David Kaye on “Stealth Multilateralism”
The new issue of Foreign Affairs has an article by David Kaye, entitled “Stealth Multilateralism.” He begins the piece by describing the point of view of the “sovereigntists,” (often conservative Republicans) who view treaty-making as a threat to national sovereignty. (See, for example, this recent post by Peter on sovereigntist views.)
After arguing that treaty-making is actually an expression of sovereignty, Kaye closes the introductory section in this way:
Yet rejection is just the beginning of the story. Over the past two decades, the executive branch has developed and expanded a variety of lower-profile methods for asserting the country’s interests abroad in ways that do not require Senate involvement. The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations figured out that on some issues, they could circumvent the Senate entirely, and they developed new ways to participate in international forums, sometimes even exercising leadership in institutions that the Senate had refused to allow the United States to join.
Call it “stealth multilateralism.” Using a patchwork of political and legal strategies, the United States has learned how to respond to the global problems that are pulling it into the world even as Senate Republicans are trying to hold it back. As sound and effective as such measures can be, however, stealth multilateralism has its limits, since treaties establish more stable, transparent, and predictable relationships than political commitments. Both the United States and the rest of the world would benefit from a return to responsible multilateral engagement in which treaties regain their central role.
What follows for the rest of the article is a careful examination of the foreign policy costs of near-wholesale treaty rejection, the “subtle form of rejection” in the U.S. practice of treaty reservations, and, how Presidents have found work-arounds, such as non-binding agreements, to remain engaged in a policy area despite the Senate’s refusal to ratify. Crucially, Kaye explains the limits of those tactics and why the American public loses when we do not have a real discussion of the pros and cons of a particular treaty.
Kaye’s essay is a great primer on the interplay of U.S. domestic politics with international treaty-making. Check it out.