Should the U.S. Ratify Treaties for the Sake of Ratifying Treaties?

by Julian Ku

I agree that the relatively slow progress in U.S. treaty-making is not all the fault of the sluggish Obama Administration.  The Senate no doubt is a big obstacle to treaty-making, .  Still, I think the idea that the U.S. should join treaties, simply in order to show the world that we are willing to join treaties, is a really bad principle to govern lawmaking.  Yet this is the main point of this op-ed in Politico.

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 Madeline 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.

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.

I think treaties should be judged independently and based on their individual merits. I have simply seen very little evidence that joining treaties irrespective of its policy benefits for the U.S, can itself be a policy benefit for the U.S.  And I really doubt that ratifying the ILO or CEDAW would do much for our ability to write rules on nuclear testing or the law of the sea.  There are ways to get Republican Senators to vote for treaties, but this is not one of them.

2 Responses

  1. And given the propensity for UN treaty monitoring bodies to reinterpret these treaties and then get legal traction for their reinterpretations, means that signing one of these treaties is like stepping into an ever changing river. States simply do not know what their obligations will be.

  2. Ratification or not, the U.S. can still exercise global leadership merely by doing what it has already agreed to do by signing these respective treaties.  In fact, it is obligated to do so under Article 18 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, which imposes an obligation signatories (absent a stated intention NOT to ratify) to refrain from acts that would defeat the object and purpose of the signed treaty in the interim period between signature and ratification.  Though it is debated as to how to interpret “defeat[ing]” “object and purpose” in this context, the principle is uncontested as customary international law, and is thus binding on the U.S., even though it has not ratified the VCLT itself.

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