From Treaties to International Commitments: The Changing Landscape of Foreign Relations Law

71 Pages Posted: 16 Mar 2017 Last revised: 2 Jan 2018

See all articles by Jean Galbraith

Jean Galbraith

University of Pennsylvania Law School

Date Written: 2017


Sometimes the United States makes international commitments in the manner set forth in the Treaty Clause. But far more often it uses congressional-executive agreements, sole executive agreements, and soft law commitments. Foreign relations law scholars typically approach these other processes from the perspective of constitutional law, seeking to determine the extent to which they are constitutionally permissible. In contrast, this Article situates the myriad ways in which the United States enters into international commitments as the product not only of constitutional law, but also of international law and administrative law. Drawing on all three strands of law provides a rich understanding of the various processes for making international commitments and of the circumstances under which a particular process will be used. This approach also has important implications for separation-of-powers concerns. From a constitutional law perspective, the rise of international commitments outside the Treaty Clause registers as an unvarnished increase in presidential power. Factoring in international law and administrative law reveals a far more nuanced reality. While direct congressional checks on presidential power have weakened, alternative checks have arisen from administrative agencies, the international legal structure, and even to some degree from U.S. states. This Article describes the reconfigured landscape of checks and balances, which are spread across the negotiation, domestic approval, and implementation of international commitments. It then offers a qualified normative defense of this system and proposes several structural and doctrinal improvements. The Article closes with a case study applying its approach to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate.

Keywords: International law, international relations & commitments, foreign policy, treaties, congressional-executive and executive agreements, constitutional law, separation of powers, administrative law, new checks and balances, Paris climate accord

Suggested Citation

Galbraith, Jean, From Treaties to International Commitments: The Changing Landscape of Foreign Relations Law (2017). University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 84, p. 1675, 2017, U of Penn Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 17-14, Available at SSRN:

Jean Galbraith (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania Law School ( email )

3501 Sansom Street
Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

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