Treaty Tips from the SFRC Clinton Hearing

by Duncan Hollis

Earlier today, the SFRC voted 16-1 in favor of Senator Hillary Clinton’s nomination to be the next U.S. Secretary of State.   That result is not surprising, nor was her generally well-regarded performance before the SFRC on Tuesday.  Indeed, it’s worth remembering on the second point that Clinton worked not only with transition officials and her own advisers to get ready, but also had numerous career-State Department officers at her disposal.  State officials often work to give the nominee a hand with the details and the range of options at stake in lesser-known foreign affairs issues.  Still, I value these hearings not simply because they give a sense of what the nominee will be like as Secretary, but also for the signals the hearings send about what topics are on the rise in terms of priority and attention for both the State Department and the SFRC.

To that end, I was interested to see what treaties came up during Tuesday’s hearing.  Three in particular caught my attention:  (1) START extension talks; (2) the CTBT; and (3) UNCLOS.

Newly-minted SFRC chair John Kerry opened up the hearing with a mention of the need to reengage on the START treaty, which, absent a negotiated extension, will expire at the end of the year.  This need for attention to START was echoed by Senator Lugar as well as Clinton herself later in the hearing.  In introducing the START issue, Sen. Kerry emphasized that “[w]e should also lay the groundwork for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.”  Interestingly, Senator Lugar did not touch that topic when he spoke out in favor of extending START.  Given the CTBT’s rejection by the full Senate in 1999 (after a positive SFRC vote), I wonder if Senator Lugar’s silence signals anything with respect to continued Republican resistance to that treaty?  For her part, Senator Clinton echoed Senator Kerry’s point on the need to reengage with the CTBT:

The Nonproliferation Treaty is the cornerstone of the nonproliferation regime, and the United States must exercise leadership needed to shore it up. So we will seek agreements with Russia to secure further reductions in weapons under START, we will work with this committee and the Senate toward ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and we will dedicate efforts to revive negotiations on a verifiable Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty.

Finally, the hearing sounded a very positive note on UNCLOS.  Here’s the exchange between Senator Murkowski and Senator Clinton, along with a later injection on the topic by Senator Kerry:

MURKOWSKI: Will ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty be a priority for you?

CLINTON: Yes, it will be, and it will be because it is long overdue, Senator. The Law of the Sea Treaty is supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, environmental, energy, and business interests. I have spoken with some of our — our naval leaders, and they consider themselves to be somewhat disadvantaged by our not having become a party to the Law of the Sea.

Our industrial interests, particularly with seabed mining, just shut up. I mean, there’s nothing that they can do because there’s no protocol that they can feel comfortable that gives them the opportunity to pursue commercial interests. So, for all of those reasons — and I mention it in conjunction with the Arctic because I think they go hand in hand — we’ve got to figure out where our boundaries are. You know, if people start drilling in areas that are now ice free most of the year, and we don’t know where they can and can’t drill or whether we can, we’re going to be disadvantaged. So I think that you will have a very receptive audience in our State Department and in our administration. . . .

KERRY: Thank you, Senator Murkowski.

Let me just say to you and to others interested that we are already — I have talked to Senator Lugar about this, and I’ve talked to Senator Clinton about it. We will be — we are now laying the groundwork for and expect to try to take up the Law of the Sea Treaty. So that will be one of the priorities of — of the committee, and the key here is just timing, how we proceed.

So, will UNCLOS finally get through?  The SFRC has positively voted it out before, only to have it fail to receive a floor vote.  It’ll be interesting to see if the objecting Senate floor votes are still there to resist this treaty if (or, more likely, when) it comes out of the SFRC again.  I suspect Senate opposition has lessened given the shift in its membership post-election, not to mention the power the Administration may wield in the near term.  As a result, it sure looks like like the prospects for UNCLOS accession are now more promising than ever before.

3 Responses

  1. Seems in this case elections have consequences.  Thank God.  I have to say, I was skeptical of Clinton’s nomination at first.  I have always seen her as a domestic policy buff more than a foreign policy wonk.  After this hearing it seems she is either much more learned on international law and diplomacy that I thought, or she is an extremely fast learner.  I am impressed.

    And its about time for UNCLOS to finally become law.  Lets hope it’s one of the first in a long list of treaties we are overdue to ratify.

  2. Could you please avoid acronyms without defining them. It is akin to sitting in a room while others tell inside jokes. I realize that this makes you and the other insiders feel special and superior, but it is extremely irritating. If you are trying to inform or convince a reader, it is a rather bad way to go about it.

    What is SFRC? UNCLOS? CTBT? START? One can guess at some of them from later context, but why (other than the writer’s laziness) should the reader have to do that?

  3. It is true that the United States (aka U.S.) government and international law share an unusual affinity for acronyms, regularly using them as shorthand, which, come to think of it might warrant a separate post at some point.  But to your questions:  

    SFRC — is the standard abbreviation for the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee; like DOD (the United States Department of Defense) or DOJ (the United States Department of Justice), I’d assumed SFRC was widely enough used not to require elaboration, but am happy to do so now.

    As to the treaty acronyms, I’d put them in hyperlinks in the hope that readers who didn’t know what they were would simply click through to the relevant texts.  But since that lure didn’t work for you, let me list them:

    START is the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty
    CTBT is the Comprehesive Test Ban Treaty; and
    UNCLOS is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

    Hope this helps. 

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