The world got an incredible Christmas present this year: the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). This groundbreaking treaty entered into legal force on December 24, 2014, regulating a $70bn business and placing responsibility on exporting nations to take care that their weapons don’t make it into the hands of “warlords, human rights abusers, terrorists and criminal organizations.” So far, it’s been signed by 130 countries and ratified by 61 including Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain, 5 of the top 10 global arms producers. It’s about time. Armed conflict directly killed over 55,000 people a year between 2004 and 2009, resulted in the worldwide displacement of 42.5 million people by the end of 2011, and costs billions of dollars in ruined infrastructure and stunted development, plus a host of other devastating effects. The world rang in the New Year with continued violence raging in Ukraine, Nigeria, Iraq and Libya, and too many other places. From neighboring states overwhelmed by refugees fleeing violence to power vacuums that create fertile ground for extremism, armed conflict is clearly a matter of international concern. A robust treaty that enhances global security by ensuring a responsible arms trade has come not a moment too soon.
If the US Senate doesn’t recognize the ATT for the gift it is, they’ll be dragging us down a treacherous road of belligerent isolationism and away from the path to global cooperation that is our best shot at a stable and secure world order. Here, at a crossroads, we cannot afford to be knocked off of the path of towards global stability and security. Unfortunately, we probably will be. Even worse? The American people might not even notice it’s happening.
To balance foreign policy power between the executive and legislative branches, our Constitution provides that the President “shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of Senators present concur.” After a President signs a treaty, the Senate can “customize” an agreement and address concerns by attaching reservations, understandings, declarations, or other statements that clarify their own interpretation of the treaty. This is an especially useful tool for the US because of our sensitivity to perceived infringements on national sovereignty. Secretary of State John Kerry signed the ATT on behalf of the Obama administration in September of 2013. The next step should be a two-thirds vote of approval in the Senate before it can be legally binding. Unfortunately, the Senate made it clear that the ATT will go no further.
You see, the very same day, with language parroting agitated statements put out by the NRA, 50 senators sent a letter to the Obama administration vowing to block ratification. The current Senate, with a new Republican majority and an enormous bone to pick with President Obama, is sure to reject the ATT. As if that weren’t bad enough, they’ll cover their tracks by confounding the debate, peddling misinformation, and stifling an urgent and crucial foundational conversation about the perilous state of our international commons. Here’s how it happens, best, middle, and worst case scenarios:
Best case scenario, the Senate recognizes just how critical the ATT is and approves it for ratification, allowing the US to join other leading nations in strengthening a simple norm: don’t send arms to bad guys in conflict zones. [For more on how an aspirational norms regime, or “playing by the rules” in the international arena is good for a more stable world, see Hyde’s 2011 article and a thorough empirical and theoretical argument from Risse, Ropp and Sikkink.]
A middle case scenario would be for the Senate to reject the treaty but trigger an honest and transparent debate about its true nature, to openly discuss the negative consequences of non-ratification, and to weigh these against domestic interests. In the process, grievances about sovereignty could be properly aired and fears could be addressed by attaching reservations or declarations to the treaty.
The worst-case scenario is what happened before and what will probably happen again. In the worst-case scenario, discussion is squashed into two pathetic amendments tacked onto a budget bill in the middle of the night amidst a manic and rigid gun rights narrative that places the ATT in opposition to the Second Amendment and the US in fantasy isolation. This is an entirely fraudulent representation of a narrow and crucial treaty. The Arms Trade Treaty explicitly “reaffirms the sovereign right of any State to regulate and control conventional arms exclusively within its territory, pursuant to its own legal or constitutional system.” At its core, the treaty endeavors to reinforce the very national sovereignty its opponents allege will be eroded, as evidenced by the repetition of clauses like “pursuant to its national laws” and “under its jurisdiction.” Frankly, the ATT has bigger fish to fry than regulating the minutiae of domestic US gun legislation. It’s the height of arrogance and the embodiment short-sightedness to confound the ATT’s purpose and reject honest discussion of anything even approaching gun rights. Invoking the Second Amendment to set a moratorium on any debate involving guns is especially irresponsible given the desperate state of armed conflict around the world, and the resulting destabilization that affects US interests. For the record, small arms and light weapons are only a sliver of the treaty’s purview, listed last after battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large-calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers.
Ultimately, the US senators set to block ratification of the ATT are missing the point. The easy political points they’ll score by branding themselves as Protectors of the Constitution and Defenders of the Second Amendment are coming out of the bank of international commons, and credit is running low. Regardless of whether ratifying the ATT would have a drastic effect on the US’s already strict arms export controls, commitment to an international system of cooperation is the smartest way forward in a world where challenges increasingly require multilateral action. From climate change to cyber security to maritime defense, long gone are the days where old-fashioned isolationism could meaningfully be central to the national political character of a leading country like the United States of America. The argument that the road to international cooperation is a slippery slope is not without its merits, but histrionics over the ATT do a disservice to the American people of the present and the future. The moral of the slippery slope is not to stand frozen at the top of the mountain, especially if a pack of hyenas is gaining ground behind you, or the threat of an unstable, insecure, and unmanaged and lawless world order looms ever-closer. The moral is surely: proceed with caution, but for goodness sake, proceed.