Founding-Era Jus Ad Bellum and the Domestic Law of Treaty Withdrawal
abstract. The Constitution provides no textual guidance for how, as a matter of domestic law, the United States can withdraw from an Article II treaty. The Supreme Court has not clarified matters. In the face of this uncertainty, government officials and scholars alike have long debated whether the President may unilaterally withdraw from a treaty or whether Congress has a role to play. This Note contributes to the debate by examining the relationship between treaty withdrawal and war powers through an originalist lens. Through close assessment of the contemporaneous jus ad bellum, the Note concludes that, at the Founding, treaty withdrawal presented a clear justification for war. Treaty withdrawal therefore implicates the War Powers Clause, which assigns primary responsibility for initiating war to Congress. Because the Founders and their contemporaries likely saw treaty withdrawal as a matter of war and peace, and because the Constitution entrusts Congress with the power to commence war, this Note concludes that the original understanding of the Constitution supports a role for Congress in treaty withdrawal.
Yale Law School, J.D. 2016. I am indebted to Professors Oona Hathaway and Lea Brilmayer for their supervision and guidance. I am grateful to Rebecca Crootof and Professors Bruce Ackerman, Curtis Bradley, Harold Hongju Koh, and Michael Reisman for their insights, and to my family members and friends who read early drafts of this Note. For their constructive feedback, careful editing, and patience, I thank Alexander Kazam, Elizabeth Ingriselli, Charlie Bridge, Rebecca Lee, Michael Clemente, and the editors of the Yale Law Journal. All errors are mine alone.
Despite articulating a detailed and arduous process by which the United States can enter into a treaty, the Constitution remains silent on how the country can exit from a treaty under domestic law. Article II, Section 2, which addresses treaty accession, contemplates heavy executive-branch involvement in the negotiation process with one or more foreign nations and requires a two-thirds supermajority of the Senate to approve any accord before a treaty becomes the law of the land.1 In contrast, the Constitution provides no textual guidance on the process for treaty withdrawal, let alone Congress’s role in that process. The Supreme Court has not clarified matters. In Goldwater v. Carter,2 the most recent Supreme Court case on treaty termination, only one Justice reached the merits;3 six other Justices determined that the case was nonjusticiable.4
The lack of textual and judicial guidance regarding treaty withdrawal has serious policy consequences. As numerous examples illustrate, there is little to stop a President from unilaterally withdrawing from a treaty, even though Congress’s involvement would have been required to enter the treaty in the first place.5 Most recently, the Bush Administration unilaterally withdrew from the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations Concerning the Compulsory Settlement of Disputes.6 As a result, the United States no longer recognizes the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice to hear disputes arising from the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations,7 following that Court’s finding that the United States had violated the rights of death-sentenced Mexican nationals and that the sentences should be reconsidered.8
Congress’s role in treaty withdrawal also prominently arose in 2001 when President Bush withdrew the United States from the nearly thirty-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) with Russia.9 The ABM was negotiated by the Nixon Administration and the Soviet Union and approved by two-thirds of the Senate in 1972. It was viewed as a major development in U.S. nonproliferation policy with the Soviet Union, imposing strict limits on each country’s ability to develop anti-ballistic missile technology.10 At the time of withdrawal, myriad experts, policymakers, and foreign leaders warned that withdrawing from the ABM threatened global nonproliferation policy and risked upsetting a carefully calibrated relationship with Russia.11 Despite these severe warnings, Congress played no formal role in the decision to withdraw from the treaty that two-thirds of the Senate had approved twenty-nine years earlier.12 A federal district court dismissed a lawsuit filed by thirty-two members of Congress seeking to prevent unilateral executive-branch withdrawal from the ABM, citing as “instructive and compelling” the Goldwater plurality’s opinion that treaty withdrawal presented a nonjusticiable political question.13
Goldwater itself demonstrates how treaty withdrawal implicates important foreign policy questions. The case arose after President Carter unilaterally withdrew from a mutual defense treaty with Taiwan14 in an attempt to improve Sino-American diplomatic relations by temporarily ending U.S. obligations to assist Taiwan in the event of an attack. Senator Barry Goldwater, who led the suit against Carter, was a strong opponent of the President’s China policy, which he decried as “selling out Taiwan.”15
Given the serious policy implications of treaty withdrawal, it is perhaps unsurprising that the issue of congressional treaty withdrawal power—and the relative balance of power between the executive and legislative branches—is hotly debated. Politicians,16 practitioners,17 judges,18 and academics19 have weighed in. Yet for all the attention that treaty withdrawal has received, the debate has largely overlooked a crucial element: the original understanding of the relationship between treaty withdrawal and the international law of war.
This Note seeks to contribute to this debate by highlighting the original understanding of Congress’s powers in treaty withdrawal. This Note argues that, at the Founding, treaty withdrawal provided a just cause of war under the law of nations. Because the Founders and their contemporaries likely viewed treaty withdrawal as a matter of war and peace, and because the Constitution assigns Congress the power to declare war, this Note concludes that the original understanding of the Constitution contemplated a congressional treaty withdrawal power.
A few words on the Note’s methodology: within originalism, commentators often distinguish between “original intent” and “original public meaning.” An “original intent” approach inquires into the meaning that the Constitution’s drafters intended.20 An “original public meaning” analysis asks “what meaning constitutional text would have had to a neutral reader of the English language at the time of the framing.”21 Yet as Gregory Maggs has suggested, these modes of originalism may be to some extent interchangeable.22 The understanding of the Framers, as expressed in a particular document, is typically a strong indication of the public’s understanding.23 It is safe to assume that the law of nations was familiar to the Framers and to knowledgeable citizens.24 William Eskridge has explained the relevance of originalism to the search for constitutional meaning:
The main reason original meaning is a relevant inquiry is that a strong body of scholarly work and Supreme Court precedent maintain that the most legitimate approach to constitutional interpretation at least starts with original meaning . . . . [A]ll of the [current Supreme Court] Justices find original meaning relevant (and some believe it controlling).25
While this Note focuses on the writings of the Framers and the leading international law theorists of the day, these sources provide clues to both the intent of the Framers and the “original public understanding” of treaty withdrawal under international law.
Originalism figures prominently in the debate over the domestic law of treaty withdrawal.26Even advocates of presidential power who rely heavily on recent historical practice have found it useful to invoke Founding-era practices.27 The relationship between war and treaties also surfaces in arguments for greater congressional involvement.28
However, despite the Founding generation’s clear conception of the relationship between treaties, war, and peace,29 there has been surprisingly little assessment of how this relationship might be viewed through an originalist lens.30 To the extent that the Founders’ original intent and the original understanding of their contemporaries is a factor in the withdrawal debate, this Note fills an important gap in the literature.
Since the Founding, much has changed about how the United States concludes agreements with foreign powers. Executive agreements, rather than Article II treaties, have become the dominant domestic mode of international lawmaking since World War II.31 These agreements take one of three forms. First, in a sole executive agreement, the President alone negotiates a foreign accord that implicates an issue entirely within the Executive’s Article II authority. Second, in an ex ante congressional-executive agreement, Congress passes legislation authorizing the President to negotiate an international agreement on a specific issue.32 Finally, in an ex post congressional-executive agreement, Congress passes legislation approving an international agreement that the President has already negotiated.33 Notwithstanding the rise of executive agreements, Article II treaties remain an important form of international lawmaking.34 While my theory may have implications for other categories of foreign agreements, these agreements pose distinct constitutional questions. This Note therefore focuses exclusively on Article II treaties.
Part I surveys the existing legal debate surrounding treaty termination. Part II details Founding-era jus ad bellum and congressional war powers. It concludes that, under the law of nations, treaty breach constituted just grounds for war, and at the Founding, treaty withdrawal was tantamount to breach. Additionally, it concludes that the original understanding of war powers was broad. Read together, this Note argues, the Founding-era understanding of treaty termination and the Founding-era conception of war powers suggest an original understanding that granted Congress a role in treaty withdrawal. Part III considers both counterarguments to the proposition and contemporary implications, arguing that the House should have a vote on treaty terminations.
Both sides of the debate on treaty withdrawal—those who argue that the Constitution requires a congressional role, and those who argue that the Executive has plenary power—agree on at least one thing: the Constitution is silent on treaty termination. But they differ on what this silence means. The debate centers on two questions. First, what was the historical practice of treaty withdrawal, and what are the legal consequences of this history? Second, what if anything does the structure of the Constitution reveal? On each question, there is sharp disagreement. This Part briefly describes the existing debate35 to illustrate how commentators on both sides have overlooked the original understanding of Congress’s powers in treaty withdrawal.
Presidential unilateralists rely on constitutional structure and historical practice to argue that the President may withdraw from treaties without seeking approval from Congress. The structural argument centers on the Constitution’s Executive Power Clause.36 This clause, unilateralists argue, suggests that the Constitution reserves to the President alone the power to terminate treaties. Proponents of this argument cite Supreme Court precedents such as United States v. Curtiss-Wright Export Corp., in which the Court indicated that the President has broad constitutional powers to conduct foreign affairs.37 Louis Henkin’s discussion of treaty termination illustrates this line of argument:
Curtiss-Wright . . . recognized the “very delicate, plenary and exclusive power of the President as the sole organ of the federal government in the field of international relations—a power which does not require as a basis for its exercise an act of Congress.” . . . [This] implies the authority to make the kind of decision that has to be made for the United States when a treaty no longer serves our interests, when it is out of date, when the other side breached it.38
Presidential unilateralists sometimes argue that the placement of the Treaty Clause in Article II of the Constitution indicates that treaty power belongs to the Executive.39 Such arguments acknowledge that the text contemplates a role for the Senate in treaty accession, but emphasize that the primary power to “make treaties” is granted to the President, with the Senate’s role of providing “Advice and Consent” a secondary clause that limits this primary power.
A corollary to the textual Treaty Clause argument, according to its proponents, is the practice of appointing ambassadors.40 Immediately after granting the President the power to make treaties “by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate,”41 Article II, Section 2 indicates that the President “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors.”42 There is little doubt that the President can remove an ambassador without Senate approval, even if the Senate approved that ambassador’s nomination.43 Accordingly, proponents argue, the President must have corresponding power to withdraw from treaties notwithstanding the lack of the Senate’s “Advice and Consent.”44
There is a related structural argument in favor of unilateral presidential power to terminate: because the President has unilateral power to end treaty accession throughout the treaty accession process—including after Senate approval but before formal ratification—a logical corollary allows the President to withdraw any time after accession.45
In addition to structural arguments, presidential unilateralists invoke historical practice. The legal relevance of historical practice was recognized in Justice Frankfurter’s concurrence in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, which noted: “In short, a systematic, unbroken, executive practice, long pursued to the knowledge of the Congress and never before questioned . . . may be treated as a gloss on ‘executive Power’ vested in the President by § 1 of Art. II.”46
The “historical gloss” argument, as it is sometimes called, suggests that “what’s past is prologue”47 in assessing the legality of a unilateral treaty termination.48 For example, counsel to President Carter in Goldwater noted, “At a minimum, the Congress’s passivity with respect to treaty terminations over the past 60 years suggests an acknowledgement that the President has the constitutional authority to act on his own initiative.”49 Curtis A. Bradley has recently documented myriad other instances in which executive-branch lawyers and scholars have similarly relied on recent practice to suggest that sufficient gloss has formed to augment and protect the President’s prerogative to withdraw unilaterally.50
As a factual matter, recent history does offer examples of unilateral termination. The historical precedent of such unilateralism probably began with President William McKinley’s 1899 termination of portions of a commercial treaty with Switzerland. According to Bradley’s historical survey, this was the first instance in which a President terminated treaty obligations without any form of congressional approval;51however, because McKinley’s actions were a response to a potential conflict between the treaty and a tariff act that Congress had passed two years earlier, Bradley argues that McKinley’s action might not necessarily be viewed as purely unilateral.52 The first indisputably unilateral termination occurred in 1927 when President Calvin Coolidge withdrew from an antismuggling convention with Mexico without the ex anteor ex postapproval of either house of Congress.53 During his presidency, President Franklin D. Roosevelt began to unilaterally withdraw from treaties much more aggressively than his predecessors, which Bradley describes as “[e]stablishing a [p]attern” that his successors would invoke and which led to the modern rise in unilateralism.54 As noted, this pattern has influenced the most recent instances in which the United States has withdrawn from treaties: President Carter’s termination of the Taiwan Treaty and President Bush’s terminations of the ABM Treaty and the Vienna Protocol on Consular Relations, all of which were undertaken without congressional consent.55
Opponents of presidential unilateralism offer their own structural and historical arguments. The structural argument against presidential unilateralism emphasizes separation of powers. Its proponents challenge the notion that executive power can be inferred from constitutional silence or from the placement of the Treaty Clause in Article II. For instance, the plaintiffs in Kucinich v. Bush56argued that constitutional silence should not be read as a grant of power to the Executive because “[t]he history of American jurisprudence is replete, as it should be, with instances of courts, from the lowest to the highest, going beyond the letter of the Constitution to its spirit, its essence, its core values.”57
On this view, core values militate against unilateralism and in favor of a role for Congress. Proponents invoke “the . . . system of checks and balances imbued in the Constitution from its very origin.”58 These checks and balances suggest a role for Congress not just because of its role as a coordinate branch of government, the argument goes, but also because involving Congress respects the nature of a federal system in which each state’s national representatives have a say.59
Here lies a closely intertwined argument: once ratified, a treaty takes its place alongside federal legislation as the “supreme Law of the Land.”60 As such, some have argued that the principle governing repeal of federal legislation mirrors the proper principle for the repeal of treaties. Since the repeal of ordinary legislation passed by both houses of Congress and signed by the President requires both congressional and presidential approval, a logical corollary is that repeal of a treaty adopted by the Senate and President requires approval of both.61
Those who support joint presidential-congressional withdrawal also argue that historical practice supports their position. Senator Goldwater’s counsel suggested that “the normal and accepted method by which the United States has terminated treaties or obligations thereunder is by action of the President together with the approval of the Senate or the Congress.”62 More recently, the plaintiffs in Kucinich relied heavily on history in asserting that “the case for a mandatory congressional role in termination of any treaty is deeply rooted in . . . the history of joint executive-legislative action in terminating treaties.”63 Some academics echo this argument, positing that any trend towards presidential unilateralism is relatively recent. Raoul Berger, for example, challenged the notion that a historical gloss had formed and argued that “for the Republic’s first 130 years treaties were abrogated, with one exception, by Congress or its authorization, not by President and Senate, much less by the President alone.”64
As a historical matter, Berger’s claim appears to be partially correct. Throughout early historical practice, Congress played a role in treaty withdrawal—but the precise nature of its role varied. The first time the United States terminated a treaty, Congress played a direct role. As the country prepared for war with France in 1798, Congress passed legislation declaring that the four treaties the United States had signed with France “shall not henceforth be regarded as legally obligatory on the government or citizens of the United States.”65 The congressional debates over whether to enact the statute reflected no “doubt about Congress’s constitutional authority to terminate the treaties.”66 As Thomas Jefferson noted in the Manual of Parliamentary Practice in light of this precedent,“Treaties being declared, equally with the laws of the U[nited] States, to be the supreme law of the land, it is understood that an act of the legislature alone can declare them infringed and rescinded.”67 Subsequently, until at least 1899,68 Congress played somerole in the decision to terminate treaty obligations.69 The precise nature of this role often varied, sometimes taking the form of ex postapproval.70
The upshot of early historical practice is that, whether through resolutions or statutes, with the full Congress or just the Senate, ex anteor ex post, at the President’s urging or not, the legislative branch played some role in withdrawing from international agreements. To be sure, the process of congressional approval was inconsistent. But it seemed well understood that some role for Congress was necessary, and the early historical period undoubtedly supports the position of those opposed to unilateralism. More recent tradition, which may have begun as early as 1899, and which accelerated under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, cuts the other way.71 All told, this historical record suggests a mixed bag of evidence. Historical practice alone is unlikely to be dispositive.
II. the original understanding of jus ad bellum and congressional war powers implies a role for congress in treaty withdrawal
This Part seeks to augment the debate between the presidentialists and the congressionalists. It examines evidence that helps contextualize original understanding: the relationship between Founding-era jus ad bellum, treaty withdrawal, and congressional war powers. This Part begins by demonstrating that, at the Founding, jus ad bellum conferred on parties suffering treaty breach the right to go to war. Next, it shows that, at the Founding, treaty withdrawal was tantamount to breach because treaties were generally expected to exist in perpetuity. Finally, this Part examines the broad scope of congressional war powers. Taking these three elements together, I argue that the original understanding of the Constitution contemplated a role for Congress in treaty withdrawal.
The international law principles governing the “right to go to war” are known as jus ad bellum. These principles separate “just wars”—those that are legally permissible—from “unjust wars,” which violate the law of nations and are therefore illegal.72 To comprehend Founding-era conceptions of congressional treaty withdrawal powers, one must examine the jus ad bellum of that time. Because of the close relationship between war and treaties in contemporaneous international law, jus ad bellum provides critical context for the original understanding of treaty powers.
Founding-era jus ad bellum entitled a nation to go to war to secure its rights and redress violations of those rights. “Just war” included virtually any cause that could be litigated in a domestic context because there was no international analogue for redressing grievances. As Hugo Grotius—the influential Dutch jurist whom many consider the “father of international law”73—explained, “The grounds of war are as numerous as those of judicial actions. For where the power of law ceases, there war begins.”74 Under a Grotian conception of jus ad bellum, then, virtually any right that might be enforced against an individual in a domestic court would be just grounds for war. Grotius identified three primary just causes of war: the “right to defend, to recover, and the encroachment on which it is right to punish.”75 He reiterated that “sovereign powers have a right not only to avert, but to punish wrongs.”76
Other seminal treatises on the law of nations, including treatises by Emer de Vattel77 and Jean-Jacques Burlamaqui,78 reflected the same view. Though they used slightly different terminology, Grotius, Vattel, and Burlamaqui each made the same two key points. First, not all war was just; second, a nation was entitled under jus ad bellum standards to use force to prevent the violation of its rights or recover damages from the violation of those rights.
Treaties played a key role in creating rights, violations of which nations could punish. Each of the three aforementioned authors understood that treaties between nations were analogous to domestic contracts between private parties, and that a nation that had entered into a treaty with another nation therefore had the right to expect performance from its counterparty. Burlamaqui’s treatise goes so far as to suggest that the obligation of nations to fulfill treaty promises actually exceeded that of private parties in contracts because “were it otherwise, not only public treaties would be useless to states, but moreover, that the violation of these would throw them into a state of dissidence and continual war.”79 Vattel, likewise, explained in a section entitled “Obligation of observing treaties” that “the breach of a perfect promise is a violation of another person’s right, and as evidently an act of injustice, as it would be to rob a man of his property.”80 He continued in his next section, entitled “The violation of a treaty is an act of injustice”:
As the engagements of a treaty impose on the one hand a perfect obligation, they produce on the other a perfect right. The breach of a treaty is therefore a violation of the perfect right of the party with whom we have contracted; and this is an act of injustice against him.81
Grotius, too, explained that treaties constituted “the perfect obligation of a promise, and [are] attended with consequences similar to an alienation of property,”82 and elsewhere referred to the violation of treaties as “an odious act.”83
Under jus ad bellum, treaty breach was a just cause of war. Burlamaqui and Vattel clearly indicate, and Grotius strongly implies, that a functioning treaty system in which countries kept their promises was necessary to avoid chaos and war. In practice, nations were likely to resort to force when another nation violated the treaty promises it had made. Legally, treaty violation legitimated the use of force. Each of these writers’ seminal treatises illustrates the legality of force in response to treaty violations by noting that, first, treaties conferred rights, the violation of which constituted injury; and second, jus ad bellum permitted nations to use force to punish injury. As Vattel explained, in the instance of treaty breach, a sovereign “is at liberty to ch[oo]se the alternative of either compelling a faithless ally to fulfil[l] his engagements [through force], or of declaring the treaty dissolved by his violation of it.”84There can be no doubt, then, that jus ad bellum at the time of the Founding—as articulated by some of the most prominent treatise authors85—allowed nations to go to war to recover or punish the violations of treaties.
Moreover, the Founders were aware that treaty breach was considered a just cause of war under contemporaneous international law. It is well documented that, when delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered in Philadelphia in 1787, they were familiar and deeply concerned with the law of nations.86 Scholars have noted that several constitutional provisions are imbued with the Founders’ concern that the nascent Republic join the family of nations and comport with its international obligations.87 The Founders knew the work of Grotius, Vattel, and Burlamaqui, among others,88 and writings by some of the most prominent Convention delegates reflect an understanding that treaty breach presented a just cause for war. John Jay, for example, noted that treaty violation was a preeminent cause of war: “The just causes of war for the most part arise either from violations of treaties, or from direct violence.”89 For Jay, this principle presented a real threat that justified a federal treaty-making power because a single federal government was less likely than multiple state governments to commit treaty violations.90
Jay and other delegates were aware that treaty breach constituted a just cause of war. During the colonial era, Great Britain twice cited treaty breach as a just cause for war in manifestos against foreign powers.91 The first few decades of the new Republic also reveal strong evidence that the Founders knew what consequences could follow treaty breach. Supreme Court Justices cited Grotius, Burlamaqui, and Vattel’s writings on treaties in the early case Ware v. Hylton, in which the Court held that an article in the Treaty of Paris protecting creditors annulled a Virginia state law nullifying certain debts.92 George Washington, in assuming command of the military at President John Adams’s request during America’s “Quasi-War” with France, noted France’s “disregard of solemn treaties and the laws of nations.”93 Moreover, several early treaties included provisions that essentially established a grace period around the default proposition that treaty breach by one party confers upon the other party a right of war.94 If, however, the concerns were unanswered, war would be just and perhaps expected.
This jus ad bellum standard was not a waning quirk of the eighteenth-century law of nations. Nearly a century after the Founders gathered at the Constitutional Convention, treaty breach still created the potential of legally justified war. In 1884, Justice Miller, writing for the Supreme Court, noted,
A treaty is primarily a compact between independent nations. It depends for the enforcement of its provisions on the interest and the honor of the governments which are parties to it. If these fail, its infraction becomes the subject of international negotiations and reclamations, so far as the injured party chooses to seek redress, which may in the end be enforced by actual war.95
All of this indicates that the Founders and their contemporaries were keenly aware that, under the jus ad bellum standards at the time, treaty breach by one party conferred upon its counterparty a right to go to war. As I will show, this awareness provides important context for understanding the relative powers of Congress and the President.
This section demonstrates that, at the Founding, treaty breach and the domestic law of treaty withdrawal were one and the same. This equivalency explains why Founding-era law governing treaty breach might inform contemporary law on treaty withdrawal. Not all treaties resemble those at issue in Goldwater96and Kucinich,97 which included provisions that govern withdrawal as a matter of international law (which is distinct from the domestic law of treaty withdrawal).98 Some treaties lack such withdrawal provisions and exist in perpetuity such that any withdrawal is equivalent to breach.99 Crucially, while treaties today commonly provide for unilateral withdrawal (assuming the withdrawing party gives notice), this was not the case during the Founding era. As Curtis Bradley notes, until 1822, no U.S. treaty contained a unilateral withdrawal provision.100
Indeed, important treaties made during the Founding era contemplated perpetual effect. Consider the Model Treaty, which the First Continental Congress passed in 1776 as a prototype for U.S. treaties. The Model Treaty—which was first implemented in accords with France—included “perpetual” terms governing a host of commercial interests.101 It “served as a template for further commercial treaties that the United States would make in the coming years.”102 Any attempt to withdraw from these treaties, with their “perpetual” terms, would be tantamount to breach if the counterparty did not consent.
Indeed, Russia risked war when in 1870 it publicly denounced parts of a perpetual treaty. Fourteen years earlier, Russia had entered the Treaty of Paris, which prohibited naval exercises in the Black Sea. When it announced its intent to denounce, Russia’s counterparties to the Treaty expressed their consternation. The United Kingdom and Prussia even broached the subject of war. The powers evaded combat, however, prudently deciding to meet and agree to a new pact, the so-called London Protocols of 1871.103 The preliminary protocol clarified that no signatory could withdraw from or modify its treaty obligations unless all other parties consented, thus reaffirming the inviolability of treaties.104 Had Russia’s counterparties chosen to go to war over the withdrawal, their choice would have been legally justified.
To be sure, there were certain narrow circumstances under which a state could justifiably breach or denounce a treaty. A fundamental change of circumstance (rebus sic stantibus) was—and remains today—an acceptable reason to withdraw from a perpetual treaty.105 For example, an 1815 treaty with Great Britain opened St. Helena to the United States for commercial purposes. When Britain imprisoned Napoleon on the island, it invoked rebus sic stantibus to close St. Helena to the United States for commercial purposes, notwithstanding the treaty. Six years later, upon Napoleon’s death, Britain reopened St. Helena. While the United States never explicitly acknowledged that Britain had acted appropriately, the move did not seem controversial.106
Invoking rebus sic stantibus does not always prove uncontroversial, however. In denouncing the Treaty of Paris, Russia invoked rebus sic stantibus as well as several other defenses to no avail—its counterparties rejected those invocations. The Russian example illustrates that the mere invocation of rebus sic stantibus or other defenses did not automatically absolve the breaching or withdrawing party of potential consequences. Rather, as in the Russian case, a countersigning country could reject the invocation and consider war. Thus, from the perspective of domestic law, principles such as rebus sic stantibus might not obviate the need for congressional authorization. Were a U.S. President to act like the Russian sovereign, the possibility of war would be very real. That chance, in turn, might imply a role for Congress–the representative body tasked with deciding whether to go to war.
In the original understanding, then, withdrawal was tantamount to breach. Treaties were expected to be permanent. This explains how the Founding-era law of nations on treaty breach can inform the debate over the original understanding of treaty withdrawal. At the time, absent special circumstances, withdrawal by the United States constituted breach because perpetual treaties could not be terminated without the consent of both (or all) parties.
Section II.A demonstrated that, under Founding-era jus ad bellum standards, treaty breach—and, therefore, withdrawal—was a just cause of war, conferring on the aggrieved party a legal right to declare war on the breaching party. This Section discusses the Founding-era understanding of war powers under the Constitution. It shows that the Founding-era Congress was contemporaneously understood to have broad powers to decide issues of war and peace. Because treaty withdrawal constituted treaty breach, and treaty breach implicated issues of war and peace, Congress’s broad war powers suggest that Congress would have been understood to play a role in treaty withdrawal.
The Constitution gives Congress the exclusive power to declare war in the so-called “War Powers Clause.”107 Many scholars have noted convincing evidence that Congress had robust power under the original understanding of this Clause. The wording of an initial draft of the War Powers Clause vested in the legislature the power to “make war.” James Madison and Elbridge Gerry jointly moved to substitute the word “declare” for “make,” hence the final diction.108 Madison and Gerry feared that the phrase “‘make’ war, might be understood to ‘conduct’ it which was an Executive function.”109 No evidence suggests that, in substituting “declare” for “make,” the Framers desired to instill in the Executive the power to commence war or to reduce congressional power to a mere formality. Indeed, only one delegate to either the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention or any of the thirteen original states’ ratifying conventions, Pierce Butler, appears to have suggested vesting plenary authority to start war with the President.110 There is no evidence to suggest that anyone supported Butler’s idea.111 Rather, Gerry remarked that he “never expected to hear in a republic a motion to empower the Executive alone to declare war,” and Butler eventually disowned the position.112
Further arguments support the view that the original understanding of the War Powers Clause allocated broad power to Congress. Scholars note that involving more actors in the decision to declare war necessarily slows the process. If the President had plenary power to take the country to war—with Congress’s role limited to an ex postdeclaration and funding of the war113—the decision to go to war could be swift. It would take little more than a presidential directive to military commanders. In contrast, a decision-making process involving Congress would be slower. At bottom, each house of Congress must cast a vote—a process that presumably involves debate and careful consideration. Where Congress has broad war powers, the President must offer the legislature someex antejustification for the proposed war.
Strong evidence supports the insight that the Founders envisioned Congress’s role as slowing a decision to let slip the dogs of war. James Madison, for example, described war as “among the greatest of national calamities” and sought a constitutional framework to prevent easy entry into hostilities.114 Moreover, delegates to the Convention apparently believed that the executive branch was more likely than was the legislative branch to take the country into war. John Hart Ely noted that “[t]here were various statements by influential framers to the effect that executives tended to be more warlike than legislative bodies,”115 and characterized Madison’s following statement as typical: “The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care, vested the question of war in the Legislature.”116
James Wilson, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention from Pennsylvania, at his state’s ratifying debate, made clear that each of these concerns was reflected in the Constitution’s structure:
This system will not hurry us into war; it is calculated to guard against it. It will not be in the power of a single man, or a single body of men, to involve us in such distress; for the important power of declaring war is vested in the legislature at large: this declaration must be made with the concurrence of the House of Representatives: from this circumstance we may draw a certain conclusion that nothing but our national interest can draw us into a war.117
Some evidence suggests that even those Founders who were generally amenable to a strong Executive understood that Congress had a crucial role to play in deciding when to bring the country to war. Alexander Hamilton, for example, was a known advocate for a powerful presidency but proposed that the Senate declare wars and that the President “have the direction of war when authorized or begun.”118The language implies that the President should not be the one to authorize or begin war; moreover, at the time of the proposal, not all wars were formally declared, which suggests that Hamilton’s vision of the Senate’s role should transcend mere formality and affect the substantive decision. Indeed, Hamilton wrote that the President’s war power “would amount to nothing more than the supreme command and direction of the military and naval forces . . . . [The power of] declaring  war and . . . raising and regulating of fleets and armies . . . by the Constitution under consideration would appertain to the Legislature.”119 Likewise, James Iredell advocated for a strong presidency and strong presidential power to conduct war once it was commenced but used similar language to describe his view of the power to enter war.120
Indeed, in the original understanding of war powers, Congress’s role was so sweeping that it extended not only to formally declared wars but also to the decision to use force in less severe circumstances. Charles Lofgren has examined in great detail the debates at both the Constitutional Convention and at each state’s ratifying convention and concludes that the evidence leads to “a reasonable conclusion that the new Congress’ power ‘to declare War’ was not understood [by the contemporary public] in a narrow technical sense but rather as meaning the power to commence war, whether declared or not.”121
These underlying normative decisions informed a crucial corollary to the “declare war” clause: Congress should play a role of primary importance in both declared and undeclared wars. Not all wars at the time of the Founding were formally declared.122 To the extent that formal declarations were still in vogue, they were issued for large-scale public wars (sometimes called “perfect” war123). But perfect war was hardly the only type of warlike activity common at the time; rather, countries often authorized partial mobilization of private military resources to target specific foreign entities.124 This was sometimes called “imperfect” war. Justice Bushrod Washington’s opinion in Bas v. Tingy illustrates the distinction: “[H]ostilities may subsist between two nations more confined in its nature and extent; being limited as to places, persons, and things; and this is more properly termed imperfect war . . . .”125
Textual and historical evidence suggests that the Founders intended to reserve to Congress the power to enter an imperfect war. First, Article I vests in Congress the power to grant letters of marque and reprisal.126 These letters essentially authorized Americans to commit acts of war against the subjects of other nations. Sovereigns issued these letters primarily to ship captains who acted as official pirates for the state. This practice was how nations waged limited naval wars in the late 1700s and how they took reprisal when redressing national grievances.As Michael P. Kelly has noted, “The [Constitutional] [C]onvention record does not reflect any dissent over granting this lesser war power to Congress. Apparently the framers agreed that the nation’s legislature should control these lesser uses of force.”127 In examining the Convention record and original understanding at the time, Lofgren argues that the best analysis of the provision was that it served “as a kind of shorthand for vesting in Congress the power ofgeneralreprisal outside the context of declared war.For someone in the late 1780’s, this interpretation . . . would have given the phrase meaning and would have been consistent with history and the treatises.”128 Consequently, Lofgren concludes, “this interpretationin turn would have given increased plausibility to the view that Congress possessed whatever war-commencing power was not covered by the phrase ‘to declare war.’”129
Early case law, too, suggests a significant role for Congress in so-called “imperfect wars.” In Bas v. Tingy,130 Talbot v. Seeman,131 and Little v. Barreme,132 the earliest cases dealing with the matter, the Court asserted Congress’s role in authorizing imperfect as well as perfect war.133
Significantly, the same treatises that informed the Founders’ grant of power to Congress to determine the confines of imperfect war also recognized that imperfect war could lead to perfect war.134 This understanding helps explain why the Founders seemingly granted to Congress, in Lofgren’s words, “whatever war-commencing power was not covered by the phrase ‘to declare war.’”135 If the Founders designed a regime in which Congress would decide when the country was to go to war but limited that role to the declaration of “perfect” wars, the regime would be necessarily incomplete; only a regime that also accounted for a congressional role in authorizing “imperfect” wars would truly guard Congress’s role as the war-commencing institution, as these imperfect wars might be expected to lead to perfect wars. The decision to reserve this power to Congress demonstrates just how sweepingly the Constitution guarded the legislature’s right to determine when the country would go to war. As Section II.B.2 will argue, under the contemporaneous law of nations, the power to withdraw from treaties—like the power to grant letters of marque and reprisal—would have been understood as necessarily falling to the legislature in a system designed to empower Congress to determine matters of war and peace.
The Founders envisioned a system in which the legislative branch had control over the decision to use force. Congress was to be responsible for formal declaration of “perfect war” as well as authorization of “imperfect war,” which authorized on behalf of the United States the use of force on a smaller scale than formally declared wars. Its powers extended to “imperfect war” in part because “imperfect war” could spiral into “perfect war.”136 It is also clear that the Founders knew that, as a legal matter, treaty breach provided nations with a just cause of war and, as a practical matter, that treaty breach often led to war. It seems unlikely that a system that so jealously guarded Congress’s role in leading the nation to war would allow the Executive to act unilaterally in ways that would give other nations the legal right to go to war against the United States. To be meaningful, the congressional prerogative to determine matters of war and peace would have to encompass some control over treaty withdrawal.
For example, take the aforementioned 1778 Treaty of Alliance with France that was based on the Model Treaty.137 It conveyed to the French a host of economic rights. Each right was “perpetual,” as the treaty included no unilateral withdrawal clause.138 If the United States had chosen to withdraw unilaterally from the treaty, thereby removing these “perpetual” economic rights, the French would have been legally entitled to declare war to vindicate those rights. To be sure, the French might choose lesser means, but the decision to engage in war would have been out of the United States’ hands. This was true of every U.S. treaty until 1822, since none of these treaties included unilateral withdrawal provisions. Given the original, orthodox understanding that the Constitution jealously guarded congressional war powers, it would seem illogical to deny Congress a role in such an obvious potential cause for war.
The logic of a congressional role in treaty withdrawal comes into sharp relief when one considers peace treaties. At the Founding, while there were myriad just causes of action for commencing war, there was only one true way to end a state of war: through a treaty of the peace. The seminal treatises of the time make clear that a peace treaty was the exclusive means of formally ending war, even when warring nations had minimized or even ceased their use of force for prolonged periods of time. Perhaps the clearest articulation of the importance of peace treaties comes from Burlamaqui: “[T]he enemy himself may retake what he has lost, whenever he finds an opportunity, till by a treaty of peace he has renounced all his pretensions.”139Burlamaqui’s passage illustrates that even when the sides have laid down arms, they are legally entitled to pick them back up until they renounce all right to use force and hash out remaining disagreements in a peace treaty. In this context, a peace treaty settles the issue that led to war, the status of prisoners, seized property, and myriad other potential sources of tension.
The Founders were aware of this system and, at the Convention, they contemplated that peace treaties would serve as the exclusive means of ending war.140 In the first post-Convention Supreme Court case implicating war termination, decided less than a decade after the Constitutional Convention, Justice Chase observed that “war between two nations can only be concluded by treaty.”141Even the Quasi-War with France—a conflict lacking any formal declaration of war—ended through a peace treaty. As David A. Simon has noted, “The use of a peace treaty to end the Quasi-War is a strong indication that the political branches viewed peace treaties, at the very least, as important processes to ending war with other states.”142
The Founders were also clear that breach of a peace treaty was tantamount to a declaration of war. A peace treaty’s only purpose was to settle all outstanding differences between warring nations and return them to a state of peace. Withdrawal from such a treaty could only be understood as an attempt to return to the warring state. James Madison observed, for example, that “to annul a Treaty of Peace, [was] equivalent to a Declaration of War.”143 Indeed, the first time the United States terminated its treaty obligations was in response to hostilities with France.144
All of this to say that the Founders and their contemporaries would have anticipated that the United States would be party to peace treaties whose breach would be tantamount to declaration of war. The Founders knew that withdrawing from a peace treaty was effectively a declaration of war. Consider the Jay Treaty with the British, which established peace and formally ended the Revolutionary War.145 A withdrawal from this treaty, whose purpose was to settle war debts and establish perpetual peace, could only be understood as a declaration of war. Because of the Founders’ emphasis on congressional war powers, it seems logical that their contemporaries understood that Congress had a voice in such decisions.
Taken together, Congress’s broad war powers combined with the Founding-era jus ad bellum suggests that the Founders envisioned that treaty termination would involve at least one house of Congress. No single piece of evidence is conclusive, and this Note does not mean to suggest that the nexus between Founding-era jus ad bellum, treaties, and congressional war powers is sufficient to resolve all debate, especially because elements of the debate rely more on recent practice than original intent or understanding. Rather, this Note suggests that the debate thus far has been incomplete. While to some extent originalism infuses every element of the debate over treaty withdrawal, commentators and litigants have largely missed the crucial nexus between treaty withdrawal and war powers during the Founding era. To the extent that each side of the debate relies on certain context clues to make their arguments, this relationship provides important evidence.
This Part addresses several potential counterarguments to my thesis. Some of these counterarguments consider the constitutional implications of this Note’s thesis, while others question its contemporary applicability as a legal or functional matter. This Part also discusses the implications of my argument and my conclusion that the House of Representatives should have a vote in treaty withdrawal.
A. Distinguishing Between the Power To Declare War and the Power To Take Actions Bringing the Country Closer to War
This Note has argued that because treaty withdrawal was a cause of war at the Founding, Congress should have a role in deciding whether the United States pulls out of a treaty. One might question whether this intuition extends to all scenarios in which presidential action might bring the country closer to war. The Constitution reserves to the President powers that might well bring the country to the brink of conflict. Surely, my thesis cannot mean that every decision that might bring us closer to war is subject to congressional vote. It would be virtually impossible for the Founders to design a system in which Congress had a say in every decision that might functionally lead the country closer to war if for no other reason than that such decisions are often unpredictable. But few of these decisions could confer on the other country the legal right to go to war.
Because treaty withdrawal would create a legal right in a foreign nation to declare war against the United States, treaty breach can be distinguished from other presidential actions that might provoke war. Indeed, the Founders and their contemporaries were keenly aware of this distinction. John Jay indicated as much in the third Federalist paper, when he discussed the relative foreign policy powers of the federal government and the states. He observed that although causes of war can be“real or pretended. . . it becomes useful to inquire whether so many just causes of war are likely to be given by United America as by disunited America.”146 Jay’s language implicitly acknowledged that America would never be able to guarantee that other nations would not use “pretended” reasons to declare war against America. At the same time, he focused on the actions that create “just causes of war.” Jay explained, “The just causes of war, for the most part, arise either from violation of treaties or from direct violence.”147
Furthermore, Jay implied that Congress should play a role in ensuring adherence to treaties. For example, he defended federal (as opposed to state) power to enter treaties, writing that the national government would produce “fewer just causes of war,” and would be “be more in their power to accommodate and settle them amicably. They will be more temperate and cool, and in that respect, as well as in others, will be more in capacity to act advisedly than the offending State.”148 In another instance he explained that “[w]hen once an efficient national government is established, the best men in the country will not only consent to serve, but also will generally be appointed to manage it.”149
The other main cause of just war that Jay identified, direct violence, was constitutionally subject to congressional approval—both in the instances of formal declarations of war and in the context of peripheral war-like acts by the military or private citizens acting under the auspices of letters of marque. Indeed, as has been shown, the law of nations clearly anticipated that small-scale “imperfect” wars could lead to “perfect wars,” and scholars who have closely examined the constitutional debates indicate that Congress was understood to have a role to play in all such actions, at least partially because of this fact.150 Given that Congress had a clear role to play in any direct violence that might lead to just war, it makes sense that Congress would also have a role in treaty withdrawal.
As a corollary, early practice suggests that where the President’s traditional recognition powers might have presented other nations with a just cause of war, the Executive has involved Congress. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams communicated this point to President James Monroe when recognizing the independence of several South American countries during the Spanish-American Wars of Independence. Adams noted that premature recognition could be (and historically had been) “a cause or pretext for war.”151 Quincy Wright explains that “Secretary Adams’ distinction seems to indicate the limits of the President’s power. He may recognize a fact [of sovereignty]. To do so is not a just cause of war. A recognition before the fact is, however, intervention and practically war, the declaration of which belongs to Congress.”152
President Andrew Jackson expressed a similar view in 1836. He noted that recognitions traditionally “have been treated by the United States as questions of fact only, and our predecessors have cautiously abstained from deciding upon them until the clearest evidence was in their possession to enable them not only to decide correctly, but to shield their decisions from every unworthy imputation.”153 Because recognition of Texas, however, was a break from this policy and because “premature recognition under these circumstances” might be “looked upon as justifiable cause of war,” Jackson determined it was “[c]onsistent with the spirit of the Constitution, and most safe” that the decision, “when probably leading to war,” should be taken by Congress, “that body by whom war can alone be declared, and by whom all the provisions for sustaining its perils must be furnished.”154
To be sure, Jackson made clear that his decision was a question of expediency and he intentionally left unanswered his view of whether the President—with or without the Senate—was empowered to recognize Texas’s independence in these circumstances. Nevertheless, he apparently thought involving the full Congress was “consistent with the spirit of the Constitution” due to the possibility of giving Spain a just cause of war.155 As Wright notes, “when the line has been close, as in the recognitions of the South American Republics and Texas, the President has invoked the judgment and cooperation of Congress before recognition,”156 due to distinction between recognition that would create a just cause of war and that which would not.
Recognition power provides a useful parallel to treaty withdrawal. As a general matter, the power rests with the Executive. Nevertheless, in two early instances in which recognition might have led to war, Presidents chose to involve Congress. To be sure, the President in each example might have been motivated by prudential or political concerns rather than constitutional obligation. Nevertheless the President emphasized in each instance that the action might confer on another country a legal right to go to war against the United States, and suggested that this implicated congressional war powers. These examples suggest that presidential actions might be distinguishable based on whether they conferred legal rights of war.
A similar objection to this Note’s thesis might be that not all treaty breaches take the form of withdrawal; a President can breach a treaty without terminating it. As a matter of domestic law, must the President seek Congress’s consent before violating a treaty in other ways? There is strong evidence to suggest that, as a matter of original understanding, the President was not empowered to unilaterally breach a treaty. To illustrate, consider a slightly fictionalized version of President Grant’s 1876 actions regarding an extradition treaty with Great Britain. Responding to Britain’s refusal to comply with certain provisions, Grant halted extradition to Great Britain pending congressional action.157 Imagine that, instead of responding to Britain’s breach, Grant had refused to comply with a specific extradition request due to political or prudential concerns about that extradition. This might have breached a specific treaty obligation, though it would not constitute general termination of the treaty. The originalist theory advanced in this Note suggests that, because breach was just grounds for war under Founding-era jus ad bellum, Congress should play a role in this decision.
Indeed, some textual and historical evidence bolsters this proposition. The potential textual hook depends on how one views the Take Care Clause, which requires that the President “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”158 A threshold question here is whether the Take Care Clause encompasses treaties. While the issue is debated, several commentators have convincingly argued that it does.159 They note that the Supremacy Clause counts treaties among the “supreme Law of the Land”160 and point out that, at the Constitutional Convention, delegates changed the Take Care Clause language in a way that included treaties (although the precise motivation for the change is unknown).161
A second question is what, exactly, the Take Care Clause requires of the President. In the treaty context, strong evidence from the Founding era suggests that the President was expected to carry out all treaty commitments. In 1793, President Washington issued his Proclamation of Neutrality, announcing that America would remain neutral in a war between France and other European nations.162 Opponents of the Proclamation, including James Madison, expressed consternation that it violated America’s obligations under its Treaty of Alliance with France, thus flouting the President’s duties under the Take Care Clause.163 Importantly, supporters of the Proclamation, including Alexander Hamilton, did not argue that violating the treaty fell within Washington’s prerogatives under the Take Care Clause. Instead, they asserted that the Proclamation did not constitute a violation of the treaty.164 Both sides seemed to agree that Washington lacked discretionary authority to breach, for he had a duty to execute the treaty faithfully.165
In a similar vein, then-Congressman John Marshall suggested that it was incumbent upon the President to ensure that all treaty provisions were faithfully executed. Marshall was responsible for defending President John Adams from congressional censure following Adams’s extradition of Jonathan Robbins to Great Britain. The Jay Treaty with Britain included an extradition provision, but Adams’s actions generated significant controversy because no statute had authorized Robbins’s extradition. Speaking on the House floor, Marshall argued that while “Congress unquestionably may prescribe the mode [of executing a treaty], and Congress may devolve on others the whole execution of the contract,” until it does so, “it seems the duty of the Executive department to execute the [treaty] . . . by any means it possesses.”166
Of course, not all treaty breaches are created equal. There is a qualitative difference between the United Kingdom’s uncontroversial decision to temporarily amend commercial shipping routes in St. Helena and Russia’s highly controversial decision to commence naval exercises in the Black Sea. Withdrawal from a perpetual treaty is far more open and controversial than a minor, discretionary interpretation of a treaty clause and thus seems more analogous to the latter example. In this regard, for the purposes of my argument, there is no need to delineate the threshold at which a breach is sufficiently serious as to warrant congressional involvement because withdrawal seems far beyond that line. It is worth highlighting, however, two aspects of Supreme Court jurisprudence that support the notion that executive authority to breach is limited. First, unlike in the contemporary era, the early Supreme Court was not especially deferential to the Executive’s interpretation of treaties.167 Second, courts have generally required clear congressional intent to override treaty provisions. Justice Harlan cited Vattel in articulating the reasons underlying this principle:
[T]he court should be slow to assume that Congress intended to violate the stipulations of a treaty, so recently made with the government of another country. “There would no longer be any security,” says Vattel, “no longer any commerce between mankind, if they did not think themselves obliged to keep faith with each other, and to promises.”168
These two principles, read together, suggest that, in the early days of the Republic, courts were loathe to accept the notion that the President has inherent authority or discretion to breach treaties.
A system that prevented the President from unilaterally breaching a treaty (even without terminating it) would be sensible. Were the President able to breach without the consent of Congress, a whole treaty—which the Senate had played a role in approving—might be voided, even if the nation did not go to war over the breach. It is difficult to imagine that that the Founders and their contemporaries envisioned a system in which, say, President Washington, with two-thirds of the Senate, would ratify a treaty in 1796 but President Adams could unilaterally breach one of its provisions in 1797, thus jeopardizing the whole framework.
A potent counterargument to this Note is that changes in international law have undermined the main rationale for a congressional role in treaty withdrawal. Whatever the law of nations was at the Founding, contemporary international law includes a broad prohibition on the use of force—embedded in Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter169—and contemporary jus ad bellum identifies only limited circumstances that can overcome this prohibition.170 Treaty breach is not one of these circumstances; in contemporary international law, a nation may not resort to force in contravention of Article 2(4) if its rights were violated by treaty breach. Likewise, contemporary treaties, unlike those at the Founding, often include withdrawal provisions that establish a legal basis for withdrawal without breach. In light of these changes, one might question this Note’s contemporary application.
The answer to this question depends largely on the extent to which one thinks the Constitution’s prescriptions for domestic law shift as international law does. Some constitutional provisions clearly anticipate changes to international law.171 For example, Congress has the constitutional power to “define and punish . . . Offences against the Law of Nations.”172 There is little doubt that today’s Congress could pass a statute pursuant to these powers that define and punish an act as a violation of the contemporary laws of nations, even if the act did not violate the Founding-era law of nations.173
At the same time, it unclear whether shifts in international law can shift every element of constitutional structure. The Supreme Court’s opinion in Zivotofsky v. Kerry suggests that context clues from Founding-era jus ad bellum remain salient.174 Zivotofsky considered whether Congress had power to compel the executive branch to indicate on the passport of a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem that his birthplace was Israel, in contravention of the executive branch’s longstanding position that no country has sovereignty over Jerusalem.175 The core legal question of the case was whether so-called “recognition powers” (i.e., the powers to recognize a foreign government as the rightful sovereign of a particular territory) are vested exclusively in the executive branch or whether Congress can, through legislation, direct the executive branch to recognize a sovereign. The Court held that Congress cannot recognize a sovereign because recognition power rests exclusively with the executive branch.176 Notwithstanding the fact that “the Constitution does not use the term ‘recognition,’” the Court examined context clues from the Founding-era law of nations, noting that “[a]t the time of the founding . . . prominent international scholars suggested that receiving an ambassador was tantamount to recognizing the sovereignty of the sending state.”177 The Court concluded that, because the Constitution confers on the President the exclusive power to “receive Ambassadors and other public Ministers,” it “is a logical and proper inference, then, that a Clause directing the President alone to receive ambassadors would be understood to acknowledge his power to recognize other nations.”178 The Court’s reasoning here parallels this Note’s analysis that contextual clues from Founding-era jus ad bellum and the War Powers Clause lead to an inference that Congress has a role to play in treaty withdrawal.
To be sure, Zivotofsky is not a perfect parallel, as international law may not have shifted as significantly in the recognition context as it has in the jus ad bellum context.179 Zivotofsky did not rest solely on the Court’s inference about the Founding era. The majority also considered historical practices and the current state of international law.180 Indeed, Justice Thomas’s concurrence explicitly noted:
I assume, as the majority does, that the recognition power conferred on the President by the Constitution is the power to accomplish the act of recognition as that act is defined under international law. It is possible, of course, that the Framers had a fixed understanding of the act of recognition that is at odds with the definition of that act under international law. But the majority does not make that argument . . . . Lacking any evidence that the modern practice of recognition deviates in any relevant way from the historical practice, or that the original understanding of the recognition power was something other than the power to take part in that practice, I proceed on the same assumption as the majority.181
It seems likely that the means of recognition need not be “fixed” in Founding-era conceptions; for example, if international law acknowledged a new way for the Executive to recognize a sovereign, it is doubtful that this would pose a constitutional problem. It is unclear, however, how the Court would respond if Congress could unilaterally act under international law to recognize a foreign sovereign or to compel the President to do so. The Zivotofsky majority held that “[t]he text and structure of the Constitution grant the President the power to recognize foreign nations and governments,”182 noting that “[t]he Constitution thus assigns the President means to effect recognition on his own initiative.”183 In contrast, the Court noted, “Congress . . . has no constitutional power that would enable it to initiate diplomatic relations with a foreign nation.”184
If one believes that the Constitution incorporates a dynamic, rather than static, conception of international law, this Note’s argument may have little contemporary relevance. This is a reasonable position and is not obviously inconsistent with Zivotofsky.185 Even one who subscribes to this view, however, will find that this Note offers a distinct and underexplored legal justification for the recent trend in presidential unilateralism. It is worth highlighting again, however, that the practice of presidential unilateralism predates the U.N. Charter, thus preceding Article 2(4)’s change to international jus ad bellum.186
Moreover, Zivotofsky indicates that courts might be somewhat reluctant to accept the view that a shift in international law has altered domestic separation of powers. Jean Galbraith has recently argued that, “while many constitutional actors and commentators today accept international law as a direct principle of constitutional interpretation in certain areas of constitutional law, they do not treat it as similarly relevant to the separation of powers.”187 Indeed, her research suggests that the Zivotofsky Court’s opinion might have conflated constitutional principles with early practices, to the advantage of the Executive.188 Her analysis brings to bear two issues. First, separation of powers is treated as distinct from other constitutional issues in terms of how it is affected by international law, which she laments. This suggests that, unlike other constitutional issues, the Court might be loath to subject separation of powers to shifts in international law. Second, to the extent that Galbraith is correct that the Court has conflated historical practices (rooted in contemporaneous international law) with structural constitutional questions, these practices are from the earliest days of the Republic, which would militate towards a protection of congressional withdrawal power.
One might argue that a role for Congress is warranted only for treaties that bring us closer to war as a practical matter, even if not as a formal legal matter. A Senate Resolution introduced in response to the Goldwater case suggests this view: it “[p]rohibit[ed treaty] termination or suspension by the President without Congressional approval where . . . imminent involvement of the United States Armed Forces in hostilities or other danger to national security would result.”189Whereas this Note is rooted in questions about what U.S. actions would give other nations a legalright to go to war, a skeptic might replace the jus ad bellum analysis with a more functional approach, asking whether U.S. withdrawal could actually bring the United Statescloser to a state of war because of the response of other nations, even if their response contravenes international law.
As an initial matter, even on this view, Congress would be entitled to a greater role in treaty withdrawal for certain important agreements. For example, withdrawal from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START Treaty) limiting nuclear arsenals would likely meet the criterion of sufficiently implicating war and peace.190
However, there is little historical or textual basis for differentiating among treaties as a matter of constitutional law. The D.C. Circuit acknowledged as much in Goldwater (albeit to the benefit of the Executive):
There is no judicially ascertainable and manageable method of making any distinction among treaties on the basis of their substance, the magnitude of the risk involved, the degree of controversy which their termination would engender, or by any other standards.191
Historically, as a legal matter, breach of a peace treaty or commercial treaty alike could lead to war. Breaching the former was tantamount to an affirmative declaration of war; breaching the latter conferred on the counterparty a jus ad bellum right. The Founding-era law of peace treaties sheds light on the legal rejoinder. Recall that the Founders were aware that, at international law, peace treaties were the exclusive means of ending war and, at the Convention, they contemplated that peace treaties would serve as the exclusive domestic legal means of doing so.192 The Founders and their contemporaries would have anticipated that the United States would be party to peace treaties whose breach would be tantamount to declaration of war. Nevertheless, the Constitution does not distinguish between treaties. As the D.C. Circuit noted in Goldwater, “We cannot find an implied role in the Constitution for the Senate in treaty termination for some but not all treaties in terms of their relative importance.”193Indeed, scholars on both sides of the withdrawal debate have suggested that the Constitution’s text and structure do not create formal distinctions among types of treaties.194
A letter from Madison to Edmund Pendleton provides the strongest evidence in favor of distinguishing between treaties. Writing about adverse treaty breach (in other words, instances in which the United States was victimized by breach), Madison pondered which branch of government would be empowered to make the determination that the United States had suffered such breach:
In case it should be advisable to take advantage of the adverse breach, a question may perhaps be started, whether the power vested by the Constitution with respect to Treaties in the President and Senate makes them competent Judges, or whether, as the Treaty is a law, the whole Legislature are to judge of its annulment, or whether, in case the President and Senate be competent in ordinary Treaties, the Legislative authority be requisite to annul a Treaty of peace, as being equivalent to a Declaration of war, to which that authority alone, by our Constitution, is competent.195
Notably, Madison did not consider the possibility that the President alone would be positioned to announce an adverse breach (in an early Court case, Justice James Iredell indicated Congress alone had the power to do so196).
More importantly for purposes of the question of distinguishing among treaties, the issue in Madison’s letter is qualitatively different from that of distinguishing among treaties for purposes of withdrawal. Under Founding-era jus ad bellum, once the United States suffered a breach by its counterparty, it would be legally entitled to take action. But it would not be compelled to do so. At the same time, were the United States to breach, the counterparty could legally declare war. As a result, it makes sense to distinguish among treaties when the United States is deciding how to respond to breach (for example, whether to annul a peace treaty, thus causing war, a subject for the full Congress, or whether to annul a commercial treaty, which would not necessarily lead to war unless the United States chose to take that step). If the concern is potential war and its interplay with congressional war powers, it makes significantly less sense under the Founding-era legal framework to distinguish among treaties when deciding whether to withdraw if that withdrawal would confer a legal right on the counterparty regardless of the content of the breached treaty. As a practical matter, it is not clear how easy it would have been to predict which treaty withdrawals would lead to war and which would not. The United States itself went to war with Mexico in 1846 at least partially because of violations of a treaty regarding settlement of debt.197 Additionally, many Founding-era commercial agreements with other nations were tied to peace agreements.198
Some commentators have argued for a functional distinction. Louis Henkin, while acknowledging that the Constitution does not distinguish between treaties with regard to formal processes,199 suggested that the Constitution might require greater consultation with Congress if a proposed withdrawal “seriously . . . implicate[d] our defense posture or otherwise br[ought] us close to war, since that would undercut the constitutional power of Congress to decide for war or peace.”200 Founding-era treaties often included promises of both peace and commerce,201 which might explain the lack of constitutional distinction. Today, the ability to distinguish treaties seems more straightforward, but, from a practical perspective, it is not clear that such a distinction is always workable. Some treaties, such as tax agreements, are extremely unlikely to lead to implicate war and peace. Others, like the New START Treaty, seem to implicate it more clearly.202 Between these ends of the spectrum, however, there is a murky middle. The treaty withdrawal that led to the Kucinich litigation reflects the difficulty of distinguishing between treaties that create the risk of war and treaties that do not. In withdrawing from the treaty, President Bush suggested that the move would make America less likely to go to war, because the “ABM treaty hinder[ed] our government’s ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue state missile attacks. . . . [and the] treaty . . . prevent[ed] us from developing effective defenses.”203 Several experts disagreed, suggesting that the move would aggravate relations with Russia and China and spell a body blow for the global nuclear nonproliferation movement.204 Indeed, Russia, the United States’ counterparty, suggested it would aggravate a nuclear arms race.205
The ABM Treaty withdrawal demonstrates that anticipating which treaty withdrawals might bring the United States closer to war is a difficult exercise, especially in a global order in which the United States plays a primary role in international coalitions to deal with myriad problems. What President Bush viewed as a measure that might keep the United States out of war by preventing attacks, others viewed as likely to bring the United States closer to a state of war. Had the United States’ withdrawal from the ABM Treaty increased the likelihood of a nonstate actor or rogue nation acquiring a nuclear weapon, it seems as likely as not that the United States would have seriously considered being a part of an international military coalition to address the crisis. In such a situation, if recent history is a guide, the President might act without explicit congressional authorization, leaving Congress out of the picture entirely. Even if Congress were given the chance to vote, it would be acting in a crisis that might force its hand, rather than being given the opportunity to weigh the potential of such a crisis before the initial treaty withdrawal.
The proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) offers a concrete example of an international agreement that ostensibly does not implicate defense, but from which withdrawal could conceivably lead to U.S. military engagement. Several Asian countries have suggested that the TPP signals a U.S. “counterweight to China’s efforts to expand its influence not just in trade but in other areas, including its island-building in the disputed South China Sea.”206 As one commentator has suggested, “the TPP is not just about economics . . . it has the potential to be a pillar of American grand strategy in the Asia-Pacific for decades to come.”207 Imagine a scenario in which President Obama can convince Congress to approve the TPP but is then replaced by a presidential candidate who has signaled his or her disapproval of the TPP. Unilateral presidential withdrawal from the TPP might embolden China or weaken U.S. allies in the region, making issues such as disputed South China Sea islands more likely to lead to a conflict that entangles the United States. This situation is further complicated by the fact that the United States is committed to mutual defense treaties with fifty-four nations, meaning that it has a legal obligation to assist these nations should they be attacked.208 Nations involved in the South China Sea dispute are among those with which the United States has mutual defense treaties.209
I do not mean to suggest that, if the United States were to accede to and later withdraw from the TPP, it would go to war the next day. The upshot is simply that, in an interdependent world in which the United States plays a primary role in many international uses of force, it is difficult to determine ex antewhether treaty withdrawal will functionally make it more likely for the United States to go to war. Notwithstanding platonic ideals on each end, the line between a treaty implicating war and peace and a treaty not implicating war and peace may often be difficult to identify.
This is aggravated by a classic “first-mover advantage” dynamic. If there is disagreement between the executive and legislative branches about whether withdrawal from a particular treaty implicates questions of war and peace (with Congress arguing that it does and the President arguing that it does not), the President has the first-mover advantage and can elect to withdraw from the treaty, forcing Congress to file suit to vindicate its position.210 Courts are especially ill-positioned to make such a determination, which implicates subtle questions of geopolitics, and might be especially loath to do so if the President has already taken steps to withdraw.211
In practice, courts are poorly equipped to apply Henkin’s murky distinction. To the extent that one takes seriously this Note’s historical insights, but espouses the notion that Congress ought to have a say in withdrawal from treaties that implicate functional, if not legal, questions of war and peace, there is a strong argument for a bright-line rule that all treaty withdrawals must be subject to congressional vote.
The foregoing analysis raises the question of what congressional involvement in treaty withdrawal should look like. There are several plausible options, including a two-thirds vote of the Senate, a simple Senate majority vote, or the involvement of both houses of Congress. Because of the relationship between war powers and treaty withdrawal, this Note argues that a simple majority of each House should be required, mirroring the war declaration process. As this section discusses, adhering to such a procedure would also have certain prudential advantages.
An approach that mirrored treaty accession would suggest that only the Senate must be involved in treaty withdrawal. A treaty takes effect following a two-thirds vote of the Senate, so why not require a two-thirds vote of the Senate to terminate? This would parallel the principle that congressionally enacted legislation requires an equivalent congressional vote for repeal.212 A strict adherence to this mirroring principle would suggest a two-thirds Senate vote is required to withdraw from a treaty because a two-thirds Senate vote is required to enter a treaty.213
Requiring a two-thirds vote of the Senate would also protect a healthy respect for the states and federalism by ensuring that a large majority of the states’ representatives in the Senate would have a say. In establishing the two-thirds vote for treaty accession, the Framers wanted to ensure that any treaty would have to clear a high threshold, due to concerns about the potential impact of treaties on certain groups of states (for example, a trade treaty that might negatively impact Southern economic interests).214 By creating a high threshold, the Treaty Clause anticipated that if a potential accord would negatively impact over one-third of the states, the federal government could not accede to it. A similar principle might apply to treaty withdrawal. One can imagine a situation in which the United States is party to a treaty with strong benefits to a grouping of just over one-third of states, with the corollary consequence of withdrawal being negative economic impact on those states; a system that required a two-thirds Senate vote to withdraw from the treaty would protect the economic interests of that grouping of states.
To be sure, a system that included the Senate could also operate through simple majority voting. A simple majority vote system to withdraw from treaties might be viewed as more democratic. Indeed, if one views entry into a treaty as an aberration from the status quo,there may be a normative difference between situations where representatives of more than one-third of the states are skeptical of entry into a treaty (leaving the status quo) and situations where one-third can block withdrawal from a treaty (returning to the status quo).215 Moreover, a simple majority vote of the Senate would reflect the principle that it should be easier to disentangle the nation from foreign alliances than to entangle it.
While both of these options have some merit, this Note’s analysis of jus ad bellum and congressional war powers suggests that the House of Representatives should have a role in deciding whether or not to terminate treaties, alongside a simple majority of the Senate. The Framers anticipated that both houses of Congress would vote to take the country to war by simple majority vote. War authorization specifically included the House of Representatives precisely because it was the more democratically accountable branch of government. Henkin acknowledges this point when he speculates that we might treat differently some treaties that might have the practical effect of causing war.216 The House was originally the only directly elected body, and each of its Members faces frequent reelection and represents relatively few people when compared to the Senate or President.217 Similarly, the practice regarding recognition during the Spanish-American wars of independence and Texas’s Revolution emphasized that the full Congress should vote on matters that might lead to war. To the extent that one is convinced that the original understanding of treaty withdrawal implicated congressional war powers, the necessary conclusion is that the President may only terminate a treaty with the approval of both houses of Congress. Relatedly, going to war without the consent of the House would be democratically deficient; a similar argument might be made for treaty withdrawal. Whatever the normative underpinnings of the war-declaration framework, the legal consequences of this Note’s argument seem apparent: if congressional withdrawal power is properly understood to be, as an originalist matter, tied to war powers, then each House should have a simple majority vote. Requiring a simple majority of the Senate (as opposed to two-thirds) comports with this understanding. Moreover, it might strike a happy medium between making foreign disentanglements too difficult and making them too easy. Senator Goldwater noted the problems of making disentanglement too easy when criticizing unilateral withdrawal in 1978: he argued that unilateral withdrawal means that no treaty counterparty “can be assured that [a treaty] will last any longer than the whim of the single person who happens to sit in the Oval Office at any given moment of history.”218
Beyond the legal argument for involving a simple majority of each House, this approach yields some prudential benefits. Such a procedure would help harmonize treaties and congressional-executive agreements. To be sure, there would still be significant dissonance between the two forms of international lawmaking, since the former requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate and the latter requires a majority vote of the full Congress. Nevertheless, an inability to harmonize the process through which international agreements are made does not devalue parity among the processes through which they are unmade. While the law surrounding withdrawal from such congressional-executive agreements is far from settled, Oona Hathaway notes the basic principle that “[t]he President is not able to terminate a statute unilaterally, and hence cannot terminate the statutory enactment that gives rise to a congressional-executive agreement.”219
Moreover, involving the House would also create parity within Article II treaties due to the self-execution doctrine. In short, the self-execution doctrine has created a system in which some Article II treaties (non-self-executing) require Congress to pass implementing legislation through ordinary processes, while others (self-executing) take legal effect immediately upon ratification.220 This bifurcated system means that a President can unilaterally obviate the domestic legal consequences of a self-executing Article II treaty through unilateral withdrawal; in contrast, once implementing legislation is passed, both houses of Congress must vote to repeal the legislation to repeal the legal effects of a non-self-executing treaty.
Such parity has important value. Relative to other countries, the United States has one of the more complicated domestic legal frameworks for entering international agreements. In this regard, parity in withdrawal procedures might clarify the process and allay potential concerns of its counterparties.
On the domestic front, parity would remove a potential disincentive for a President to pursue an Article II treaty. Consider a situation in which a President is equally confident in his ability to pass ordinary legislation pursuant to a congressional-executive agreement and in his ability to get the approval of two-thirds of the Senate to approve an Article II treaty. As the law currently stands, he is disincentivized from pursuing the latter option, because his successor can simply unilaterally withdraw from the Article II treaty. By contrast, ushering through the international accord as a congressional-executive agreement will functionally require his successor to involve Congress in any withdrawal process. If he were concerned about what his successor might do, why, then, would he choose an Article II treaty? This is not too farfetched a concern. Consider, again, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which President Obama is pursuing as a congressional-executive agreement and which has drawn criticism from candidates who seek to succeed President Obama.221 Consider, hypothetically, a situation in which President Obama could give the TPP domestic legal effect as either a congressional-executive agreement or an Article II treaty. Under the current regime, it would be potentially destructive to his agenda to pursue the latter rather than the former, as a future President could simply withdraw from the accord, congressional opinion notwithstanding. The historical example of President Bush’s unilateral withdrawal from the ABM Treaty further illustrates the point. Had President Nixon pursued the accord as a congressional-executive agreement, Congress would have had to vote to repeal the statute that gave rise to the ABM Treaty for withdrawal to have domestic legal effect. It is unlikely that President Bush would have had the votes to proceed.222 To the extent that one believes that the majority of international agreements should be conducted through the constitutionally specified Article II process, one might want to remove this disincentive for the President to pursue this process.223
The Constitution’s text and the Supreme Court’s precedents have left a crucial question of foreign relations law to the political branches. Consequently, the executive branch usually has the ability to outmuscle the legislature. Yet the legal debate about the proper role of Congress in these procedures remains unsettled. This Note argues that the original understanding of the relationship between treaty withdrawal and jus ad bellum militates in favor of a stronger role for the people’s representatives in Congress.
Although the debate over treaty withdrawal has been robust—implicating everything from original understanding to constitutional structure to historical practice—the debate thus far has largely overlooked a crucial point about original intent and understanding. As this Note has shown, the Founders’ deep understanding of the law of nations likely means that they anticipated congressional involvement in treaty withdrawal. Treaty withdrawal was tantamount to treaty breach, and treaty breach was perhaps the preeminent cause of just war under Founding-era jus ad bellum. Given the Founders’ jealous guarding of congressional war powers, it seems likely that they anticipated that treaty withdrawal—an act that so intimately implicated war—would involve Congress. An originalist analysis of congressional war powers and jus ad bellum lends significant support to the argument for restoring Congress’s role in this important domain of foreign affairs.