For example, the Iran proliferation Deal. Letting aside considerations about where or not it was a good agreement, this is still the US agreeing to something and then not carrying it out.

Other examples include the SALT 2 Treaty (signed, not ratified, mostly honored), the Paris climate accord. Current renegotiations of NAFTA. A lot of this specific to the current administration, but these things have happened before.

I understand that this can be the result of the separation of powers between the executive and the legislative branch.

But those considerations are irrelevant to countries that sign a treaty with someone, they are mostly interested in whether their counterpart will honor that treaty or not. If they commit to something and the other party states I did not actually have the authority to commit without another branch of my government then how will the next treaty be approached?

I am specifically excluding bad faith treaties by rogue actors from consideration. Such as, for example, North Korea signing up to a UN convention against torture. Or even feel good treaties with lofty goals like "universal health care human rights" stuff that would in fact be hard to fully certify compliance with.

Also out of scope is something like the ABM Treaty, which the US withdrew from in 2002, but after respecting it since 1972: given that duration, the US signed it and respected it, as far as I am concerned.

Does the US have an unusually high track record, for a stable and advanced country, of not following through on its treaty obligations? Is there a risk that it becomes a less and less credible negotiating partner? Is this unusual when the parties are asymmetric, i.e. one is more dominant/powerful than the others?

To limit the scope of the question, we will only consider:

  • post-WW2 only.
  • only state-to-state treaties
  • trade/arms/numerical target, i.e. objectively verifiable treaties and accords.
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    I upvoted, but given the extent of the work that would be necessary to answer your question from primary sources, an answer is only likely to come from a study that has already investigated this... and such a study may not follow your intricate criteria. – Fizz Aug 9 at 17:26
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    You may want to define what both 'signed treaty' and 'not following through' actually mean, because otherwise your examples don't seem to make sense: the SALT II treaty limits were honored by the US until 1986 despite the fact that it was never actually ratified by Congress, the US is still a signatory of the Paris Agreements until 2020(the minimum date when a formal withdrawal can be made), and renegotiating a trade treaty is definitely rude but they haven't walked away. – Giter Aug 9 at 17:34
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    This question is quite ambiguous, which makes it hard to write a good answer. On the one hand you ask whether "the US have an unusually high track record...of not following through on its treaty obligations?" This seems like as a question about the US's compliance with international obligations. On the other hand you mention non-ratification of signed treaties, i.e. a stage before a legal obligation exists. And finally you mention the withdrawal from (and renegotiation of) a signed and ratified treaty as example. These are three separate issues. What is your question about? – henning Aug 10 at 17:31
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    @henning. from the POV of a sovereign country negotiating with the USA, once POTUS has signed an agreement, be it a treaty/accord, is the US more likely than other stable, modern states not to respect the spirit of that agreement? the aspect of ratification is secondary actually - other countries have ratification procedures, but does that cause as much problems as with the US? Don't consider constitutional aspects - pretend the US political system is a "black box". Can the other party trust the US as much they could other similar countries, from the point of heads-of-state signature? – Italian Philosopher Aug 10 at 21:08
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    @Italian Philosopher: In the rare case of Iran here, Congress actually announced before it was even signed that it would not hold past Obama's term. Pick another example. – Joshua Aug 11 at 0:59

No

Actual ratified treaties have the full force of U.S. law and it is very rare for the U.S. to withdraw from them.

This Constitution, and the laws of the United States which shall be made in pursuance thereof; and all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the Constitution or laws of any State to the contrary notwithstanding.

Article VI, Paragraph 2 of the U.S. Constitution

The problem with the Paris Accords and the Iran nuclear deal is that they were not actual ratified treaties. They were just informal agreements made by the executive which did not have the authority to make binding agreements in the first place. Both the executive and the other parties of the agreements had full knowledge at the time that the U.S. would never ratify them and that much of Congress strongly disagreed with their terms. Only Congress can actually ratify a treaty. The U.S. withdrawing from an actual treaty is extremely rare.

But those considerations are irrelevant to countries that sign a treaty with someone, they are mostly interested in whether their counterpart will honor that treaty or not. If they commit to something and the other party states I did not actually have the authority to commit without another branch of my government then how will the next treaty be approached?

But that's just it, if you're using "sign a treaty" to mean officially and legally agreeing to its terms - more formally known as ratification - they haven't signed any treaty. They've made an agreement with someone who had no authority to commit the country to the terms of that agreement, knowing that this is the case and that the agreement carries no actual commitment or force of law.

If they want to approach a treaty in the future, then they should approach it as an actual treaty to be ratified by Congress, not just an informal agreement with someone who can't commit to anything past his own term in office (and many things not even then, as he can be overruled by Congress and/or courts.)

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    verbal agreement is very much stretching it, I am sure there was a lot of signed paperwork involved with the Iran non-proliferation. Also, if you try to view things from the POV of countries negotiating with the US, they do not get to negotiate with Congress, they negotiate with the Executive. Congress, as many US citizens would be the first to say has lately often been deadlocked. So, what's a foreign country supposed to do in these cases? Do other countries have similar hurdles as the US. Last, NAFTA was very much ratified by Congress, in 1993. So, a walk out would be a walk out. – Italian Philosopher Aug 10 at 0:45
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    Good examples, but NAFTA was a ratified treaty that the US is now trying to break away from. – Björn Lindqvist Aug 10 at 1:05
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    You say it's not unusual because the OP gave two bad examples. That doesn't mean anything more than the OP gave two bad examples. Trump renegotiated KORUS recently because he wanted to do so (not the Koreans). Technically that's unilaterally denouncing the old KORUS. So I don't quite buy your dismissal so easily. Of course unusual could mean, like I said, that the US renounces more treaties that one would expect for a country with that many (bilateral) ones, and indeed we don't know if that's the case. But I don't buy the answer is no just from your argument. – Fizz Aug 10 at 1:15
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    Also amusingly the US signed the Vienna convention (Nixon: 1970) but has not ratified it. But " In 2001, in an answer to a question for the record posed by Senator Jesse Helms, Secretary of State Colin Powell reaffirmed the State Department’s view that Article 18 reflects customary international law. " See also en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vienna_Convention_on_the_Law_of_Treaties So even if Congress has this position that signing doesn't mean anything, the rest of the world will consider the president "changing his mind" an exit. – Fizz Aug 10 at 2:09
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    @henning The question was specifically about treaty obligations, not 'international law' as a whole. If you want answers to another question, ask it as another question. Neither an executive agreement nor 'international law' that hasn't been ratified as a formal treaty by the United States is a treaty obligation of the United States. – reirab Aug 10 at 15:22

I only have an indirect argument:

  • The US is part of far more treaties than any other country (7,181 bilateral treaties; the next most active nation is France with 3,707 bilateral treaties). Somewhat predictably, the US has far more bilateral as percentage of its total treaties (87% of treaties entered by US being bilateral) than an "average" country (for which this fraction is 45%). Ref for these facts Miles & Posner (2008) "Which States Enter into Treaties, and Why?"
  • Bilateral treaties get unilaterally exited more often than multilateral treaties do cf. Helfer (2005) "Exiting Treaties":

    Not surprisingly, there have been far more ratifications of treaties (32,021) than denunciations and withdrawals (1547) since 1945. [...] of the 5416 multilateral agreements concluded after 1945, 191, or 3.5%, have been denounced at least once. In light of the 1547 denunciations filed during this same sixty year period, this small percentage suggests that a few multilateral agreements have been denounced by multiple states.

As a consequence, it is likely (but not certain) that the US unilaterally exited more treaties than an "average" country, not just in absolute number but also as a proportion of treaties entered.

If someone else can find a direct analysis... by all means, that would be a better answer. Clearly a database exist (with per country data) and was used by Helfer, but it doesn't seem to be public. Barely quantitatively, Helfer's paper only says about the US aggregate behavior:

The unilateralist behavior of the United States provides a salient example. The United States has recently refrained from ratifying— or has withdrawn from—numerous multilateral agreements that are widely ratified by other nations and that it at one time championed. These treaties include the Kyoto Protocol, the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court, the Landmines Convention, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Convention on Biological Diversity, International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and, most recently, the Framework Convention for Tobacco Control and the Optional Protocol to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. By remaining outside these treaties through non-entry or exit, the United States has, according to many observers, cast doubt on its commitment to multilateral cooperation.


And an important comment on another answer, which might get missed (because there are so many comments under it): regarding the US Constitution Treaty Clause:

The body of law governing U.S. foreign policy recognizes three mechanisms by which the United States enters into binding international obligations. The term "treaty" is used in a more restricted legal sense [in the US] than in international law. U.S. law distinguishes what it calls treaties from congressional-executive agreements and executive agreements. All three classes are considered treaties under international law; they are distinct only from the perspective of internal United States law. Distinctions among the three concern their method of ratification: by two-thirds of the Senate, by normal legislative process, or by the President alone, respectively. The Treaty Clause empowers the President to make or enter into treaties with the "advice and consent" of two-thirds of the Senate. In contrast, normal legislation becomes law after approval by simple majorities in both the Senate and the House of Representatives and the signature of the President.

And from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Executive_agreement

In the United States, executive agreements are binding internationally if they are negotiated and entered into under the president's authority in foreign policy, as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, or from a prior act of Congress. For instance, as commander-in-chief the President negotiates and enters into status of forces agreements (SOFAs), which govern the treatment and disposition of U.S. forces stationed in other nations. The president cannot, however, enter unilaterally into executive agreements on matters that are beyond his constitutional authority. In such instances, an agreement would need to be in the form of a congressional-executive agreement, or a treaty with Senate advice and consent.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in United States v. Pink (1942), held that international executive agreements validly made have the same legal status as treaties and did not require Senate approval.

And Pink has been reaffirmed more recently in Dames & Moore v. Regan:

More recently, in Dames & Moore v. Regan, the Court relied upon, inter alia, the Pink case to sustain President Carter’s suspension of claims pending in American courts against Iran as required by the Hostage Release Agreement of 1981, supra, and, more directly, by Executive order. In light of Pink, the Court indicated that ‘‘prior cases * * * have recognized that the President does have some measure of power to enter into executive agreements without obtaining the advice and consent of the Senate.’’

So simply relying on the US Constitution notion of "treaty" is misleading when there are two more categories under US law that are also treaties under international law.

And the Congressional source on which that Wikipedia page is mostly based also says

The Constitution is silent on procedures for modifying or terminating treaties, and agreement has not been reached between the branches on a single proper mode. [...]

Twice in recent years the method of terminating a treaty [in the narrow sense, i.e. one approved by 2/3 of the Senate] has raised serious controversy within the United States. In 1978, President Carter terminated the defense treaty with the Republic of China [Taiwan] without the concurrence of either the Senate or Congress when he established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.
In 1977, the new Panama Canal Treaty terminated the 1903, 1936, and 1955 treaties with Panama. Although a new treaty was approved by the Senate, some contended that the termination of the earlier treaties required an act of Congress, thus including approval by the House of Representatives as well as the Senate.

It also talks of controversies of treaty (again in the narrow sense) modification and reinterpretation by the Executive, which are more numerous (a bit too long to quote here).

Also some treaties (in the narrow sense, i.e. 2/3 Senate approved) have an explicit clause that allows the President to terminate them; e.g. KORUS:

If the President does invoke Article 24.5, and no further action is taken, KORUS will terminate 180 days after such notice is given.

And enough scholars think that the President can exit a treaty by himself, regardless of clauses in the treaty:

Whereas it was generally understood throughout the nineteenth century that the termination of treaties required congressional involvement, the consensus on this issue disappeared in the early parts of the twentieth century, and today it is widely (although not uniformly) accepted that presidents have a unilateral power of treaty termination.

This after Goldwater v. Carter (on Taiwan defense exit), Kucinich v. Bush (on ABM exit) etc.

Finally, there's the issue of (extended) provisional application of treaties (in the narrow sense) that have been signed but not ratified, e.g. (quoting from Congressional service again):

An example of a treaty pending in the Senate that has been provisionally applied by executive agreement is the maritime boundary agreement between the United States and Cuba, signed December 16, 1977. Originally, an executive agreement, by exchange of notes on April 27, 1977, had established a modus vivendi on a provisional maritime boundary to serve during that year while negotiations were underway. The treaty signed on December 16, 1977, contained a provision that the parties agree to apply the terms of the agreement ‘‘provisionally’’ for a period of 2 years from January 1, 1978. According to the Department of State, ‘‘this agreement constituted an executive agreement contained within the text of the treaty.’’ The treaty was transmitted to the Senate on January 23, 1979, and debated in the Senate, but final action was not taken. The treaty is still pending in the committee. [as of 2001] The provisional application was subsequently extended for additional periods, most recently by an exchange of notes of December 30, 1997 and March 30, 1998.

So such a "treaty" is applied for 20+ years and then denounced (say by a new president) does it really look like nothing happened, no exit from the "treaty" from the viewpoint of the international community (or other party to the treaty)?!

And the middle category of congressional-executive agreements is also exteremely important in practice:

In part because the enumerated powers of Congress and the president have been interpreted broadly, most agreements that are proposed as treaties could also have been proposed as congressional-executive agreements. For that reason, the U.S. government has frequently chosen to use congressional-executive agreements rather than treaties for controversial agreements that are unlikely to gain the required supermajority in the Senate. Examples of contentious proposals addressed in the form of congressional-executive agreements include the 1992 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the agreement whereby the United States became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995.

And yes, these congressional-executive agreements are constitutional too because of Field v. Clark. NAFTA was challeged in Made in the USA Foundation v. United States, but this challenge was stopped in the Eleventh Circuit, which cited Field v. Clark (among other things) in their decision.

The congressional-executive agreements are actually how most of the US international-relations sausage is made nowadays (quoting the Congressional service again)

In the period since 1939 executive agreements [this refers to both congressional-executive and just executive] have comprised more than 90 percent of the international agreements concluded. [...] Most executive agreements are concluded under the authority of a statute [and are called congressional-executive in other places; ...] 88.3 percent of international agreements reached between 1946 and 1972 were based at least partly on statutory authority [meaning they were congressional-executive rather than purely executive].

So you can't just pretend these don't matter just because they're not called treaties in the US law.

So arguing from "first principles" by just quoting the Constitution is a pretty poor way to come to any conclusion on this question because: (i) what is actually a treaty in US vs international law and (ii) termination/exit procedures are unclear in US law (for some categories) and varied in practice.

  • 1
    Interesting, but aggregate numbers on thousands of commitments of various importance do not give a clear insight on actions on less numerous, high profile agreements. Ideally, while I have provided the example of Stephen Harper withdrawing Canada out of Kyoto, others could cite cases in which countries (other than the US) also found it expedient to withdraw from important commitments. Your citation of Helfer is also interesting, and expresses some of the frustrations of non-Americans, but not signing is not the same as signing and not respecting. +1 (and reirab's too). – Italian Philosopher Aug 10 at 0:56
  • Regarding the ratio of exec. agreements vs treaties, see politics.stackexchange.com/questions/32821/… – Fizz Aug 10 at 9:20
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    @ItalianPhilosopher If we try to focus on "less numerous, high profile agreements," we start to run into statistical limitations and the question of whether the US has a "track record" or not becomes more subjective. I can guarantee you that, with 10 minutes work, I can find a metric which makes US look like the most untrustworthy nation in existence, and a metric which makes them look spotless. – Cort Ammon Aug 10 at 15:09
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    @CortAmmon: or in other words, that approach is "primarily opinion based". – Fizz Aug 10 at 15:14
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    Executive agreements only bind the administration at the time they are made. The next administration can ignore them. – Joshua Aug 10 at 21:18

Is the US unusually prone to walking away from signed treaties/accords?

Does the US have an unusually high track record, for a stable and advanced country, of not following through on its treaty obligations?

In the case of the 573 federally recognized Indian Nations "in the United States" and the unrecognized indigenous People of Turtle Island the answer is unequivocally yes

From 1778 to 1871, the United States government entered into more than 500 treaties with the Native American tribes; all of these treaties have since been violated in some way or outright broken by the US government

  • With more than 500 treaties already broken, the government can do whatever it wants, it seems... by Samuel Vargo

    Yes, the vote by the U.S. Congress was an example of this age-old Indian term for hostile invaders who came to Turtle Island in 1492 and took over everything. Genocide against Indians was Wasi'chu's favorite means of having the ends justify the means.

  • Treaties Made, Treaties Broken by Helen Oliff

    Over 500 treaties were made with American Indian tribes, primarily for land cessations, but 500 treaties were also broken, changed or nullified when it served the government’s interests.

  • The Nation; Mending a Trail of Broken Treaties by Timothy Egan

    The historic roles have been reversed in upstate New York. The white landowners now say they are victims of greedy property grabs by Indians, backed by the federal government. ''Too many people are looking at this as some sort of historic correction,'' said Leon T. Koziol, an attorney representing the property owners. ''What we're really seeing is a land conquest.''

    ...

    ''I don't know how anyone could say the Indians have the upper hand,'' said Don Miller, a senior attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, an Indian legal group based in Boulder, Colo. ''Whenever Indians get any leverage at all, people start to scream and yell. The predominant attitude seems to be: 'We stole it fair and square. Now go away.'

  • 14
    The number of treaties broken between 1778 and 1871 doesn't seem to be a good measure for current behavior of the US, and I'd doubt OP's question about "a stable and advanced country" is meant to include that time period. – Guntram Blohm Aug 10 at 5:11
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    @GuntramBlohm Yes, 1778 through 1871 can be measured as to current U.S. behaviour. That is an historical context. The U.S. was "advanced" during that time period, in both shipbuilding for their human trafficking industry to import prisoners of war (so-called "slaves") and militarily for their foreign and domestic wars, e.g., the Indian Wars and the Monroe Doctrine. The same is true now; e.g. DAPL and Iraq, Afgahnistan, Syria, et al.. That is consistent with the same behaviour from 1778 through 1871: focus on war and genocide of indigenous people; preferably while profiting from each. – guest271314 Aug 10 at 14:04
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    How would 150 year treaty transgressions weigh in a country's calculations of whether the modern USA can be a trustworthy negotiating partner? It doesn't, regardless of the merits of your criticism in a historical context. Additionally, many Western countries have skeletons in their closets when it comes to their treatment of native populations in the colonial time period, i.e. anywhere up to 1950-1960, the US is by no means unique. My country, Canada, has little to feel proud of here either. My question is about current norms wrt international state to state agreements. – Italian Philosopher Aug 10 at 16:16
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    @ItalianPhilosopher "How would 150 year treaty transgressions weigh in a country's calculations of whether the modern USA can be a trustworthy negotiating partner" Really? The first calculation is made after reviewing the historical record of the party. If you decide to ignore more than 100 years of data, that is your prerogative. Other populations cannot afford to ignore the historical record. There are unresolved and unsettled matters as to the U.S. and certain classes ongoing since the U.S.'s inception. "Current norms" for who? No, the U.S. is not a "trustworthy negotiating partner". – guest271314 Aug 11 at 0:30
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    @ItalianPhilosopher I'm not a fan of this answer, but historical context does matter. If, in the relatively recent past (culturally/nationally speaking), we broke every treaty we could when we could get away with it and it benefited us to do so... why would we behave differently now? (And of course, it would be a mistake to ascribe this behavior to the US or the West alone.) – HopelessN00b Aug 12 at 1:34

While not precisely on point, it is easier under U.S. law to break a treaty with another country than in almost any other developed nation.

In the U.S., ordinary domestic legislation passed by Congress in the ordinary way can override the terms of a duly adopted treaty in existence when the domestic legislation is passed, and may do so without the two-thirds U.S. Senate majority required to adopt a treaty. This is true even if the treaty does not violate the U.S. Constitution and even if the treaty does not authorize the United States to withdraw from the treaty in that manner.

In almost every other country, an obligation or right arising under a duly adopted treaty overrides all conflicting ordinary domestic legislation, whether that ordinary domestic legislation is adopted before or after the treaty is entered into.

  • Interesting point. Can you support your last paragraph with some citation or data? I'm not sure what the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties says on this, but if does say something then it would be an easy way to use it as "survey". – Fizz Aug 11 at 13:53
  • I think this answer is quite compelling and likely strikes at the core of the issue, but I also would like references backing up this claim. – Italian Philosopher Aug 12 at 22:45

protected by Fizz Aug 10 at 19:00

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