Foreign Policy and the Constitution
The federal government’s role in foreign affairs was a hot topic at the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The Articles of Confederation left many questions of commerce and security to the states, enabling foreign powers to exploit the differences. At the time of the Convention, there were still many foreign troops within the territory of the United States, and no unified vision of who represented the Confederation of States abroad. Despite the many differences between the large, small, northern, and southern states and differing opinions among the Federalists and Antifederalists, the Convention came to a consensus on questions of both commerce and security that ultimately satisfied each of the state ratification conventions.
In Article 1, Section 8, the Framers concentrated trade policy into the hands of Congress. The Constitution stipulated that Congress set a unified regime of tariffs and duties and oversee the setting of trade policies with other nations. Article 1, Section 10 expressly forbade the states from conducting independent commercial agreements, treaties, or alliances with foreign nations, or setting tariffs or duties different than those set by Congress. While this was initially controversial among those states that worried unequal representation would lead to national trade policies that benefited larger states or northern manufacturing over other important economic sectors, the states ultimately agreed that the power granted by national unity was more important.
Knowing that with the ratification of the Constitution, the new nation would be entering a world where war was more the norm than peace, the issue of how the United States should handle and approach matters of war and diplomacy was another issue of great concern at the Convention. The Framers knew that matters of high politics between nations were often best undertaken swiftly and in secrecy. But they also knew that war was a matter too weighty to be trusted to one branch of government alone. Ultimately, they gave Congress the power to declare war in Article 1, Section 8, but assigned to the President the role of commander-in-chief in Article 3 Section 2. The Constitution gave the President the power to direct the course of foreign policy in times of war and peace through the appointment of ambassadors, carrying out of negotiations, and establishment of treaties, with the stipulation that treaties were to be ratified by at least a two-thirds majority of the Senate.
The Constitution gave the majority of power in foreign policy to the executive branch, but stayed true to the doctrine of separation of powers. While this new framework delegated the powers of who could make which decisions, it did not determine what decisions should be made. These sorts of determinations have evolved throughout the history of the United States.
- Who do you trust more to make decisions about war and peace (except in times of emergency)? Congress? Or the President?
- Why do you think Congress hasn’t declared war since World War II?
- How would you define a war (versus other kinds of interventions)?
This reading is an excerpt from Certell’s Common Sense Government eBook. Certell offers curriculum materials and eBooks free of charge for use by students and teachers. Click Here to download the Common Sense Government materials.
11, April 2018, World War 1 soldiers [Digital photograph]. Retrieved from <google.com>.