between the United States and another country. Unlike a treaty, however, an executive agreement does not require Senate approval. Agreements pledge the word of a particular president, but later presidents are not bound to follow the agreement. Since 1940, presidents have used executive agreements much more frequently than treaties.

Diplomatic Recognition Presidents can extend diplomatic recognition to new governments or nations. This is the formal acceptance of a country as a legal entity. It recognizes the laws of the country and offers the country an equal place among nations in the world.

In some cases, presidents have withheld diplomatic recognition to show disapproval of a nation’s system of government. For example, the United States withheld recognition of the former Soviet Union for 16 years. On the other hand, presidents have also extended recognition to new nations to give them support and help them to survive in their early days. In 1948, for example, President Harry Truman recognized Israel on the same day that the nation was created.

Commander in Chief

The president is commander in chief of the armed forces. Sometimes presidents have used this power to order military action without a formal declaration of war by Congress. Without congressional authorization, or approval, for example, President Truman sent troops into Korea in 1950. During the 1960s, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson sent troops to Vietnam. President Clinton sent troops to the Balkans in 1995 and 1999.

Many people believe the president should not have the power to involve the country in an undeclared war. To restrain the president, Congress passed the War Powers Act in 1973. This act limits the president’s ability to send troops into combat when Congress has not declared war.


Ambassadors are the highest-ranking diplomats representing the United States. An ambassador is sent to a particular country to conduct international relations. The president appoints ambassadors, but the appointments must be approved by the Senate. Some ambassadors are people who gave large amounts of money to a presidential campaign. Others are career diplomats. In either case, it is best if an ambassador has a good understanding of the culture, politics, and history of the country where he or she is stationed.

The State Department

VENN US vs UK Governments

The US Department of State is the section of the executive branch directly responsible for foreign affairs and the US diplomatic service. This department supports the president in negotiating treaties and making agreements with other countries. Its other responsibilities include representing the United States at the UN, analyzing US relations with other countries, and promoting human rights.

The head of this department is the secretary of state. Secretaries of state represent the president. They can play an influential role in foreign affairs. The president nominates the secretary of state. This choice must also be approved by the Senate.

Congress and Foreign Relations

Congress exerts its influence in foreign policy through its ability to approve or disapprove appropriations (money set aside for a particular purpose), treaties, and ambassadors and by exercising its sole right to declare war. Only Congress can raise and support an army and a navy.

Many of the bills that Congress considers-including tariffs, immigration policies, and import quotas (quantities that establish limits)-can have far-reaching international effects. For example, following the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress created the Department of Homeland Security. The duty of this department is to protect the nation against terrorist attacks. It has wide authority in the areas of border control and immigration.