Let's consider the Paris climate agreement:

Or the Iran nuclear deal:

Are there any obligations to follow any previous international agreements for some abstract US administration?

  • Hmm. Is the question that bad? Jun 16, 2021 at 8:43
  • I answered the question from the perspective of international law. You can also look at it from the perspective of the internal constitutional and political order of each country. Some European countries have explicit constitutional principles that international law must be respected (which means, in particular, that judges can set aside local rules on that basis) but even if that's not the case, it doesn't change much from the perspective of international law.
    – Relaxed
    Jun 16, 2021 at 10:47
  • @Relaxed, I see, thank you for your response! As I understand, they are obliged by mentioned principle and penalties from leaving Jun 16, 2021 at 10:48
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    Note that the United States defines an explicit process for ratifying international agreements, and whether some agreement has been ratified will influence the situation substantially. Jun 16, 2021 at 16:42
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    Didn’t Obama bypass the senate’s “advice and consent” for both of those agreements? I think that may play into why they were easier to withdraw from, but I forget the details here. Jun 16, 2021 at 19:36

3 Answers 3


Yes, that's a general principle called pacta sunt servanda. Just as the rest of international law, its effectivity is limited and based mostly on reciprocity and the threat of retaliation. The reality is that international law is violated every day and there is no international police coming to knock on a country's door every time they do it. Most treaties also come with an implicit or explicit procedure to withdraw from (or “denounce”) it. Unless and until you do that, other countries will however regard your commitments as binding.

Importantly, countries enter agreements precisely to gain more certainty regarding future relationships, apart from the vicissitudes of internal politics. They bind a country as such and not merely a president or administration. Obviously, there is an inherent tension between that and democratic processes but America's partners have no reason to accept that everything is open to renegotiation every time a new president is elected.

On a more general level, you do not want to treat all international agreements as negligible because it damages your credibility and your ability to enter new ones. Even if you are unhappy about some aspects of a treaty or agreement, you might go along with it as a way to preserve your ability to use international law to pressure other countries.

The US can count on its power to give it some leeway and need not fear sanctions or retaliation in that particular case but even a country with overwhelming military might relies on treaties. Ultimately, a government has to somehow decide whether a particular violation and the fallback it can expect is worth whatever tangible or symbolic benefits it would gain from it.

To shield from that, many international organisations (the EU, the GATT/WTO) were created through a web of interlocking agreements, ratcheting up commitments and making it more costly to step out of the whole system. Individual “soft” agreements like the Paris agreement are easier to ignore (in fact, many countries are far from meeting their obligations, no need to make a fuss and formally leave for that).

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    The Paris agreement hardly even imposes any obligations in the first place. It's basically a framework for countries to measure their progress, trade carbon credits, etc., rather than a hard "we must reduce our emissions by X amount before date Y" agreement. Arguably, this makes it less meaningful for the US (or another country) to repudiate.
    – Kevin
    Jun 16, 2021 at 18:17
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    In the case of the Paris agreement, one must of course also take into account "sanctions" by the invisible party named Nature, who is anything but impressed by military power Jun 17, 2021 at 6:19
  • @HagenvonEitzen Apparently, the US military recognises global warming as a threat to the USA, regardless of who the president is, and is taking actions to reduce its environmental impact. (The first few relevant links I would have added seem to be behind ad-walls.) Jun 17, 2021 at 17:02

There are several different kinds of international agreements, each with a different status legally. Treaties ratified by the U.S. Senate can't be abrogated by a President unilaterally, unless the treaty itself expressly gives the President that power.

Note also that under U.S. law, a duly ratified U.S. Senate treaty may be abrogated by an ordinary domestic U.S. law, even if the treaty on its face forbids parties to the treaty from doing so.

Many international agreements short of treaties, however, are merely agreements of a sitting President with the force of a government regulation, or are merely statement of policy of a current administration. Those agreements can be changed without Congressional involvement, although there might be diplomatic repercussions to doing so.

The common name given to an international agreement isn't always an accurate way to determine which is which. Sometimes something that isn't a U.S. Senate ratified treaty is nonetheless called a treaty in the popular press, and sometimes something that is a U.S. Senate ratified treaty doesn't have the word "treaty" in its common name.


For the Paris agreement in particular, it had an explicit exit clause. Other agreements (including formal treaties) do as well. Trump consistently threatened to withdraw from NAFTA (which has an exit clause) during the negotiations for the follow-on agreement.

I believe Trump also withdrew the country from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty with Russia. That was a full on, Senate-approved treaty (with an exit clause that dictated a 6-month notice)

But, in relationship to the Paris agreement...

From Wikipedia:

Article 28 of the agreement enables parties to withdraw from the agreement after sending a withdrawal notification to the depositary. Notice can be given no earlier than three years after the agreement goes into force for the country. Withdrawal is effective one year after the depositary is notified.

Notice that that article was carefully constructed with 4 year lag - the period of a US presidential term. That's not a coincidence (if I remember it being explained when the agreement came into being).

The agreement came into force in mid-December, 2015. Trump announced his intention to withdraw soon after his inauguration. He gave notice as soon as he could, removing the country from the agreement in December, 2019. Biden signed an executive order rejoining the agreement on his inauguration day (on January 20, 2021).

The overall effect was that the US was out of the agreement for slightly longer than a year

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