The Politics of War Powers

The Theory and History of Presidential Unilateralism

Sarah Burns

The Constitution of the United States divides war powers between the executive and legislative branches to guard against ill-advised or unnecessary military action. This division of powers compels both branches to hold each other accountable and work in tandem. And yet, since the Cold War, congressional ambition has waned on this front. Even when Congress does provide initial authorization for larger operations, they do not provide strict parameters or clear end dates. As a result, one president after another has initiated and carried out poorly developed and poorly executed military policy. The Politics of War Powers offers a measured, deeply informed look at how the American constitutional system broke down, how it impacts decision-making today, and how we might find our way out of this unhealthy power division.

Sarah Burns starts with a nuanced account of the theoretical and historical development of war powers in the United States. Where discussions of presidential power often lean on the concept of the Lockean Prerogative, Burns locates a more constructive source in Montesquieu. Unlike Locke, Montesquieu combines universal normative prescriptions with an emphasis on tailoring the structure to the unique needs of a society. In doing so, the separation of powers can be customized while maintaining the moderation needed to create a healthy institutional balance. He demonstrates the importance of forcing the branches into dialogue, putting them, as he says, “in a position to resist” each other. Burns’s conclusion—after tracing changes through Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration, the Cold War, and the War on Terror—is that presidents now command a dangerous degree of unilateral power.

“Burns takes the reader on an exploration of American political thought (emphasizing Montesquieu), founding-era leaders, WWI and WWII, and the war on terror, bemoaning the decline of cross-institutional deliberation, engagement, and ambition. Highly recommended


“Sarah Burns has written a sweeping account of the contentious debate over war powers through the eyes of Montesquieu, Locke, and an array of American statesmen. The author’s mastery of the philosophical debates over war powers coupled with her sound grasp of history makes for a remarkable read. Her insightful discussion of Abraham Lincoln’s interpretation of presidential war powers and prerogative power is worth the price of admission alone.”

—Stephen F. Knott, professor in the Department of National Security Affairs, United States Naval War College

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Burns’s work ranges across Montesquieu’s theory, the debate over the creation of the Constitution, historical precedent, and the current crisis. Through her analysis, both a fuller picture of the alterations to the constitutional system and ideas on how to address the resulting imbalance of power emerge.

About the Author

Sarah Burns is assistant professor of political science at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Additional Titles in the American Political Thought Series