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The Politics of War Powers: The Theory and History of Presidential Unilateralism, Sarah Burns

Reviewed by Clement Fatovic

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The ability of U.S. presidents to deploy military forces and conduct foreign affairs without meaningful congressional participation has been the subject of considerable political handwringing and academic scholarship for decades. In a sweeping historical survey that traces the development of this structural imbalance from the founding up to the present, Sarah Burns argues that this radical shift has made governance in matters of war and peace dependent on the vagaries of presidential character rather than the institutional checks and balances set up by the Framers. In Burns’s telling, this “perversion” represents an abandonment of the original Montesquieuan understanding of a constitutional order designed to facilitate dialogue between the branches in favor of a dangerous Lockean conception of executive unilateralism that asserts claims of legality to close off debate.

Burns’s aim in The Politics of War Powers is not to just to show that Montesquieu was a leading intellectual guide for Founders such as James Madison, but also to argue for his continued relevance today. Burns argues that the French theorist’s insistence on separating and empowering different institutions so they can more effectivel

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