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US Diplomacy and National Security

So It’s Settled: The President Can Violate Customary International Law

by Julian Ku

There is a lot of interesting material revealed in the Charlie Savage NYTimes article on the legal justification for the Bin Laden raid (including how the Attorney General and Office of Legal Counsel were kept in the dark and out of the loop).  But I want to focus on one paragraph in the article, which explained the lawyers’ backup justification for their conclusion:

There was also a trump card. While the lawyers believed that Mr. Obama was bound to obey domestic law, they also believed he could decide to violate international law when authorizing a “covert” action, officials said.

Deborah has done some very good analysis here on the CIA’s views on this question, as applied to non-self-executing treaties. I think that is a tricky question. But there is also an easier question that was also probably settled in the lawyers’ legal memos.  Like the Bush administration lawyers, the Obama Administration lawyers concluded that the President can choose to violate that customary international law without violating the Constitution or other domestic law.

Although this may seem obvious, it used to be a highly contested question.  I dug up this discussion from a 1986 panel between leading international law scholars Louis Henkin, Anthony D’Amato, Michael Glennon, Abe Chayes and others.  Almost none (even President Reagan’s legal adviser Abe Chayes) would have openly admitted that the President could violate customary international law. The Restatement of U.S. Foreign Relations Law suggests, but does not completely endorse the view that the President can openly violate customary international law.  Indeed, there used to be a fair number of law review articles explaining why the President’s obligation to “Take Care” that the laws are faithfully executed include customary international law. But, if Savage’s reporting is accurate, the U.S. government (under both George Bush and Barack Obama) is no longer troubled by this question, and has moved on. So should the rest of us, apparently.

China’s Weak Legal Basis for Criticizing the US Navy’s Freedom of Navigation Operations in the South China Sea

by Julian Ku

The US Navy executed a much anticipated “freedom of navigation operation” (FONOP) today within 12 nautical miles of Subi reef, the site of one of China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea.   Predictably, China has reacted sharply to this operation by sending two Chinese destroyers to shadow the U.S. ship and planes, summoning the U.S. ambassador, and issuing angry public statements (see below).  Although it is not the main focus of their complaints, the Chinese have repeatedly described the U.S. operation as “illegal” thus highlighting the legal conflict underlying this naval showdown.

The most detailed official reaction was presented by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Lu Kang.

The USS Lassen illegally entered waters near relevant islands and reefs of China’s Nansha Islands without the permission of the Chinese government on October 27. Relevant authorities of the Chinese side monitored, followed and warned the US vessel. Relevant actions by the US naval vessel threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests, put the personnel and facilities on the islands and reefs at risk and endangered regional peace and stability. The Chinese side hereby expresses strong dissatisfaction and opposition.

It is unclear exactly how the U.S. ship put personnel on the islands and reefs at risk, but in any event, the spokesperson went on to assure the world that China has, and always will, respect the freedom of navigation consistent with international law.

China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui echoed these remarks, although this statement focused more on China’s “indisputable sovereignty” than on the legality of the U.S. actions.  China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi simply warned the U.S. against “stirring up trouble.” Perhaps more seriously, China’s Defense Ministry spokesperson called the U.S. action an “abuse” of the principle of “freedom of navigation under international law” that would cause “harm” to bilateral trust and relations.

As I suggested in a previous post, the US and China might have chosen to downplay this incident by treating the U.S. naval visit as an “innocent passage” through China’s territorial seas.  But China believes even innocent passage requires its permission, and the U.S. Navy made sure that its destroyer was accompanied by naval surveillance aircraft. The inclusion of the aircraft makes it clear that the U.S. is not trying to claim an “innocent passage.” Rather, the U.S. is stating (through its actions) that it does not believe Subi reef (where the Chinese have added an artificial island) is a rock or island generating a territorial sea.  Therefore, US naval vessels should be free to conduct any activity they wish in this area.

It is interesting that at least one Chinese media outlet is claiming that there is no real conflict over international law between the two sides.  In this portrayal, China’s actions in building artificial islands is “completely legal” and the U.S. is just trying to flaunt its power by “harassing” China.  China’s legal position appears to be that it is building artificial islands on reefs that are entitled to a 12 nautical mile territorial sea.  Or, as another commentator sympathetic to China’s position has argued, because China claims every land feature in the South China Sea, even if the relevant reef is not entitled to a territorial sea, other nearby land features (also claimed by China) probably generate such rights.

In my view, the U.S. has a much stronger legal position.  Indeed, China is barely offering any serious legal defense other than repeating the words “indisputable sovereignty” repeatedly.  China is not doing itself any favors by calling US actions illegal, but failing to offer any specific criticism or explanation of its own legal position.

On the other hand, perhaps it is China’s interest to downplay the legal aspects of this dispute, and to feed the narrative that the U.S. is “provoking” a confrontation.  To some degree,this is working, as the global and Chinese media are feeding the narrative about a US-China naval showdown and ignoring the niceties of the U.S. legal position.  Indeed, if China raises the stakes by threatening some military response (as it is getting close to doing), it will be hard to convince the world (or the U.S. public) that such a conflict is worthwhile in order to vindicate an abstract legal principle like “freedom of navigation.”

Chase Madar on the Weaponisation of Human Rights

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last week, the inestimable Chase Madar gave a fascinating talk at SOAS entitled “The Weaponisation of Human Rights.” More than 100 people showed up, and I was privileged — along with Heidi Matthews, a British Academy postdoc at SOAS — to respond to Chase’s comments. Here is Chase’s description of the talk:

Human rights, once a rallying cry to free prisoners of conscience and curb government abuses, is now increasingly deployed as a case for war, from Yugoslavia to Iraq, from Libya to Afghanistan. Human rights lawyers in and out of government are weighing in on how wars should be fought: in the United States, the phrase “human rights-based approach to drones” passes without much comment in the legal academy and mainstream media. As the grandees of the human rights movement enter high office throughout North America and Western Europe, what is the effect of this legal doctrine on warfare–and vice versa?Will this blossoming relationship bring about more humanity in warfare? Or is human rights being conscripted into ever more militarized foreign policy?

SOAS has now made the video of the event available on YouTube; you can watch it below:



The video contains Chase’s talk, along with my response and Heidi’s response. We apologize for the middle section, where the lighting is bad; I don’t know why that happened. But the audio is excellent throughout.

Please watch!

Why “Following International Law” Won’t Necessary Solve the South China Sea Conflict Over Freedom of Navigation

by Julian Ku

As Chris notes below, it seems like there will be a showdown soon between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea over the right of freedom of navigation set out in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and customary international law. It is tempting to see this as a problem of one side ignoring international law, and the other trying to uphold it.  But the U.S. and China have a fundamentally different understanding of what international law requires and allows under the principle of “freedom of navigation”. So getting all sides  to “follow” international law is not necessarily going to solve the dispute here.

The U.S. definition of freedom of navigation means all ships (including warships) are allowed to traverse both the 200 nm exclusive economic zones (EEZ) and the 12 nm territorial seas without obtaining the permission of the coastal state.  In the 200 nm EEZ, the U.S. believes that military ships may conduct any activity, including surveillance of the coastal state (e.g. “spying”).  Within 12 nm, the U.S. believes military ships must abide by the rules of “innocent passage” which precludes any overt military-related activity.

The Chinese definition of freedom of navigation is quite different.  Essentially, the Chinese argue that military ships should have to follow rules of innocent passage even in the 200 nm EEZ, and that military ships must get permission to enter the 12 nm territorial sea, even if those ships are planning to make an innocent passage.

Why does this difference in the definition of freedom of navigation matter?  Because it allows both sides to say that they are abiding by the rules for freedom of navigation set forth in UNCLOS, while disagreeing dramatically on what each side is allowed to do.  From the U.S. perspective, its navy should be allowed to enter the 12 nm territorial seas around China’s “islands” as long as they abide by the rules of innocent passage.  But the Chinese will say that freedom of navigation doesn’t permit this activity.

Most states agree with the U.S. definition of freedom of navigation.  But some states (including neighboring South China Sea coastal states) do agree with the Chinese view on the EEZ (like Malaysia) and others follow the Chinese view on the 12 nm territorial sea (like Vietnam). So although I think the U.S. reading of UNCLOS is the correct one, the Chinese are not alone in their interpretation.  And as this editorial from China’s leading state-run English language paper indicates, the Chinese are going to emphasize this difference in legal interpretations in their response.

Of all foreign military activities in the special economic zones (especially those of China and the U.S.), the innocent passage of warships through territorial seas, have fueled the majority of clashes and disagreements, as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea fails to provide explicit regulations on such activities.

To be sure, the Chinese may be shifting their own views since the Chinese Navy recently entered U.S. territorial seas on an “innocent passage”. But the official Chinese position still would require the U.S. to get permission before entering its 12 nm territorial seas.

One more note:  because several of China’s “artificial islands” are not islands but underwater features like shoals or reefs, the U.S. position ought to be that there is no “innocent passage” requirement for its naval ships even after entering within 12 nm miles.  Because China’s artificial island do not generate a 12 nm territorial sea, the U.S. should make clear it is NOT following the rules of innocent passage.

In any event, although international law is important, it cannot by itself resolve this festering US-China dispute until both sides agree on what international law actually requires.

France Fails to Adopt “Unwilling or Unable” in Syria

by Kevin Jon Heller

Last month, Ashley Deeks claimed that France appeared “to be prepared to invoke the ‘unwilling or unable’ concept in the Syria context.” France did indeed attacks ISIS targets in Syria. And it reported those strikes to the Secretary-General of the UN, claiming self-defence under Art. 51 of the UN Charter as a rationale for violating Syria’s sovereignty. But then something funny happened on the way to the Forum: France did not invoke the “unwilling or unable” theory. Here is its Art. 51 letter:


Looks like the “broad consensus” in favour of “unwilling or unable” now stands at three states — the US, UK, and Australia — not four.

Hat-Tip: Thierry Randretsa, author of the blog Dommages civils.

Defending the FSA Against Russia — the Jus ad Bellum Perspective

by Kevin Jon Heller

It’s been widely reported over the past few days that Russia has been bombing the Free Syrian Army under the pretext of joining the fight against ISIS. That development spurred an interesting post at Lawfare by Bobby Chesney about whether Art. II of the Constitution — the Commander-in-Chief Clause — would permit the US to defend the FSA, which it has been equipping and training. As Bobby points out, rather skeptically I think, the USG seems to believe it would (internal block quote omitted):

[I]t is an interesting legal question, especially in light of recent testimony from Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Wormuth to the effect that Article II could be invoked to permit U.S. forces to defend DOD-trained Syrian forces in the event of an attack on them by Assad regime forces.  Wormuth’s position was repeated by an unnamed “senior administration official” a few days ago.

Given this position, is there any reason to think the answer would be different if we are talking instead about Russian forces attacking those same DOD-trained units?  I see no reason why that would be the case, though the policy stakes obviously are immensely different.  Next, is there anything different if instead we are talking about CIA-trained, rather than DOD-trained, Syrian forces.  Again, I can’t see why this would alter the analysis; under the apparent theory of the Obama administration, the government already possesses whatever legal authority would be needed to use force to prevent Russian jets from striking U.S.-sponsored Syrian units.

I have no doubt Bobby’s right — as I said on Twitter, he has forgotten more about Art. II than I ever knew. I just want to point out that invoking Art. II to defend the FSA against Russia would be more than a little perverse given the status of such an attack under international law — the jus ad bellum, in particular.

Let’s start with Russia. Although its attacks on the FSA might have violated the jus in bello — I certainly wouldn’t be surprised — they did not violate the UN Charter’s prohibition on the use of force with regard to Syria, because they were conducted with the Syrian government’s consent. Nor is there any plausible argument for viewing the Russian actions as an armed attack on the US — whatever the Art. II argument about the US’s “national interest” (see this skeptical Jack Goldsmith post), an attack on the FSA is not a use of force against the US’s “territorial integrity or political independence.”

What this means, of course, is that the US could not invoke self-defense under Art. 51 to justify using force against Russia to defend the FSA — say, by destroying a Russian bomber. Not only would such a use of force create an international armed conflict between the US and Russia, it would itself qualify as an armed attack under Art. 2(4), thereby permitting Russia to use force against the US in self-defense. Russia would simply be responding to an unlawful act of aggression by the US.

(To be sure, the same analysis would apply to any US use of force against Syria in defense of the FSA. But it would obviously be a much bigger deal for the US to commit an aggressive act against a major Western power — one that is also a permanent member of the Security Council.)

Again, I have no idea how these jus ad bellum considerations affect the Art. II analysis. Knowing the US, the fact that attacking Russia would qualify as an unlawful act of aggression might be irrelevant. The optics of using Art. II to justify such an attack would nevertheless be deeply troubling, to say the least.

The U.S. Embargo on Cuba May Be a Bad Idea, But It Doesn’t Violate the UN Charter

by Julian Ku

The UN General Assembly is set to vote once again (for the 24th consecutive year) on a Cuba-sponsored resolution condemning the United States’ economic, commercial, and financial embargo against Cuba.  This resolution will probably get near majority support, and perhaps even unanimous support.  Indeed, there are rumors that the U.S. government itself may abstain from voting against the resolution, which is certainly odd and perhaps unprecedented.  Cuban President Raul Castro’s speech at the UN reiterated his demand that the U.S. end its embargo and sanctions on Cuba.

I don’t want to get into the merits of whether the U.S. should have an embargo on Cuba here, but I am baffled by the implication that the embargo violates international law.  The GA resolution doesn’t quite condemn the US embargo as illegal, but it comes close.  From last year‘s resolution:

2. Reiterates its call upon all States to refrain from promulgating and applying laws and measures of the kind referred to in the preamble to the present resolution, in conformity with their obligations under the Charter of the United Nations and international law, which, inter alia, reaffirm the freedom of trade and navigation;

Now Cuba has long called the U.S. embargo a “blockade”, which would be illegal under international law.  But despite some economic penalties on third-party countries trading with Cuba (largely never applied and always suspended), the U.S. does not actually prevent, militarily or otherwise, other countries from trading with Cuba.

I am heartened to see that the GA thinks the UN Charter reaffirms the freedom of trade and navigation, but I am not aware of any authority for the proposition that a country’s choice not to trade with another country is a violation of the Charter’s non-existent textual references to the freedom of trade and navigation.

Here’s the problem with U.S. (and other nations’) acquiescence with the Cuba resolution’s language.  It strongly suggests that a country cannot impose a unilateral embargo on another country without somehow violating its UN Charter obligations.  This can’t possibly be something the EU or Canada can or should sign onto as a matter of principle.  And it is even odder for the U.S. administration to agree to this idea, when its main policy for dealing with foreign aggression (e.g. Russia in Ukraine) is the unilateral imposition of sanctions.

So I think it would be perfectly appropriate (and indeed necessary) for the U.S. and other countries that impose unilateral sanctions to oppose this resolution on principle.  They won’t of course, but they should.

That “Broad Consensus” for Unwilling/Unable Just Got Less Broad

by Kevin Jon Heller

A few days ago, I pointed out that Kate Martin’s “broad consensus that there is a right to use military force in self-defense when the host country is unable or unwilling to stop the attack” actually includes no more than four of the world’s 194 states. That consensus is not exactly broad — and it looks even shakier now that Russia has apparently rejected the “unwilling or unable” test in the context of Syria:

On Saturday, France launched a campaign of airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria. Commenting on the effort, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova pondered what kind of conception of ‘self-defense’ would drive one country to carry out an operation to bomb another without that country’s explicit permission.

Earlier, Prime Minister Manuel Valls was cited by French media as saying that Paris’s bombing campaign constitutes self-defense. “We are acting in self-defense,” Valls noted, according to Reuters.

In a post on her Facebook page, Zakharova pondered that “it would be nice to know more about this concept of self-defense, in the form of air strikes [on the territory of Syria,] a state which did not attack anyone, and without its consent, and about this concept’s compliance with international law.”

The spokeswoman referred to the fact that in its air campaign against ISIL, the Western coalition never once found the need to consult with Syria’s legitimate government, and on the contrary, has repeatedly declared that the elected government of Bashar Assad cannot be part of Syria’s future.Zakharova noted that she found it entertaining that “the referendum in Crimea is called an annexation, but air strikes conducted without the approval of the Security Council or of the receiving side is self-defense.”

The spokeswoman emphasized that while “it’s clear that the Islamic State is a threat to the entire world,” first two questions must be answered: “First, who was it that created ISIL? And second, on what basis are you acting on the territory of a sovereign state, bypassing a legitimate government which not only does not support, but is selflessly fighting against ISIL?”

Zakharova concluded that “this is not international law; this is its abolition in front of a shocked international community.”

If I was being picky, I would acknowledge that Zakharova did not specifically reject “unwilling or unable.” Her emphasis on the requirement of Syria’s consent nevertheless implicitly rejects “unwilling or unable” far more clearly than the statements by various governments that supposedly — according to Ashley Deeks — support the test. So it is more than fair to count Russia in the anti-“unwilling or unable” camp.

If you’re keeping score at home, that makes it: at most four states that support “unwilling or unable”; at least one state that rejects it.

And yet scholars claim that there is a “broad consensus” in favour of the test. Thus does method die not with a bang, but a whimper.

Why It’s Counterproductive to Discuss an MH17 Tribunal

by Kevin Jon Heller

States whose nationals died in the attack on MH17 were understandably upset when Russia vetoed a Security Council resolution that would have created an ad hoc tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the attack. Their idea to create a treaty-based court, however, is simply not helpful:

Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop, will meet with her counterparts from Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine on Tuesday during the annual United Nations general assembly meeting.

One of the proposals is for a tribunal similar to that established to prosecute Libyan suspects over the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over Scotland.

Nations that lost some of the 298 passengers and crew in the MalaysiaAirlines disaster over eastern Ukraine in July 2014 are also looking at launching separate prosecutions.

A report by the Dutch led-investigation team, set to be published on 13 October, is understood to include evidence the plane was brought down by a Russian-made Buk missile fired from separatist territory in eastern Ukraine.

Russia has denied any involvement but in July used its veto power at the UN to block a resolution that would have formed a tribunal to bring the perpetrators to justice.

There is no question the victim states could create a tribunal via treaty — they would simply be delegating their passive-personality jurisdiction to the tribunal. The ICC is based on similar pooling of jurisdiction.

But what would creating such a tribunal accomplish? A treaty-based tribunal might have some ability to investigate the attack, given that MH17 was flying over non-Crimea Ukraine when it was shot down. But how would it get its hands on potential defendants? Pro-Russian separatists are almost certainly responsible for the attack, which means that the suspects are likely to be either in Russia-annexed Crimea or in Russia proper. Either way, the tribunal would have to convince Russia to surrender potential defendants to it — and Russia would have no legal obligation to do so as a non-signatory to the treaty creating the tribunal. That’s the primary difference between a treaty-based tribunal and a tribunal created by the Security Council: the latter could at least impose a cooperation obligation on Russia and sanction it for non-compliance. The tribunal being contemplated by the victim states could do no more than say “pretty please.” And we know how that request would turn out.

There is also, of course, that little issue of the ICC. Earlier this month, Ukraine filed a second Art. 12(3) declaration with the Court, this one giving the Court jurisdiction over all crimes committed on Ukrainian territory since 20 February 2014 — which includes the attack on MH17. So why create an ad hoc tribunal that would simply compete with the ICC? To be sure, the Court would also have a difficult time obtaining potential defendants, given that Russia has not ratified the Rome Statute. But it seems reasonable to assume, ceteris paribus, that an international court with 124 members is more likely to achieve results than a multinational court with five members. Moreover, there would be something more than a little unseemly about Australia, Belgium, and the Netherlands creating a treaty-based tribunal to investigate the MH17 attack. After all, unlike Russia, those states have ratified the Rome Statute.

The problem, in short, is not that the international community lacks an institution capable of prosecuting those responsible for the attack on MH17. The problem is that the international community has almost no chance of getting its hands on potential defendants. So until they can figure out how to get Russia to voluntarily assist with an investigation, victim states such as Australia and the Netherlands would be better off remaining silent about the possibility of a treaty-based tribunal. Discussing one will simply raise the hopes of those who lost loved ones in the attack — hopes that will almost certainly never be realised.

A “Broad Consensus” — of Between Two and Four States

by Kevin Jon Heller

Yes, the “unwilling or unable” test marches on. The latest step forward is a Just Security blog post by Kate Martin, the Director of the Center for National Security Studies, that cites absolutely nothing in defense of the test other than another scholar who cites almost nothing in defense of the test. Here is what Martin says in the context of the UK’s recent drone strikes in Syria (emphasis mine):

Some issues raised by the UK Article 51 legal theory are less controversial than others. The US and other states understand customary international law to include the right to use military force in self-defense against armed attacks, and claim the right to use military force under Article 51 outside of an armed conflict. As Lubell has noted, there is support for reading Article 51 as justifying the use of military force against non-state actors. There is broad consensus that there is a right to use military force in self-defense when the host country is unable or unwilling to stop the attack.

And what does Martin offer in support of this “broad consensus”? A link to a blog post at Lawfare by Ashley Deeks, in which Deeks (1) correctly points out that the US and UK both support “unwilling or unable,” (2) claims that “France appears to be prepared to invoke the ‘unwilling or unable’ concept in the Syria context,” and (3) states that Australia is “apparently relying on a collective self-defense of Iraq/unwilling and unable theory.”

So at most there is a “broad consensus” of four states in support of “unwilling or unable.” And perhaps there are only two. That’s quite a consensus.

This isn’t even instant custom. This is custom by scholarly fiat.

Why Professors Ackerman and Golove Are Still Wrong About the Iran Deal

by Julian Ku

I thank Professors Ackerman and Golove for taking the time to respond to my earlier post on whether a future President could unilaterally withdraw from the Iran Nuclear Deal.  But I remain unconvinced by the claims they made in their original Atlantic essay that a future President’s unilateral withdrawal from the Iran Deal would be “lawless”. Here’s why I still think they are wrong:

1)  Ackerman and Golove argue that the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act “authorizes” President Obama to enter into binding congressional-executive agreement with Iran.  In their sur-reply, Professors Ackerman and Golove cite two pieces of statutory text from the Iran Nuclear Agreement Act which they say is congressional authorization for the President to conclude the Iran Deal (the JCPOA).  They point out that the act “specifically defines ‘agreement’ to include any accord with Iran ‘regardless of whether it is legally binding or not.’ § 2610e(h)(1).” They then point out that the Act “authorizes the President to implement sanctions relief unless Congress enacts ‘a joint resolution stating in substance that the Congress does not favor the agreement.’ 42 U.S.C. § 2610e(c)(2)(B).”

For the purpose of this argument, it doesn’t really matter whether the agreement is legally binding or not.  The real problem is that Professors Ackerman and Golove do not (and cannot) cite statutory text “authorizing” the President to enter into an agreement with Iran.  They can’t cite this text because that language does not exist in the Act.  The Act defines an “agreement” broadly because Congress wants the President transmit everything, including supporting materials and annexes, to Congress.  The Act suspends the President’s pre-existing power to suspend or terminate sanctions on Iran while Congress “reviews” the agreement.  Congress may vote a resolution of disapproval, which would prevent the President from lifting or waiving sanctions, but it doesn’t say he can’t enter into the Agreement.  But Congress may also simply do nothing (which is what it has done), which would also allow the President to lift the sanctions after 90 days.  Nothing in the Act says the President can’t enter into the Agreement. It just says, once he does so, he has to disclose that agreement to Congress and hold off on implementation.*

Professors Ackerman and Golove somehow read this framework as an authorization of the President’s power to conclude an agreement, but a more plausible reading of the Act as a whole sees it as a suspension of the President’s pre-existing power to implement an agreement.  If you think (as I do) that the President has broad powers to conclude international agreements (especially nonbinding ones) without Congress, then this law makes a lot of sense since it requires the President to suspend implementation of the agreement for 60 or 90 days and disclose all information about the agreement.

Under the Ackerman/Golove reading of this language, Congress has authorized the President to enter into whatever agreement with Iran he wants, and the only condition it places on it is that Congress gets 90 days to review it before it automatically goes into effect. Why would  Congress bother to give the President the power to enter into an agreement without reserving for itself the power to approve it?

It is worth noting that Congress knows how to specifically authorize an executive agreement, and require its approval before going into effect.  In Section 103(b) of the Trade Promotion Authority Act (enacted about the same time as the Review Act), Congress states that:

“[w]henever the President determines that one or more existing duties or other import restrictions of any foreign country or the United States are unduly burdening and restricting the foreign trade of the United States and that the purposes, policies, priorities, and objectives of this title will be promoted thereby, the President

(A) may enter into trade agreements with foreign countries before— (i) July 1, 2018…

[Emphasis added].

Moreover, the trade agreements require approval by a separate Act of Congress.  As the TPA bill makes clear in Section 106, no agreement “entered into under section 103(b) shall enter into force with respect to the United States if (and only if)—” among other requirements — “(F) the implementing bill is enacted into law.” [Emphasis added).  Again, Congress is making clear that it ( and not the President) is the one who has authorized the agreement and that the agreement cannot have any force until Congress acts to approve and implement it.

It bears repeating: there is no language even remotely like this in Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act. There is no language saying the President can enter into an agreement, nor is there language explaining when that agreement has “entered into force.”  Congress knows how to authorize an international agreement, and the most natural reading of the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act is that it didn’t do so there.

2) Professors Ackerman and Golove also argue that a future President cannot legally (under U.S. law) terminate this agreement without either approval from Congress or without undermining U.S. credibility in trade agreements like NAFTA or the WTO.

I find this argument lacking for at least two reasons.

First, as I stated above, the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act doesn’t follow the pattern of trade promotion authority laws  in any way so it is highly unlikely that any trading partners will worry about a President Rubio pulling out of the WTO because he pulled out of the JCPOA. (Simon Lester makes that point here)

Moreover, the Review Act does not in any way prohibit a future President from withdrawing from the JCPOA, nor does it prohibit the President from reimposing sanctions on Iran. He is perfectly free to put them back on without violating the Review Act or any other U.S. statutory law.

The contrast with trade agreements is again instructive because Congress knows how to reserve to itself the power to terminate an agreement.  Under Section 125 of the Uruguay Agreements Implementation Act, Congress can vote every five years on whether to pull out of the WTO. This suggests that Congress has reserved for itself some power to terminate the WTO agreement. And because the laws implementing the WTO agreement change all sorts of other U.S. laws, it makes sense for Congress to supervise how and when the U.S. gets out. (It bear repeating: terminating the JCPOA does NOT violate or change any U.S. domestic law).

Second, as I noted in my original post, even if the Iran Deal was a treaty approved by the Senate, there is good reason to think the President could withdraw from the Iran deal-treaty without going back to the Senate for approval.  President Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty without going to the Senate, President Carter withdrew from the U.S.-Taiwan defense treaty without going to the Senate, etc.  For this reason, a future President could withdraw from the JCPOA (even if the JCPOA is legally binding) without going back to Congress, especially where the Review Act does not reserve to Congress any termination rights.  Thus, even if Professors Ackerman and Golove are right that the Review Act authorizes the President to enter into an agreement, it doesn’t REQUIRE him to do so or REQUIRE him to stay in the JCPOA. (And he can withdraw via the JCPOA’s provisions if he chooses).

In conclusion, I am back where I started.  Professors Ackerman and Golove use the thinnest of statutory language to claim that Congress “authorized” the President to make an agreement, and further, that Congress has also prohibited the President from withdrawing from it.  That’s a lot of work for a mere definition of the word “agreement” to carry. It’s far too much, especially when one considers the way Congress goes about its business in the trade agreement context.  The next President can unilaterally withdraw from the JCPOA. And, with all due respect to Professors Ackerman and Golove, such a withdrawal will be the opposite of “lawless.”


*As a side note, the fact that the definition of an agreement includes non-binding political commitments suggests that Congress is really after review and disclosure, not authorization and approval.  Could Congress authorize the President to enter into a non-binding political commitment? And then require him and future presidents to stick to such a commitment?

President Rubio/Walker/Trump/Whomever Can Indeed Terminate the Iran Deal on “Day One”

by Julian Ku

Professors Bruce Ackerman and David Golove argue in this Atlantic essay that the next President cannot withdraw from the Iran agreement because it is a “congressionally authorized executive agreement.” They argue that Senator Marco Rubio’s pledge to terminate the Iran Deal on day one “would destroy the binding character of America’s commitments to the IMF, the World Bank, NAFTA, and the World Trade Organization….The President can no more walk away from them than he can from any other law or treaty.”

I am sorry to say that this article, which comes from two super-respected legal scholars, is deeply and badly mistaken.

This argument is based on the premise that the “legislation that Congress adopted last May, …explicitly grants the Administration authority to negotiate and implement binding legal commitments with Iran.” In their view, the Iran Deal is a simply a congressional-executive agreement exactly akin to U.S. trade agreements like NAFTA.

But this premise is wrong.  The U.S. government has repeatedly stated (see here)  that the “Joint Coordinated Plan of Action” between Iran and the P-6 powers is a “nonbinding” political commitment. And the JCPOA itself talks only of “voluntary measures.” (see Dan Joyner’s discussion of this here).   Even the United Nations Security Council Resolution that implements the JCPOA does not legally bind the U.S. to stick to the JCPOA (as John Bellinger argues here).

Nor does the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act explicitly (or implicitly) authorize the President to make an agreement with Iran that would go beyond the President’s existing constitutional powers to make sole-executive agreements or nonbinding political commitments. The Review Act simply sets up a disclosure and timetable regime for the President’s disclosure of his foreign affairs activities that he wouldn’t otherwise have to disclose to Congress.

It is nothing like the Trade Promotion Authority that the President has received to conclude trade agreements like NAFTA or the WTO. While the Review Act discusses agreements that were already made and sets out disclosure and timing requirements, Trade Promotion Authority laws (like the most recent one) say things like: “the President— (A) may enter into trade agreements with foreign countries before” certain dates and then cannot afterwards.”  This is explicit authority, and no similar language can be found in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act.

In any event, Ackerman and Golove are also mistaken on a more mundane point. Even if the Iran Deal is a binding congressionally authorized international agreement, a future President could withdraw from such an agreement unilaterally.  This is true because: 1) the JCPOA itself has an “exit ramp” under Paragraph 36 which allows the U.S. to terminate its participation after 35 days if its concerns about Iran’s compliance are not satisfied; and 2) the President appears to have broad constitutional powers to unilaterally terminate treaties without Congress or the Senate’s approval.  Surely, the President could terminate a nonbinding voluntary “plan of action” without going back to a Congress that didn’t really authorize him to make an agreement in the first place.

Even though I am increasingly convinced that the Iran Nuclear Deal is a bad deal for the U.S. and Europe (not to mention Israel), I have publicly defended the legality of President Obama’s decision to conclude a nuclear “agreement” with Iran without going to Congress to get approval. But the decision to bypass Congress has got to have a price for the President.  And that price is that the Iran Deal does not bind his predecessor either as a matter of constitutional or international law.