Institutional Relations in Foreign Policy


A variety of actors carry out the various and complex activities of U.S. foreign policy: White House staff, executive branch staff, and congressional leaders.

The White House staff members engaged in foreign policy are likely to have very regular contact with the president about their work. The national security advisor heads the president’s National Security Council, a group of senior-level staff from multiple foreign policy agencies, and is generally the president’s top foreign policy advisor. Also reporting to the president in the White House is the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Even more important on intelligence than the CIA director is the director of national intelligence, a position created in the government reorganizations after 9/11, who oversees the entire intelligence community in the U.S. government. The Joint Chiefs of Staff consist of six members, one each from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, plus a chair and vice chair. The chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is the president’s top uniformed military officer. In contrast, the secretary of defense is head of the entire Department of Defense but is a nonmilitary civilian. The U.S. trade representative develops and directs the country’s international trade agenda. Finally, within the Executive Office of the President, another important foreign policy official is the director of the president’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The OMB director develops the president’s yearly budget proposal, including funding for the foreign policy agencies and foreign aid.

In addition to those who work directly in the White House or Executive Office of the President, several important officials work in the broader executive branch and report to the president in the area of foreign policy. Chief among these is the secretary of state. The secretary of state is the nation’s chief diplomat, serves in the president’s cabinet, and oversees the Foreign Service. The secretary of defense, who is the civilian (nonmilitary) head of the armed services housed in the Department of Defense, is also a key cabinet member for foreign policy (as mentioned above). A third cabinet secretary, the secretary of homeland security, is critically important in foreign policy, overseeing the massive Department of Homeland Security (Figure).

A chart titled “Multiple foreign Policy Directors”. At the top of the chart are three boxes. The box on the left is labeled “Chief of Staff”, the center box is labeled “President”, and the box on the right is labeled “Vice President”. The boxes labeled “Chief of Staff” and “Vice President” are connected with dotted lines to the “President” box. Under the “President” box are seven boxes connected with solid lines. From left to right, the boxes are labeled “Secretary of State,” “Secretary of Defense”, “Secretary of Homeland Security”, “National Security Advisor”, “U.S. Trade Representative”, “Chair, Joint Chiefs of Staff”, “Director of National Intelligence (to whom the CIA director reports)”.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

Former secretary of defense Robert Gates served under both Republican and Democratic presidents. First Gates rose through the ranks of the CIA to become the director during the George H. W. Bush administration. He then left government to serve as an academic administrator at Texas A&M University in College Station, Texas, where he rose to the position of university president. He was able to win over reluctant faculty and advance the university’s position, including increasing the faculty at a time when budgets were in decline in Texas. Then, when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld resigned, President George W. Bush invited Gates to return to government service as Rumsfeld’s replacement. Gates agreed, serving in that capacity for the remainder of the Bush years and then for several years in the Obama administration before retiring from government service a second time (Figure). He has generally been seen as thorough, systematic, and fair.

An image of Robert Gates speaking with Hamid Karzai.
In March 2011, then-secretary of defense Robert Gates (left) held talks with Afghan president Hamid Karzai in Kabul, Afghanistan. (credit: Cherie Cullen)

In his memoir, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War,Robert M. Gates. 2015. Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. Secretary Gates takes issue with the actions of both the presidents for whom he worked, but ultimately he praises them for their service and for upholding the right principles in protecting the United States and U.S. military troops. In this and earlier books, Gates discusses the need to have an overarching plan but says plans cannot be too tight or they will fail when things change in the external environment. After leaving politics, Gates served as president of the Boy Scouts of America, where he presided over the change in policy that allowed openly gay scouts and leaders, an issue with which he had had experience as secretary of defense under President Obama. In that role Gates oversaw the end of the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.David A. Graham, “Robert Gates, America’s Unlikely Gay-Rights Hero,” The Atlantic, 28 July 2015.

What do you think about a cabinet secretary serving presidents from two different political parties? Is this is a good idea? Why or why not?

The final group of official key actors in foreign policy are in the U.S. Congress. The Speaker of the House, the House minority leader, and the Senate majority and minority leaders are often given updates on foreign policy matters by the president or the president’s staff. They are also consulted when the president needs foreign policy support or funding. However, the experts in Congress who are most often called on for their views are the committee chairs and the highest-ranking minority members of the relevant House and Senate committees. In the House, that means the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Committee on Armed Services. In the Senate, the relevant committees are the Committee on Foreign Relations and the Armed Services Committee. These committees hold regular hearings on key foreign policy topics, consider budget authorizations, and debate the future of U.S. foreign policy.