By: Stephanie Pillion, Columnist
Photo Credit: BBC
Within the first seven months of his term in office, President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from three critical international agreements: the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the Paris Climate Accord, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The TPP, Paris Climate Accord, and JCPOA are all multilateral treaties and agreements that took years of negotiating to achieve. Multilateral treaties and agreements involve working with nations that have complex, myriad interests. However, once consensus is reached, they are viewed as more legitimate than a unilateral action because multiple countries are supporting it and have a stake in the outcome. If President Trump continues to pull the United States out of multilateral agreements, it will decrease current and future U.S. credibility to uphold international commitments and adversely influence the ability of the U.S. to work with partners across the globe.
U.S. dependence on executive agreements instead of treaties is the root of this problem, and without serious change from Congress, the credibility problem will persist.
The details of these three agreements demonstrate their multinational nature, and emphasize the intricacy of the negotiations. The TPP was a trade agreement intended to decrease barriers to economic cooperation among the 12 signatory nations. The US objective in pursuing the agreement was to further integrate the United States within the Asia-Pacific region, and provide an economic shield against rising Chinese influence. In total, the TPP would have included about 40 percent of the global economy.[i] The Paris Climate Accord is an international effort to limit the effects of global warming.[ii] As of today, 165 nations at have ratified this accord.[iii] State signatories have agreed to reduce their emission levels, increase local and national accountability and transparency surrounding climate change efforts, and adapt methods to help mitigate climate change effects.[iv] The JCPOA is an agreement between the United States, China, France, Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and the European Union with Iran that limits the ability of the Iranian nuclear program to enrich and produce stockpiles of uranium.[v]
There are two ways that the United States can legally enter into an international agreement. The first is through a treaty, which requires two-thirds of the Senate to ratify and the president to sign before it becomes law. The second is through an executive agreement, which does not require senate ratification.[vi] Although executive agreements are not codified in the Constitution, the Supreme Court has upheld the legality of executive agreements in the courts.[vii]
The TPP, Paris Climate Accord, and JCPOA are executive agreements. Congress gave former President Obama fast-track authority to negotiate the specifics of the TPP with the participating nations, which prevented the Senate from modifying the final treaty with amendments before ratification.[viii] When President Obama left office, this ratification had not yet happened, and President Trump was able to use his executive authority to remove the United States from this deal. By contrast, the Paris Climate Accord is a voluntary, non-binding agreement. Each country sets its own standards for domestic climate change initiatives and targets.[ix] Lastly, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved the JCPOA in July 2015.[x] Upon approval, the US Congress passed a law requiring the president to “re-certify” the agreement every 90 days to ensure Iran was in compliance. In decertifying the Iran deal, President Trump intends to push Congress to create a set of conditions that would “trigger” the United States into re-imposing economic sanctions on Iran if its conduct becomes dangerous.[xi]
Because these agreements are executive in nature, President Trump has the legal authority to withdraw the United States from them if he believes they are anathema to the country’s interests. President Trump cited economic harm to US industry and workers in his decisions to withdraw from the TPP and the Paris Climate Accord. The president’s decision not to re-certify the JCPOA stemmed from concerns that the agreement did not do enough to address other dangerous Iranian behaviors, such as Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missile program.[xii]
Withdrawing from these agreements damages US credibility on the international stage. President Trump’s actions indicate that the United States prioritizes unilateral actions over multilateral agreements. This adversely affects the willingness of other nations to work with the United States on deals or treaties because there is uncertainty over whether the United States is invested in and will honor the terms of multilateral agreements. Moreover, if executive agreements between the United States and other nations unravel with each new presidential administration, nations will be even less willing to enter into such arrangements because they will be unsure if the agreements will be sustainable policy.
Although President Trump’s actions relating to the Paris Climate Accord, JCPOA, and TPP are decreasing US credibility internationally, part of the credibility problem lies with US reliance on executive agreements instead of treaties.
The affect of US credibility weakening abroad is demonstrated in Trump’s decision to withdraw from the TPP. According to a Brookings Institution analysis, “removing the U.S. from the TPP increases uncertainty among U.S. allies about the reliability of the U.S. across a range of foreign and economic matters, and marks the first time the U.S. has withdrawn from an agreement it championed.”[xiii] Furthermore, after the withdrawal of the United States from the TPP, China proposed a similar trade deal with ten countries in the region, called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.[xiv] This trade deal will limit the US ability to have an economic influence in the region.
President Trump’s aversion to multilateral trade agreements decreases US credibility internationally. However, US reliance on executive agreements instead of treaties is the reason why President Trump is able to withdraw from these agreements.
Because treaties require a Senate majority to pass, executive agreements are more often used as instruments of policy.[xv] According to State Department estimates, “over 18,500 executive agreements have been concluded by the United States since 1789 (more than 17,300 of which were concluded since 1939), compared to roughly 1,100 treaties that have been ratified by the United States.”[xvi]
Demonstrating US credibility and a strong commitment to multinational cooperation is essential to ensure US national security objectives and interests. A first step toward regaining this credibility is for the Senate to ratify more treaties. Increased ratification will guarantee the continuity and commitment of multilateral agreements from one administration to the next.
With a divided and partisan legislative branch, ratifying treaties will be difficult. The most recent treaty passed in Congress was seven years ago, in 2010, when the New Start arms control agreement with Russia passed with a slim majority.[xvii] However, with US global credibility declining, the most sustainable solution to regain it must address the root of the problem: US reliance on executive agreements instead of treaties.
[i] Baker, Peter. “Trump Abandons Trans-Pacific Partnership, Obama’s Signature Trade Deal.” The New York Times. January 23, 2017. Accessed November 02, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/23/us/politics/tpp-trump-trade-nafta.html.
[ii] “Paris Agreement.” Climate Action – European Commission. February 16, 2017. Accessed November 02, 2017. https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/international/negotiations/paris_en.
[iv] “Paris Agreement.” Climate Action – European Commission. February 16, 2017. Accessed November 02, 2017. https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/international/negotiations/paris_en.
[v] “The Impact of the Iran Nuclear Agreement.” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed November 03, 2017. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/impact-iran-nuclear-agreement.
[viii] Lewis, Paul. “Barack Obama given ‘fast-track’ authority over trade deal negotiations.” The Guardian. June 24, 2015. Accessed November 02, 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jun/24/barack-obama-fast-track-trade-deal-tpp-senate.
[ix] “Paris Agreement: What to Know About the Climate Deal.” Time. Accessed November 03, 2017. http://time.com/4801344/paris-agreement-climate-deal-donald-trump/.
[x] “Security council, SC, UNSC, security, peace, sanctions, veto, resolution, president, united nations, UN, peacekeeping, peacebuilding, conflict resolution, prevention.” United Nations. Accessed November 03, 2017. http://www.un.org/en/sc/2231/.
[xi] Mark Landler And David E. Sanger. “Trump Disavows Nuclear Deal, but Doesn’t Scrap It.” The New York Times. October 13, 2017. Accessed November 02, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/13/us/politics/trump-iran-nuclear-deal.html.
[xiii] Solís, Mireya. “Trump withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.” Brookings. May 10, 2017. Accessed November 02, 2017. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/unpacked/2017/03/24/trump-withdrawing-from-the-trans-pacific-partnership/.
[xiv] Baker, Peter. “Trump Abandons Trans-Pacific Partnership, Obama’s Signature Trade Deal.” The New York Times. January 23, 2017. Accessed November 02, 2017. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/23/us/politics/tpp-trump-trade-nafta.html.
[xv]Keating, Joshua. “The Iran Deal Is Great. It Also Sets a Dangerous Precedent for Expanded Executive Power.” Slate Magazine. September 11, 2015. Accessed November 02, 2017. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/09/11/iran_deal_and_executive_power_a_dangerous_precedent.html.
[xvii]Keating, Joshua. “The Iran Deal Is Great. It Also Sets a Dangerous Precedent for Expanded Executive Power.” Slate Magazine. September 11, 2015. Accessed November 02, 2017. http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/09/11/iran_deal_and_executive_power_a_dangerous_precedent.html.