Climate Accords and the Credible Commitment Issue

Attention-grabbing headlines this morning said that Obama was seeking to circumvent Congress in order to pass a far-reaching “accord” on climate with the international community.  Treaties have to be ratified by the Senate, but the President has a fair amount of leeway to negotiate anything short of a legally binding treaty.  As soon as I dug even a little deeper into the details, I couldn’t help smiling because this is a ridiculous idea.

It also proves that the Administration needs more political scientists thinking through political strategy.  I’m available, by the way; the NSA has my number.  Even a basic familiarity with the tenets of game theory would explain why this is an extremely unpromising idea.

Why would countries agree to treaties, which restrict their freedom to dictate policy?  Usually as a way to resolve collective action problems, wherein all the participants bind themselves to pursuing a policy that is better for everyone.  The Geneva Convention is a good example; people generally honor it because a world where POWs and civilians are treated better is better for everyone.  Why do they not sign on to treaties even when the result would be better for everyone? In that case it’s usually a concern about defection – Country X worries they will honor it but nobody else will, and leave them alone bearing the cost.  So when proposing a treaty, it’s very important to convince your counterparts that you will honor the deal.

In game theory terms, this is called a credible commitment.  Countries need to go to great lengths to demonstrate credibility, and there are many mechanisms to do so.  Senate ratification is actually a way to do this – our counterparties can be confident that when a treaty gets the required two-thirds vote in the Senate, there is a genuine political consensus behind this.  And therein lies the rub – when a treaty commands almost no support in Congress, our counterparties are justified in doubting how likely the US will be to honor it.

Our counterparties – China, Germany, and the rest of the world, aren’t stupid.  They can read the New York Times and understand that a solid majority of the Senate would vote to overturn such an accord passed without their consent.  There might even be sufficient Congressional support to override a veto of such a vote.  Furthermore, as soon as a Republican takes the Presidency the accord will be broken by executive fiat.  An international agreement implemented against the explicit wishes of Congress, at the tail end of a Presidency, is almost the least credible commitment the US Presidency can make.  

This is a ludicrous idea that I sincerely hoped is discarded as swiftly as possible.

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