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Throwing Away the Respect of Mankind

03/11/2015 11:00 am ET | Updated May 11, 2015
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The Declaration of Independence begins with an appeal to the "decent respect to the opinions of mankind." This appeal was put in for a good reason. The new democratic republic, an anomaly among states that were undemocratic and suspicious, desperately needed to be taken seriously on the world stage as a reliable actor.

Fast-forward almost 240 years, and this wish to be taken seriously has apparently all but disappeared. The bizarre open letter, in which 47 Republican senators lecture the (unspecified) "Leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran," is the latest, and probably most embarrassing, example of a Congress (or a part thereof) meddling in foreign relations. After suggesting that the Iranians "may not fully understand our constitutional system," the letter educates them that, essentially, any executive agreement entered into solely by the president without congressional consent is "nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei" -- that is, it can be revoked "by the stroke of a pen" by the next president and modified by any future Congress.

Critics have been outraged, though mostly for the wrong reasons. They have criticized the senators for playing party politics, for disrespecting the office of the president in general and President Obama in particular, for ignoring the separation of powers (which gives foreign-relations prerogative to the executive). They have even pointed out inaccuracies regarding constitutional law in the letter. (Technically the Senate does not ratify treaties, as the letter suggests, but instead empowers the president to ratify them.)

In focusing so much on domestic issues, the critics avoid (and thus seem to implicitly concede) the most important assumption of the letter: that foreign relations are, essentially, a domestic matter. They are not. Foreign relations concern our relations with other countries. The biggest harm from the latter is done not domestically but in our relations to other countries.

To begin, lecturing foreign governments on the content of U.S. law is always condescending -- but especially so in the case of the Iranian government, which has, reportedly, the highest number of graduates of U.S. colleges and universities in its ranks among foreign governments. In return, the Iranian foreign minister, Jarad Zarif (who, by the way, has both an M.A. in international relations and a Ph.D. in international law and policy from the University of Denver), gladly took the occasion to lecture the Senate Republicans on international law. He is, unfortunately, correct: The revocation of a binding international agreement (no matter what form it takes) is a "blatant violation of international law."

Now, the senators might of course say they do not care, that they would rather violate international law than risk an Iranian nuclear bomb. But their letter has broader implications, and it is astonishing that it takes the Iranian foreign minister to point them out: The letter "undermines the credibility of thousands of such 'mere executive agreements' that have been or will be entered into by the US with various other governments." Indeed, executive agreements, including so-called sole executive agreement (that require no congressional consent) have long been an important tool for presidents from both parties to create obligations between the U.S. and foreign countries. Are the Republican senators really saying they do not feel bound by them? Should those other countries not feel bound either?

What the letter says is essentially this: The word from the United States, as expressed by its head of state, has no value. We, the United States, should not be trusted. We will not feel bound by our commitments come a change in government. This may or may not be OK with Iran (it probably is not), but the message goes much further. The letter puts our co-negotiators with Iran -- the UK, Russia, China, France, and Germany -- on notice that they are on their own, because the United States cannot be trusted. It warns our other allies to avoid entering into international agreements with us, because we may simply "revoke" them. And it provides foreign countries with easy ammunition to justify their own breaches of international obligations.

This letter, therefore, does damage not only to President Obama, the office of the president, and the Senate as a respectable institution. The letter undermines the very standing of the United States in the World. This is the irony: A party that has repeatedly criticized the president for his alleged lack of patriotism now demonstrates that it has little such patriotism itself. A party that constantly invokes the founding fathers sees no problem with contradicting one of their main concerns.

The United States has done much, since its founding, to earn the decent respect of mankind that the founders felt the country needed since the moment of foundation. But in directly asking foreign countries to mistrust us, Republicans are, it seems, intentionally trying to throw away what remains of this respect. It is hard to see how this could be good for the country.