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What is an Executive Agreement?

By Jason C. Chavis
Updated May 17, 2024
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An executive agreement is an arrangement established by the President of the United States between the US and another foreign nation or agency. It is one of the primary tools in the arsenal of the executive branch when dealing with foreign affairs. Although it may be considered a treaty by international standards, according to the US Constitution, the President does not have treaty power, thus an executive agreement is more of a general provision used by both sides to come to terms with an important issue.

Traditionally, all treaties established by the US relied on approval by the legislative branch. According to the Treaty Clause in the Constitution, the President can work with other nations and foreign representatives to establish the conditions of treaties, but it takes an act of Congress to ratify the treaty. The provisions must be debated and then approved by the Senate with a two-thirds vote.

Since the end of World War II, official treaties have become an exception to the rule rather than standard operating procedure. This is partly due to the fact that executive agreements are able to be instituted quickly and successfully, setting up deals with other countries with limited interference from other politicians. Another reason for the prevalence of executive agreements in modern times is the fact that it provides near complete control of foreign relations to the President. This also allows the executive branch, particularly the Secretary of State, the ability to secure internationally-recognized treaties that provide for national security. Sometimes these are even conducted in secret without the knowledge of the public.

Another method of executive agreement can be undertaken in unison with Congress. Although these legislative-executive agreements are not mentioned in the US Constitution, they still act as treaties with other countries. Both houses of Congress still vote on the measure, which is usually established through a presidential administration official. The US Supreme Court has heard arguments contradicting the constitutionality of this form of executive agreement and upheld them as legal.

There are numerous examples of executive agreements established by the President. Famous historic examples include the mutual protection deal struck with the United Kingdom at the onset of World War II, the postwar agreements with the Soviet Union at Yalta and Potsdam in 1945 and the peace treaty established with Vietnam in the early 1970s. Modern examples include the North American Free Trade Agreement from 1994 and membership in the World Trade Organization. These were all brokered by executive agreement with no oversight by the legislative branch.

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Discussion Comments
By David09 — On Nov 05, 2011

@hamje32 - Yeah, NAFTA is one executive agreement example mentioned in the article, and look at what that did.

It made trade “free” all right, but it relocated American jobs to Mexico so that they could produce goods cheaper and sell them back to us.

I agree with you – that kind of power leads to abuse. I guarantee you if the American people had had a chance to really weigh in, then NAFTA would never have been approved.

By hamje32 — On Nov 04, 2011

The executive agreement sounds like an executive order. It’s kind of suspicious in my opinion, granting all that power to the executive branch.

I don’t think powers once delegated to the legislative branch of the United States should be handed over to the executive branch.

I understand what the article says about the need for international agreements that are arranged for security purposes, but I’d think at least a few members of the legislative branch should be privy to what’s going on – and have some input.

I am definitely not in favor of executive agreements done without knowledge of the legislative branch whatsoever. This kind of power opens the door for abuse in my opinion.

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