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Opinion >  Column

We the People: The president also serves as the nation’s chief diplomat, a role that’s becoming more visible as the war in Ukraine continues

UPDATED: Fri., April 1, 2022

President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, at the 'Villa la Grange', June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland. After winding down 20 years of "endless" war in which the vast majority of Americans felt little impact on their daily lives, President Joe Biden now finds the U.S. mired in a conflict in Ukraine – albeit without any U.S. troops on the ground – that could prove to have more far-reaching effects on American lives than Iraq or Afghanistan ever did.  (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)
President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, at the 'Villa la Grange', June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland. After winding down 20 years of "endless" war in which the vast majority of Americans felt little impact on their daily lives, President Joe Biden now finds the U.S. mired in a conflict in Ukraine – albeit without any U.S. troops on the ground – that could prove to have more far-reaching effects on American lives than Iraq or Afghanistan ever did. (Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

Each week, The Spokesman-Review examines one question from the Naturalization Test immigrants must pass to become United States citizens.

Today’s question: Name one power of the president.

While the test to become a U.S. citizen accepts four possible answers, three – signing legislation, vetoing bills and serving as commander-in-chief of the military – are probably the most familiar.

The fourth – serving as chief diplomat – may be more noticeable at certain times in history, including now as President Joe Biden and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization seeks to counter the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Candidates rarely run for the White House with the goal of being “the foreign policy president,” said Clayton Cornell, the distinguished professor of government at Washington State University’s Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service. But since the 20th century, particularly post-World War II, world events often push a president into that role.

The Founding Fathers probably intended foreign relations to be a shared responsibility between the president and Congress, Clayton said. The Constitution gives the Senate the power to approve cabinet members who carry out presidential policy, including the secretary of state, and the power to ratify treaties.

George Washington even went to the Senate in 1789 to ask for advice on a treaty being negotiated with Indian tribes, Clayton said. Rather than debate the issue with Washington in the chamber, the Senate referred it to a committee. Washington never went back, and decided to send everything regarding treaties to the Senate in writing, a practice all other presidents have followed.

Washington’s administration negotiated a neutrality treaty in a war between France and Great Britain. France had been an ally in the Revolutionary War, but monarchy had been overthrown and the nation was split over the radical government that replaced it. In his farewell address, Washington urged Americans to take advantage of their isolated location and avoid foreign entanglements, particularly those in Europe.

Other early presidents are known for diplomatic acts. Thomas Jefferson acquired the French claims to the Louisiana Territory from a cash-strapped Napoleon Bonaparte, although it should be noted that Native Americans, not the French, were in possession of most of the lands in the drainage of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. Napoleon had only recently acquired the claims from the Spanish, only to suffer from buyer’s remorse when faced with a slave revolt in Santo Domingo.

President James Monroe developed the Monroe Doctrine, which basically warned Europe not to meddle in the Western Hemisphere and said the United States wouldn’t interfere in European affairs. The United States was at war with Great Britain while James Madison was president and with Mexico when James Polk was president. But for much of the 19th century, presidents were able to follow Washington’s advice and avoid foreign entanglements.

There was little expectation on the part of the American public, or by foreign governments, that the United States would play a major role in foreign affairs, Clayton said.

In the early 20th century, however, President Theodore Roosevelt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating an end to a war between Russia and Japan. President Woodrow Wilson received the Nobel Peace Prize some 15 years later for helping develop the League of Nations after World War I, although the Senate later rejected the treaty and the United States didn’t join the league.

Presidents from Franklin Roosevelt on have been involved in major diplomatic endeavors as America assumed a leadership role in the world, Clayton said. Lyndon Johnson had the Vietnam War, which became very unpopular and forced him not to run for re-election. Richard Nixon, his successor, was one of the few who ran on his foreign policy ideas, including ending the Vietnam War. Nixon also visited the People’s Republic of China, an initiative that opened diplomatic relations between two of the world’s largest countries.

In the last half-century, presidents have had successes and failures in foreign policy as the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States faced economic competition and wars in a variety of locations around the world.

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