Senate’s dereliction of duty a danger to U.S. leadership

As the Senate begins debate on the U.S.-Russia New START arms-reduction treaty, we must not lose sight of a glaring problem in our national security: the impact that the U.S. failure to join major multilateral treaties has on our capacity to exercise global leadership. This failure threatens to make us, in a sad parody of Madeleine Albright’s famous phrase, the “dispensable nation.” 

The world is not waiting for us. As it becomes clear the treaties we negotiate might never be ratified, our power to shape their formation will wane. The rest of the world will continue negotiating multilateral treaties to shape vital international issues — with or without the United States. This position is dangerous. Each of the threats we face today — terrorism, climate change, poverty, infectious diseases — can only be solved through global efforts and global rules. 

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By helping shape the rules of the road that govern the actions of all countries, we can create a level playing field and address critical global problems. Treaties are an important way the United States can exercise power and advance vital national interests without resorting to the use of force or spending massive amounts of money. Opting out of these efforts is disarming the United States.

Twenty-five multilateral treaties negotiated and signed by the United States are languishing in the Senate, including seven treaties sent by the Bush administration. Still others have been signed but never submitted to the Senate for ratification. 

The United States still hasn’t joined treaties regulating the use of the oceans, banning nuclear weapons testing, banning landmines or protecting women’s and children’s rights; in fact, the only other country on earth not to ratify the children’s treaty is Somalia … which lacks a functioning government. These are all treaties that we already live by; we follow the rules without getting the benefits. For example, while we no longer need to use explosive nuclear weapons testing, our failure to join the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty undermines our capacity to convince other countries to live up to their nonproliferation obligations. 

Most Americans support the joining these treaties for these very reasons. A November 2009 Council on Foreign Relations digest of polling data on U.S. attitudes found that supermajorities of Americans consistently support participation in a variety of international treaties. However, this support is a mile wide but an inch deep, which means that while most constituents would like to see the United States join the law of the sea convention, the women’s treaty, the landmines treaty and even the International Criminal Court treaty, they just aren’t very vehement about their support.

Those who are vocal, however, are a small minority who believe the U.S. can go it alone and hate the very idea of international law. Take, for example, the Convention on the Law of the Sea, negotiated under and ultimately endorsed by President Reagan. Its diverse and broad group of supporters include strange bedfellows like the Quakers and the U.S. military, environmentalists and the oil industry. Even George W. Bush asked for it to be ratified. Yet, after 16 years, the vehement opposition of a handful of Senators from land-locked states has kept the treaty stalled in the Senate, citing concerns about “sovereignty,” despite the bipartisan consensus that ratifying the treaty is in our nation’s vital economic and national security interests.

Treaties have become a red-meat issue for some far-right organizations who will bring significant assets to the table to defeat them — and use them to raise bucket loads of cash. Some Senate offices have reported that during recent treaty debates, communications from constituents ran as much as 300-to-one against ratification. For most treaties, there just isn’t a politically relevant constituency mobilized around support, so the only voice being heard is that of the isolationist minority who believe the existence of the United Nations threatens the U.S. constitution. 

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It’s time for the Senate — and the White House — to expend the political capital necessary for treaty ratification. There are at least six multilateral treaties that have a reasonable chance of ratification and would demonstrate that the U.S. is back in the business of working with others: the Test Ban Treaty, the Law of the Sea Convention, the Landmines Treaty, International Labor Convention 111, the Women’s Treaty and the recently signed Disabilities Treaty. It is critically important the Senate moves forward on at least one and demonstrates that the U.S. will have a say in writing the rules of the world. Failure to do so risks undermining our capacity to achieve our national security goals.

Multilateral treaties aren’t going away as a way of doing international business, but one has to wonder at what point other countries will just do business without us. At what point does the United States simply become the “dispensable nation?”

Heather B. Hamilton is the Executive Director of the Connect U.S. Fund.