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Sarah Burns

Mar 9, 2020

The Politics of War Powers

The Theory and History of Presidential Unilateralism

University Press of Kansas 2020

purchase at bookshop.org Sarah Burns’ new book The Politics of War Powers: The Theory and History of Presidential Unilateralism (University Press of Kansas, 2020) pulls together distinct threads in analyzing the theoretical framing of presidential power in the American constitutional system and then tracing that power through forty-five presidents. Burns begins by assessing Locke’s impact on the constitutional design of the presidency and then turning her attention to the more substantial contributions made by Montesquieu, since Montesquieu had an equally sizable impact on the Founders and their thinking about this office. There were great tensions at the time of the Founding about the powers that the president has in pursuing war and military engagements. The Politics of War Powers pays close attention to the distinctions made in the Constitution between the role of the legislature in declaring war, and the role of the president in prosecuting war. This is the foundation for Burns’ analysis of presidential implementation of these powers over the course of more than 200 years, and she carefully examines these theoretical foundations, devoting the first third of The Politics of War Powers to unpacking and discussing the competing views of this important and, at times, suspect, power. Following from this theoretical basis, The Politics of War Powers dives into deeply researched explorations of not only the presidents themselves and how they thought about and used their war powers, but also how and where Congress acted and responded. This dimension of the analysis is particularly important to consider, and Burns sketches the ways in which the early Congress exerted its authority and constitutional role in regard to war and the war powers embedded in the Constitution. She then goes on to explore the tension between the executive and the legislature over the course of a number of military engagements that pressed on these competing capacities. The final section of the book outlines the ways in which presidential war powers have grown substantially and the legal reasoning that has grown up around these powers as Congress has stepped back from its own role in regard to war powers. In many ways, The Politics of War Powers is as much about congressional engagement or abdication in its constitutional role as it is about the expansion of presidential power. The delicate balance between the branches has shifted rather substantially, according to Burns’ analysis, and The Politics of War Powers draws out the ways in which this balance has shifted over the course of American history and political development.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012).

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Lilly Goren

Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI.

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