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When a democratic country entries an international treaty, its democratically elected leader signs the treaty and democratically elected parliament ratifies it, making the treaty be accepted by a nation. So it makes perfect sense that the country should honor its obligations even when its administration changes.

At the same time, when a treaty is signed by an autocrat, it doesn't feel like being accepted by a nation. I.e. if a dictator obligates to supply oil in exchange for his children getting into top universities in a developed country (a made-up exaggerated example), most people would agree that if the dictator dies and a democratic government takes places, they won't have a moral obligation to continue shipping oil.

Such cases might grow into bigger problems, i.e. most Russians (including me) do not take seriously arguments about Budapest Memorandum because they don't feel like they signed it, and we all know how badly this all ended.

Yet, normally such treaties continues to retain power even after autocrat's death. So:

  1. are there any established or suggested norms which allow to invalidate autocrat's international treaties?
  2. were there any notable attempts to invalidate such treaties?
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    Why wouldn't a treaty be valid because an autocrat signs it? When leadership changes they can choose to ignore treaties that have been signed as has been done by past leaders when they assume office.
    – Joe W
    Dec 8, 2022 at 22:03
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    "do not take seriously arguments about Budapest Memorandum because they don't feel like they signed it" I guess one could give Ukraine the nuclear weapons back and retract any security guarantees. Ukraine would probably be happy to nullify the Memorandum under these circumstances. Dec 8, 2022 at 22:12
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    My question is why would a treaty become invalid just because leadership changed? A democratically elected is obligated to honor all existing treaties regardless of the leader the signed them.
    – Joe W
    Dec 8, 2022 at 22:14
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    @JoeW in a democratic country the leadership represent the nation, so treaties are signed on behalf of the nation. An autocrat does not represent the nation (he doesn't have such right, at least in moral sense), so why the nation has to honor the obligations he undertook?
    – kandi
    Dec 8, 2022 at 22:27
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    @Trilarion replace Bitcoin with anything, the idea doesn't change. If someone under you name without your consent makes a deal which causes you financial loss, you wouldn't have to bear that loss to nullify the deal
    – kandi
    Dec 8, 2022 at 22:42

3 Answers 3

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Treaties between countries aren't worth much more than the paper they are written on if the parties to the treaty don't believe the others are going to stay true to their word. That said, it is perfectly normal for political upheavals to spread beyond a nation's domestic situation. Russia itself made such an argument against upholding its old treaties after the revolution of 1917:

'[tlhe revolution of 1917, which completely destroyed all the old economic, social and political relations and replaced the old society with a new one, transferring the state government power in Russia to a new social class on the strength of the sovereignty of the people [...] which had revolted, thereby severed the succession of civil obligations which were a component part of the economic relations of the society which had disappeared, and which passed away along with it.

  • Statement of Delegation of the RSFSR and Union Republics to the Genoa Conference of 1922 (Source)

Why Should I Trust You?

Going back on any agreement is going to cause a decrease in that nation's reputation if the population and their leaders suspect that a previous agreement wasn't in their best interests and unilaterally decides not to uphold their end of the bargain. Even in the case of a new nation arising as a result of revolution, it may be hard for other nations to believe that such a state would survive for very long, so negotiating long term treaties may be difficult. From that point there are two options: completely disregard the previous agreement and either pronounce it null and void (or just pretend like it didn't exist in the first place), or try to negotiate a new agreement. The second option is tried all the time, Brexit in some sense is exactly this; the UK felt that a previous agreement they entered in to wasn't in their best interests and decided to go it alone while attempting to negotiate new agreements. You may find, however, that just because you believe you can get a better deal than you did before doesn't necessarily make it so.

The Only Constant In Life Is Change

Human beings in my opinion are (generally) pretty fickle, so it is natural for people to believe that as time goes by and circumstances change different opportunities may be better to pursue than what the status quo is currently. But to unilaterally decide that a previous agreement is not something that you are interested in upholding is hard to pull off without other nations questioning whether or not any new agreement will actually be upheld in the future. Why should anyone trust what you say now, if, in the future, you may just go back on your word? If the situation exists, as it did in 1917, where it is easy to argue that the previous Nation and the current Nation should be thought of as two distinct entities, then arguing that the previous treaties are null and void is much easier. There's still going to be a reason those agreements existed in the first place, so you should not assume other countries won't react to such a pronouncement if you truly wish to avoid conflict, as everyone gets to act in their own self-interests.


Here is another source that explores this further from the point of view of the United States withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and JCPOA. It should be noted that in both cases there were stipulations in the treaties for withdrawing so the situation is slightly different than just simply ignoring the treaty altogether.

In the specific case of the Budapest Memorandum, there was no built-in method for withdrawing from it. From everyone's else's point-of-view, the correct way to change it would be to negotiate a new agreement. There is of course the option to go to war if you don't get your way, but that choice carries consequences also.

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  • Yes, treaties depend on trust between international leaders and the military might of the nation. There are so many examples in history where past treaties have been ignored by democratic leaders or even autocrats who overthrew elected leaders. Imperialistic treaties between colonies are a good example of past treaties that former colonies have chosen to deliberately ignore and something some are still fighting over even today (especially when it comes border territories).
    – sfxedit
    Dec 10, 2022 at 13:10
  • From a U.S. perspective, it should be noted that neither the Paris agreement nor the JCPOA were ratified by Congress (the Senate), as the president at the time knew neither would make it through successfully, so I don’t think they carried the same legal force here as a fully ratified treaty. Dec 10, 2022 at 15:54
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I have another perspective for this. It is known that during XIX century, democracies were treated as a joke by most of the European powers. USA was considered a fringe country, the previously-almighty France took an image hit by not being a monarchy, and other republics of the world were considered "banana republics".

This may be partly due to the fact that democracy makes it hard to sign international treaties, compared to monarchies (autocracies)! This is because, when you sign a treaty with a king, you may expect it to be valid and honored for the next decade or so, and then upheld by king's rightful heir. Kings have face to lose when they do not uphold treaties.

However, when you sign a treaty with a president, no such thing happens. First, it needs to be ratified by parliament, which may say its "No" or just delay its ratification indefinitely - a popular occurrence in modern world, I think I've heard that USA is notorious for not ratifying and therefore not upholding treaties, all while demanding other parties to uphold the same treaties. Of course, some constitutional monarchies may also have this problem, but usually in less apparent way.

But there's a second problem, in a few years the president who signed treaty with you is a lame duck and on the way out, a new president is elected who is often from the opposing party, dislikes the treaty that his predecessor signed, and either works to undermine it or quietly sabotages it. He does not lose any face by being unfaithful to the treaty he did not sign himself and which he opposed.

Of course, modern democracies are usually much more resilient in that regard than the ones two centuries ago, but generally the issue persists - it's much easier to strike a deal with a definite autocrat than with a complex object of parliament, president and next president.

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    There is a crucial difference between autocrats and monarchs. Monarchs do succeed the state from the previous monarchs, together with all treaties and all other stuff, this is basically what forms their legitimacy. On the other hand, whoever comes after an autocrat does not inherit the state, at least in legal sence.
    – kandi
    Dec 8, 2022 at 22:21
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    The U.S. wasn't a joke because it was a democracy (The Parliament of Britain existed at the time of the Revolution and had existed for the life time of the founding fathers. The who Taxation without Representation thing they were upset about was due to the colonies not having parliamentary representation in London). It was dismissed because it was a Republic as diplomatic customs among Europe. The U.S. also wasn't the first Republic, but most were quite small by comparison and oligarchical in leadership.
    – hszmv
    Dec 9, 2022 at 14:24
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I believe that the Vienna Convention https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vienna_Convention_on_the_Law_of_Treaties is the relevant part of international law.

The Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties (VCLT) is an international agreement regulating treaties between states. Known as the "treaty on treaties", it establishes comprehensive rules, procedures, and guidelines for how treaties are defined, drafted, amended, interpreted, and generally operated.

The full text is available at https://legal.un.org/ilc/texts/instruments/english/conventions/1_1_1969.pdf

A number of the treaty's articles explain how a treaty might be invalidated under circumstances similar to those you describe. For example

Article 50 Corruption of a representative of a State

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  • What are you trying to say with this? I see there there is a treaty regarding this but nothing indicates what it says.
    – Joe W
    Dec 10, 2022 at 14:17
  • @JoeW If your dictator (or fully democratically elected president) was bribed to sign the deal - you can use this argument for withdrawal after overthrowing him. The fact that he was dictator is not an issue.
    – Shadow1024
    Dec 11, 2022 at 22:18
  • @Shadow1024 and information like that should be in the answer.
    – Joe W
    Dec 11, 2022 at 23:42

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