Recent national headlines have likely increased interest in how U.S. foreign policy is created. As someone who came from a small sleepy village in Vermont that had to quickly learn how U.S. foreign policy is actually made, and got to take part in its creation, I will try to explain the basics here.
I recently wrote about the idea of “shadow foreign policy” I want to clarify before I begin that there is only ever one U.S. foreign policy towards any one nation or topic. The president is the one U.S. citizen empowered to instantly decide U.S. foreign policy. Every other citizen in America has roles in shaping and executing US foreign policy (different than domestic policy). Those roles are either as electors of the president, advisors to the president, or oversight providers of the executive branch.
So on to how foreign policy is made. It can be as simple as the president looking at an issue alone or with a small group of other citizens (inside or outside the government) and then making a snap decision and instructing her executive branch to carry out their decision. This happens more than you think. Another simple method for forming U.S. foreign policy is when the president delegates his authority to make a decision about how the U.S. will react to a certain issue or nation, and that delegated person makes the decision on how American will proceed. Those designees might be ambassadors, generals, or cabinet members, or even someone more junior in status.
Those are the two very simple and often fast ways that America decides how it will act when faced with a particular foreign problem. It is not the typical way, and seldom is the best way when the foreign issue is difficult, or has dangerous repercussions if we choose the wrong policy.
Here is a hypothetical process that a U.S. foreign policy decision might go through. But have no doubts, even after the long and careful process I describe below is completed, the president makes the final decision about actually carrying out one of the options, or none of them at all. No American citizen can defy the president and carry out their own foreign policy; they are all simply advisors or in the case of congress, an oversight body that can try to change the policy, they don’t create it or enact it.
I have an Idea!
Say you were a general sitting in a war zone in Pakistan and the war was entering its second decade and needed a big strategic shift. That shift would be a U.S. foreign policy decision depending on the authority the president has given his war commander. The general might be talking to the Pakistani president, who is a U.S. ally against the insurgency force inside Pakistan, and they might decide they need a reconciliation program to get insurgent fighters to leave the battlefield. In this scenario the reconciliation (forgiveness program) would be a change for the U.S. policy and the policy of the NATO coalition that is part of the mission.
The first thing the general must do is signal to the U.S. diplomatic members involved in Pakistan that he needs to make a big shift in U.S. policy to help change the war strategy. Together or individually they might draft a white paper that explains the issue to their senior leaders in the State and Defense Departments, 1) what the idea is and 2) how it would change the war. White papers are simply an draft idea that doesn’t have official standing yet as a real policy option, they are used to get multiple parts of the executive branch to think about a solution to a problem.
I am ready to convince others my idea is solid
After the white paper has circulated around a bit in the government and many departments and agencies (this is not shared widely yet), one member of the executive branch would likely take the lead in pushing for the U.S. foreign policy change. In this scenario let’s say the military leaders keep control of that task. Next the general will task a very capable, and sufficiently senior leader to get the policy shift approved and funded. Maybe he would even recruit a trusted member of the NATO coalition to lead this effort so that it looks like an internationally backed shift in policy.
So, the general tasks a British 3-star take the policy idea and expand on it. The 3-star general would build a small team of people to help him create momentum to get the policy enacted. He would also start building a vast network of actors from the fields of defense, diplomacy, humanitarianism, development, intelligence, law-making, and academia to ensure the plan has buy-in from as many people as possible.
Then the policy change leader would start communicating by email, phone, and in-person to everyone that needs to make the shift in policy a reality.
My team is ready to work on my behalf
Once the 3-star’s team of teams is created and educated on the need for the policy shift, the 3-star will identify the roadblocks to getting the policy approved.
After identifying the roadblocks in congress, the pentagon, the state department, and even in the White House, the policy change leader will put his network to work. He will ask them to take on particular roadblocks for him based on their expertise, and personal or professional connections.
Then the policy change leader needs to hit the road and visit with the most critical players in the foreign policy change world. That means going to talk to congressional staffs and elected leaders in the U.S. Congress, from both parties, because they might have to fund or agree to the new policy. The leader will visit their higher headquarters and speak directly to the commander and his key staff. In this hypothetical, that would mean Central Command and NATO. Once they were on board, the leader would talk to the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their key subordinates. The policy change leader would also visit the White House and get the key members of the National Security Council staff educated about the policy shift, so they can start explaining it to the President and Vice President.
What about the places I can’t influence?
If there are some big stumbling blocks in the State Department and the local Ambassador in Pakistan is not helping you win them over, the policy change leader might recruit someone else in the diplomacy world to help. In this hypothetical the 3-star might reach out to the US special ambassador for the Pakistan region that spends most of her time in Washington, D.C. and isn’t particularly liked by the president. He might privately offer to let this ambassador take all the credit for the policy change, if they will work to convince the Secretary of State and the president to back the policy shift. The 3-star policy change leader might also reach out to the prime minister of the UK and his staff to get them to sell the idea to NATO nations and the U.S. president.
But what if no U.S. body wants to pay for it?
Policy changes often require a line of funding, so you need to get someone to pay for this idea to make it work. If the 3-star is wise, and sees that the U.S. won’t want to accept a policy of forgiving their enemy and then also pay for the forgiveness, they will find another banker. In this case, as the policy shift involves peace-building and forgiveness, they have lots of options. One smart option for peace initiatives globally would be the Japanese government. They are big players in the peace process movement and they can help convince others to fund this type of policy shift.
So, with that in mind, the 3-star would likely travel to Japan and meet with their diplomats and lawmakers to discuss the idea and even bring a Pakistani delegation with him. Once the Japanese are on-board with funding, you can then work to get other nations to support the financing of the policy shift.
Now you can make the policy shift
You have lined up political support, lawmaker support, economic support, diplomatic support, NATO defense support, and Pakistani support for the U.S. foreign policy shift.
You just made things very easy for the senior staffs at the Defense and State departments and also for the national security staff. The senior staffs supporting the president and cabinet won’t have to do much horse-trading to get interagency support of the policy, because the 3-star team did it for them. Once all of the support is in place, the 3-star can wait for the U.S. cabinet (likely in a National Security Council -NSC- meeting) to take up the U.S. policy proposal and let them help the president make a decision.
With all that support already in place and the costs of the policy shift being absorbed by multiple nations, this is a slam dunk decision for the president.
That is one of the many more-complex ways that the US foreign policy can make a shift. Any member of the U.S. executive branch can come up with a smart idea and pitch it to his boss to start the cycle. A wise policy advisor will line up multiple and redundant lines of support for the idea long before they president is presented the full idea. That will ensure that along the way the president has been given lots of time to chew on bits of the policy idea with various parts of the executive branch and the congress, and even our allies.
Never forget though, the president is the ultimate U.S. foreign policy decider. You can do months of work to create a slam-dunk decision for the president, and they can simply say ‘no thanks.’ Whatever the decision from the president, the next move for the foreign policy community in the government is to execute the decision, like it or not.