Obama had no authority to bind America to an enduring international accord.
Consider it a campaign promise rightly kept. Trump this afternoon announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate-change accords, and if he holds to his decision, he’ll do the American people a great service. Simply put, before any president attempts to bind the United States to an enduring multinational accord, it’s his duty to convince the American people — through constitutional processes — that the agreement is in the best interests of the United States. Barack Obama failed to do this in 2015. Trump is right to reject his actions today.
First, let’s dispense with any notion that climate change is too important to be left to constitutional treaty-making process. If the consequences of climate change will be as catastrophic as alarmists fear, then the constitutional process becomes more important, not less. The constitutional process creates binding obligations that are based in broad consensus. If two-thirds of senators vote to ratify a treaty, then that effectively means that a supermajority of the American people either agree or acquiesce to the nation’s commitment. It provides the basis for national action in response.
It’s important to note that effective treaties bind not just the United States but all the signatories. Nonbinding pacts like the Paris Agreement, by contrast, are easily fractured and easily exploited. By definition, violating “voluntary” arrangements doesn’t breach international law, and the result is an international arrangement that will exist precisely as long as any country believes it remains in their best interests — and no longer. It’s inherently unstable.
Moreover, there’s an important cultural value in following the Constitution. The treaty process places the burden of persuasion on American politicians. It’s one thing to name-call and jeer at “climate deniers” when you can impose your will through a mere 51 percent of the Electoral College. It’s another thing entirely to try to build a two-thirds consensus, a consensus that would necessarily have to unite large sectors of red and blue. The process of persuasion can have a positive effect on political discourse, requiring politicians to address voters concerns not merely dismiss dissenters as rubes and know-nothings.
Contrast the Paris accords with a true international treaty — like the North Atlantic alliance. For more than three generations, the U.S. has committed blood and treasure to its European allies, acting under full constitutional authority while receiving the binding reciprocal commitment of its partners to commit their own blood and treasure to the United States. Indeed they’ve done so in Afghanistan and continue to fight with us today. That’s how you build an “international community,” not through executive agreements that can be unmade just as easily as they’re made.
American presidents have gotten into the disturbing habit of discarding constitutional process when they find it inconvenient. Barack Obama did it when he agreed to the Paris accords, when he negotiated the Iran nuclear deal, and when he launched a war against Libya without congressional approval. Trump did the same earlier this year when he launched a new military action against the Syrian regime, also without congressional approval. But just as presidents must be challenged when they violate the Constitution, they should be applauded when they respect its terms.
It should surprise no one that following the Constitution also works to defend American economic interests. Even if much or most of recent planetary warming has human causes, that still doesn’t mean the benefits of reducing emissions will always outweigh the costs. Not even the most radical environmentalists are willing to “bear any burden, pay any price” to halt warming. Moreover, that calculus can change depending on the economic conditions of the country. Clean-power regulations that might cost jobs or dramatically increase costs, for example, are one thing when jobs are plentiful and incomes are rising. They’re another thing entirely in hard economic times. A nation should have the liberty to respond to the needs of its population.
American presidents have gotten into the disturbing habit of discarding constitutional process when they find it inconvenient.
Despite what you may read on Twitter or elsewhere online, don’t believe for a moment that this is an apocalyptic moment. Private-sector innovation continues. American states have a degree of freedom to go their own way (and Americans have the freedom to move to — or away from — states that impose their own climate regulations), and if people truly believe the apocalypse looms, they have the ability to make that case to the America people.
In his announcement today, Trump pledged to negotiate a different, better deal for American workers. If and when he does, he should depart from the Obama precedent, remember the Constitution, and submit that agreement for Senate ratification. Then he can perhaps build an enduring consensus. Then he can lead the free world the right way, by following the rule of law and hundreds of years of international legal norms. The calculus is simple. Binding, enduring multinational agreements should exist as treaties, as without a treaty there is no binding, enduring multinational agreement.
Trump has been hit-or-miss on his campaign promises. Just today he wrongly backed away from his commitment to move America’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. But leaving the Paris agreement was a big promise made, and as of today it’s a big promise kept.