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The President claims exclusive control over diplomacy within our constitutional system. Relying on this claim, executive branch lawyers repeatedly reject congressional mandates regarding international engagement. In their view, Congress cannot specify what the policy of the United States is with respect to foreign corruption, cannot bar a technology-focused agency from communicating with China, cannot impose notice requirements for withdrawal from a treaty with Russia, cannot instruct Treasury officials how to vote in the World Bank, and cannot require the disclosure of a trade-related report. And these are just a few of many examples from recent years. The President’s assertedly exclusive powers over diplomacy have become a powerful yet rarely critiqued tool for withholding information from Congress and for rebuffing congressional supervision over the content and agents of international engagement.

This Article interrogates the constitutional concept of “diplomacy” – a word that, for all the emphasis the executive branch now puts upon it, was barely an English word at the time of the Framing and was not used during the constitution’s drafting and ratification. Both structural reasoning and historical practice suggest that exclusive presidential powers over diplomacy should have a narrower ambit than executive branch lawyers currently claim. The Article excavates several forgotten limits on these powers. One is the distinction between policy and negotiation. The executive branch asserts exclusive power over both, but Congress has strong counterclaims to a constitutional power to establish policy objectives and to control outputs, such as votes in international organization. Another limit relates to domestic-facing administrative agencies, which increasingly engage in regulatory coordination abroad. Both Congress’s traditional role in supervising agencies and the substance of these agencies’ work suggest that their international engagement should not necessarily partake of whatever exclusive powers the President holds over diplomacy and instead should be more subject to congressional control. The Article closes by proposing a distribution of power over international engagement that provides more control to Congress and by identifying institutional strategies that Congress could deploy to achieve this distribution.


Constitutional law, executive branch power, foreign relations, Congress, President’s practical control, negotiation, lost limits on diplomacy, distribution of diplomatic powers, interface between administrative law and foreign relations law, congressional authority over international engagement

Publication Title

Virginia Law Review

Publication Citation

108 Va. L. Rev. 81 (2022)