One Voice or Many? The Political Question Doctrine and Acoustic Dissonance in Foreign Affairs

Daniel Abebe

A common theme in foreign affairs law is the importance of the US speaking with “one voice” to the international community. Speaking with one voice, so the story goes, ensures that the US is not embarrassed by multiple, inconsistent pronouncements from the several states or the different branches of the national government when it takes a position on a foreign affairs issue. Such acoustic dissonance from the US could potentially result in a loss of credibility, a reduced capacity to achieve foreign policy goals, and a greater chance of conflict with other countries. So, when the Constitution is unclear about the allocation of decision-making authority on an issue, but the President or the national government speaks first, the presumption in favor of speaking in one voice reduces the possibility of multiple governmental decision makers and permits the US to act clearly and decisively in foreign affairs. While it reduces acoustic dissonance, the presumption in favor of one voice has two other effects as well: the centralization of foreign affairs decision making in the federal government vis-a-vis the states and centralization of foreign affairs decision making in the President vis-a-vis Congress.