17.1 The Executive Branch Makes Foreign and Military Policies

Learning Objectives

After reading this section, you should be able to answer the following questions:

  1. Who is involved in making foreign policy?
  2. How do the president and the bureaucracy interact in constructing foreign policy?
  3. What are some of the causes of competition or disagreement among makers of foreign policy?

Foreign policy is made by the president, presidential advisors, and foreign policy bureaucracies.

The President

Formal powers specified in the Constitution put the president at the center of foreign policy. They include being commander in chief of the armed forces, negotiating treaties, and appointing ambassadors. The president is also the spokesperson for and to the nation: notable presidential addresses have been made by Franklin D. Roosevelt after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and by George W. Bush following the 9/11 attacks.

How presidents manage the bureaucracy influences the information they receive and their range of policy options (Hess, 2001). Franklin Roosevelt opted for overlapping jurisdictions, with departments competing for influence and his attention. Other presidents established rules and procedures for processing information and vetting opinions. President Clinton sought out independent-minded advisors and gave them some leeway to decide policy. President George W. Bush relied on a few advisors, particularly Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (Preston & Hermann, 2004).

National Security Advisor

Foremost among the president’s foreign policy advisors is the national security advisor. Issues the advisor faces include how to serve and protect the president’s interests and how to deal with other makers of foreign and defense policy in the government.

Some national security advisors have built a large staff to help them formulate options and oversee policy implementation. They have been vocal in espousing and expressing their views. One of the most powerful and forceful national security advisors was Henry Kissinger, who served President Richard Nixon. He understood the job as requiring him to interact frequently with the media to communicate his and the president’s policy views. He was famously successful in dealing with reporters, especially the three television networks’ correspondents and the influential Washington columnists specializing in foreign affairs. He was able to “disarm them with his wit, intimidate them with his brilliance, flatter them with his confidences and charm them with his attention” (Isaacson, 1992; Isaacson, 1992). His critics were likely to be telephoned, cajoled, stroked, invited to dine, and visited at their homes.

The national security advisor is often in competition with the secretary of state. In the starkest example, President Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, clashed frequently with Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. He tried to manage policy in the White House and did not always communicate decisions to other policymakers. Vance resigned in protest over not being informed in advance about the attempt to rescue the American embassy personnel held hostage in Iran in 1980.

Some national security advisors try to be neutral facilitators in policy debates between the heads of the major foreign policy bureaucracies. They are not always successful. President Ronald Reagan’s national security advisors were unable to mediate between the constantly warring Secretary of State George Shultz and Secretary of Defense Casper Weinberger or control Director of Central Intelligence William Casey.

The trend in recent administrations has been to select knowledgeable and low-key individuals who can provide the president with expert advice but not invite or engage in running conflicts with the other foreign policy bureaucracies. Sometimes this turns into catering to the president’s wishes, as Condoleezza Rice did with President George W. Bush’s wish to go to war with Iraq. After his reelection in 2004, he appointed her secretary of state.

Led by the national security advisor, the National Security Council’s Principals Committee consists of the president’s senior security advisors, relevant cabinet members, and military and intelligence advisors. The president’s principal forum for considering national security and foreign policies, it is supposed to ensure consensus on and coordinate the policies among the various government agencies. But it is not easy to avoid internecine warfare among its participants, and discourage (let alone prevent) the secretaries of defense and state and the vice president, as well as special envoys to trouble spots, from communicating to the president unilaterally to influence and make policy.

The State Department

The State Department is the oldest cabinet-level department. It has primary responsibility for managing the foreign affairs budget and resources, leading and coordinating other US agencies in developing and implementing foreign policy, leading and coordinating US representation abroad, and negotiating with foreign countries.

In none of these areas is its leadership unchallenged. Within the United States, the national security advisor has often eclipsed the secretary of state and the State Department as the principal source of policy ideas. The Defense Department has long been a competitor in national security policy and the US Special Trade Representative provides an alternative source of economic advice for the president. Abroad, the ambassador’s authority in the US embassy is often resisted by personnel assigned to it by other agencies, such as those responsible for spying.

The State Department’s lead position in foreign affairs has also been compromised by congressional reluctance to pass foreign affairs appropriations, restrictions it imposes on how the funds can be spent, and micromanaging of the foreign affairs budget.

Congress also requires the State Department annually to certify countries as meeting targets on human rights, arms control, reducing drug trafficking, and other areas in order to remain eligible for foreign aid. An escape hatch does allow presidents to certify a country for aid if it is in the “national interest” to do so.

Defense Department

For most of its history, the military was organized under separate commands of the War Department and Navy Department. No political or military authority other than the president existed above these departments to coordinate and direct them. This changed after World War II, when the 1947 National Security Act established the cabinet-rank position of the secretary of defense. In 1949, an amendment to the 1947 National Security Act established the Defense Department and the post of chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff .

Exercising command authority over the military on behalf of the president, the secretary of defense participates in making and executing foreign policy, especially when it requires the use of force. Thus Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was intimately involved in the decision to attack Iraq in 2002 and was responsible for the execution of the policy.

The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff plans and coordinates the deployment of American forces, the unified commands conduct these operations, and the military services train and equip the necessary forces. Since the 1980s, a dominant issue within the Defense Department has been improving the operational efficiency of the armed forces (Cohen, 1996; Mahnken & FitzSimonds, 2003). The concern for operational efficiency is joined by a concern for cost. Almost half of the Defense Department’s annual budget goes to salaries and a quarter to operating and maintaining military forces.

The twin concerns for efficiency and cost have been combined in three debates over the ability of the United States to fight wars today. One debate is between defense hawks, who want increased defense spending to ensure US security, and deficit hawks, who wish to reduce all areas of government spending. A second debate is over military readiness. Does the military consist of “hollow forces” that look robust on paper but lack training, modern weapons, and effectiveness? The third debate is over the impact of modern technology on how the United States organizes, prepares for, and fights wars.

All three debates took place over the Iraq War. Deficit hawks reacted with great concern to the Bush administration’s continuously rising price tag for the war and the occupation and reconstruction of Iraq. The second debate was seen in the concerns expressed by National Guard units over the length of time they were serving in Iraq and the refusal of the military to allow many career soldiers to leave, resign, or retire. The debate over the role of technology in warfare was central to the dispute between Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and many senior military officers over how to conduct the war and how large a military force was necessary.

The Central Intelligence Agency

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was created by the National Security Act of 1947. Its main task was to correlate, evaluate, and disseminate intelligence (Ranelagh, 1986; Hulnick, 1999). It was not explicitly authorized to engage in covert action or to collect its own information. Both of these tasks, however, quickly became part of its mission.

The CIA’s directorate for operations engages in covert operations. By the 1970s, the cumulative effect of two decades of covert action and of news stories about them produced a media and thus public image of the CIA as a “rogue elephant” that was out of control. Congress then created two special committees, one in each chamber, to oversee intelligence. It also insisted that covert actions be accompanied by an explicit “Presidential Finding” that the cover actions are in the national interest.

Other Intelligence Agencies

The CIA is one of several intelligence agencies. Others are

They operate independently of the CIA.

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the CIA’s intelligence estimating abilities and procedures came into question. Of concern was the absence of clandestine collection capabilities (spies) in many parts of the world that harbor anti-American terrorist movements or possess weapons of mass destruction. Also questioned was the CIA’s lack of cooperation with the FBI and other intelligence agencies. Perhaps most devastating was the finding of the 9/11 Commission that investigated the terrorist attacks: “a failure of imagination” kept the intelligence agencies from anticipating and thwarting the attacks.


The 9/11 Commission

Read the findings of the 9/11 Commission at https://9-11commission.gov/.

The Iraq War brought forward new charges of intelligence failures. At issue here was the quality of the intelligence that contributed to the decision to go to war and the failure to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Their supposed existence and the imminent threat posed by them to the United States had figured heavily in President Bush’s justification to Congress and the American people for the war.

Director of National Intelligence

In response to intelligence failures, Congress passed and President Bush signed legislation creating a Director of National Intelligence (DNI) in December 2004; the DNI was to be the president’s chief intelligence advisor, with substantial control over the government’s intelligence budget of approximately $40 billion. The DNI would be the overall leader of fifteen independent and rival agencies. The CIA director now reports to the DNI. In practice, the power of the intelligence job depends on the director’s relationship with the president.

Department of Homeland Security

This newest part of the foreign policy bureaucracy was conceived in response to the 9/11 attacks and became effective in November 2002 (Hastedt, 2005; Relyea, 2003).

The Department of Homeland Security combines activities from 22 different federal agencies with a total workforce of 170,000 employees. Agencies incorporated in the department include the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), the Secret Service, the Customs Service, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Transportation Security Administration, the Coast Guard, and the Border Patrol. Some observers are concerned that the combination of foreign policy and domestic missions in the same department limits its effectiveness. That is, the capacities to meet the challenges posed by earthquakes, floods, blackouts, and storms (tasks that are central to FEMA’s mission) have been underdeveloped as more resources and attention are given to fighting terrorism or that the need to respond to these catastrophes will divert attention away from fighting terrorism.

The US Trade Representative (USTR)

This is the title given to both an agency located within the Executive Office of the President and to the individual who heads the agency (Dryden, 1995).

Congress created the office in 1962 largely out of frustration with the State Department’s handling of international trade. It felt that the State Department was too concerned with the policy positions of foreign states and was not responsive enough to American business interests. The USTR is responsible for developing and coordinating US international trade policy. This includes all matters that fall within the jurisdiction of the World Trade Organization, which establishes the rules of trade between states.

Key Takeaways

Foreign and military policies are made and carried out by the executive branch, particularly the president, with the national security advisor, the State Department, the Defense Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the intelligence agencies. The National Security Act of 1947 and recent bureaucratic reorganization after 9/11 reshaped the structure of foreign policymaking. Parties involved in making foreign policy often disagree over policies, military spending and military goals, and much more.


  1. What formal powers put the president at the center of foreign policy? How might being the head of the executive branch give the president an informal advantage in making foreign policy?
  2. How did the National Security Act reorganize the national security establishment? What do you think the idea behind the National Security Act was?
  3. What are the responsibilities of the Department of Homeland Security? Do you think it makes sense to have one department handle all those jobs? Why or why not?


Cohen, E. A., “A Revolution in Warfare,” Foreign Affairs 75 (1996): 37–54.

Dryden, S., Trade Warriors (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Hess, G. R., Presidential Decisions for War: Korea, Vietnam, and the Persian Gulf. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001).

Hastedt, G. P., “Homeland Security,” in Contemporary Cases in U.S. Foreign Policy: From Terrorism to Trade, 2nd ed., ed. Ralph G. Carter (Washington, DC: CQ Press, 2005).

Hulnick, A. S., Fixing the Spy Machine: Preparing American Intelligence for the Twenty-First Century (Westport, CT: Praeger,1999).

Isaacson, W., Kissinger (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1992).

Isaacson, W., “The Senior Official,” Washington Journalism Review 14, no. 9 (November 1992): 30.

Mahnken, T. G. and James R. FitzSimonds, “Revolutionary Ambivalence,” International Security 28 (2003): 112–48.

Preston, T. and Margaret G. Hermann, “Presidential Leadership Style and the Foreign Policy Advisory Process,” in The Domestic Sources of American Foreign Policy, 4th ed., ed. Eugene R. Wittkopf and James M. McCormick (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 363–80.

Ranelagh, J., The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986).

Relyea, H., “Organizing for Homeland Security,” Presidential Studies Quarterly 33 (2003): 602–24.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

American Government and Politics in the Information Age Copyright © 2016 by University of Minnesota is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book