Let No Man Tear Asunder
French President Francois Hollande, perhaps unwittingly, raises an interesting question. Discussing the Paris Agreement on climate change, which Barack Obama helped to negotiate, and which has been ratified by many countries, he states:
"The agreement was historic. But what we must say here is this agreement is irreversible."
He's worried, of course, that Donald Trump will back out of the deal. Any worldwide agreement on the environment without U.S. support is, if not entirely meaningless, a lot less useful.
The first question Americans may ask is did Congress assent to the agreement. No--as far as I can recall, President Obama bypassed the Senate and did this on his own. And this is where we get to the interesting question. Can a President do something on his own that commits the U.S. to a policy irrevocably, or can the next President start anew, picking his own policies and tossing out the old ones?
In general, as far as I understand, the new President is not bound by unilateral decisions made by the old President. There may be certain things hard to get rid of--something completed, like a monument. And it may be bad policy to change too many things, since the public relies on a certain consistency. But any ongoing policy (even if other countries are relying on it) can be overturned. If the previous President didn't want anyone to touch what he did, he should have gone to Congress and gotten a law passed, or a treaty ratified. (Even that is no guarantee--laws can be overturned, and even constitutional amendment can be undone.)
Hollande knows this, of course. So his tough talk comes across more as desperation. I don't know what Trump will do when he takes office, but I don't imagine he'll be impressed by Hollande's claim. In fact, I don't think a stern lecture will get to Trump--perhaps a personal plea to his vanity makes more sense.