The Case Against Congressional Meddling in Diplomacy

The U.S. already has a problem honoring its international agreements. This would create one more obstacle to concluding those agreements in the first place.

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Kori Schake wants Congress to take more responsibility in foreign policy, but this proposal would effectively block almost all diplomatic agreements and make it practically impossible for the US to negotiate with almost anyone:

Agreements with foreign powers, whether states, international institutions or organizations like the Taliban, should be submitted to Congress for a vote. The best way to prevent catastrophic foreign policy mistakes is to require the 535 representatives of the American people to put their jobs on the line, become informed, and support, reject or modify a president’s program. Congress tried to slow or block Mr. Trump’s planned drawdown of US forces. Members who supported the Taliban deal should be explaining why they thought the outcome would be different than the tragedy unfolding in Afghanistan now. Apathy and unaccountability are the real enemies of good foreign policy. Presidents get around oversight by offering unilateral policy actions or claiming international agreements aren’t formal treaties. Congress shouldn’t let a president from either party get away with that.

Schake uses the Doha agreement with the Taliban as an example of why Congress should be involved in approving every agreement, but this is the wrong solution. She claims that this “gets at the heart of separation of powers,” but her call to constrain the president’s ability to conclude diplomatic agreements is an attack on that separation by letting Congress have the ability to block all executive agreements. The executive is entrusted with carrying out US diplomacy, and Schake’s proposal would permit Congressional meddling in that diplomacy to such a degree that US negotiators would be unable to make commitments that the other parties would believe. The US already has a problem honoring its international agreements. This would create one more obstacle to concluding those agreements in the first place. If this requirement were in place, it would give other governments one more reason to doubt that the US can deliver on its promises. The US could never credibly promise to lift sanctions, because there would always be a majority opposed to granting that relief.

The effect of this requirement would not be to encourage members of Congress to “become informed” and behave responsibly. It would inevitably give the most fanatical hawks an opportunity to demagogue every agreement that was even slightly controversial. If Congress and the White House were controlled by different parties, it is all but certain that almost every agreement that the president sent up for approval would be dead on arrival. The only ones that might gain sufficient support would be so anodyne that Congressional involvement would be redundant. That would effectively give a president two years at most to negotiate and conclude any agreements, and in some cases it would mean that the president would be as stymied in conducting diplomacy as he would be on the domestic front.

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.