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The Federalist Era (1788–1800) witnessed the birth of the new American Constitution and ushered in a period of a strong Federal government headed by a president and a bicameral Congress. The new American government sought to protect American interests in a turbulent time. From threats from Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean Sea to the turmoil in Revolutionary France and to the slave revolt in Haiti, the young republic had to navigate difficult political waters in order to protect itself. Furthermore, it also had to deal with the British and Spanish, who remained in American territory, without starting another war. Additionally, the United States had to engage with various Native American tribes in the interior of the continent to end the threat of war on the American frontier. Later in the time period, tensions between the United States and the new French Republic became strained, which led to the diplomatic embarrassment of the XYZ Affair and an undeclared naval war between the United States and France. American foreign policy during the Federalist Era was a matter of trial and error because there had been no standard protocol for dealing with international incidents under the old government. George Washington, the first president under the new Constitution, shouldered the burden of creating the new American foreign policy. Washington, along with cabinet members such as Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, helped shape US foreign policy in the Federalist Era. Washington was succeeded by his vice president, John Adams, who guided America through tense times, which included conflict with France. With the creation of the American Constitution, Washington and other Federalist leaders had the difficult task of creating a new nation, which included forging a foreign policy. The goal of the fledgling American republic’s foreign policy was to protect American sovereignty in an era of perpetual threats.

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While presidents have historically been the driving force behind foreign policy decision-making, Congress has used its constitutional authority to influence the process. The nation’s founders designed a system of checks and balances aimed at establishing a degree of equilibrium in foreign affairs powers. Though the president is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the country’s chief diplomat, Congress holds responsibility for declaring war and can also exert influence over foreign relations through its powers over taxation and appropriation, while the Senate possesses authority to approve or reject international agreements. This separation of powers compels the executive branch to work with Congress to achieve foreign policy goals, but it also sets up conflict over what policies best serve national interests and the appropriate balance between executive and legislative authority. Since the founding of the Republic, presidential power over foreign relations has accreted in fits and starts at the legislature’s expense. When core American interests have come under threat, legislators have undermined or surrendered their power by accepting presidents’ claims that defense of national interests required strong executive action. This trend peaked during the Cold War, when invocations of national security enabled the executive to amass unprecedented control over America’s foreign affairs.