Earlier today, President Obama took time out during his commencement address at the Air Force Academy to make a pointed plea for the value of treaty-making. Here’s the relevant excerpt from his remarks:
By the way, one of the most effective ways to lead and work with others is through treaties that advance our interests. Lately, there’s been a mindset in Congress that just about any international treaty is somehow a violation of American sovereignty, and so the Senate almost never approves treaties anymore. They voted down a treaty to protect disabled Americans, including our veterans, while Senator and World War II veteran Bob Dole was sitting right there in the Senate chambers in a wheelchair.
We don’t always realize it, but treaties help make a lot of things in our lives possible that we take for granted — from international phone calls to mail. Those are good things. Those are not a threat to our sovereignty. I think we can all agree on that.
But also from NATO to treaties controlling nuclear weapons, treaties help keep us safe. So if we’re truly concerned about China’s actions in the South China Sea, for example, the Senate should help strengthen our case by approving the Law of the Sea Convention — as our military leaders have urged. And by the way, these treaties are not a new thing. The power to make treaties is written into our Constitution. Our Founding Fathers ratified lots of treaties. So it’s time for the Senate to do its job and help us advance American leadership, rather than undermine it. (Applause.)
Three paragraphs is not much to fully articulate U.S. interests in treaty-making (let alone give a balanced overview of the arguments over UNCLOS). Thus, I think the more noteworthy thing here is the fact that the remarks are coming from the President himself. It’s one thing to call out the Senate on a specific treaty like the Disabilities Convention, but this slap is more systemic. President Obama has not had a good record when it comes to making treaties through the Article II Advice and Consent process. With the exception of the new START treaty, the Senate has refused to act on most treaties, including certain types of treaties (e.g., tax treaties, fish treaties) that in prior Administrations were entirely uncontroversial. Thus, we might see this speech as a late shift in strategy, where the White House is moving off treaty-specific pro’s and con’s to reconstruct this issue in constitutional terms. I’m not too sanguine that the move will be any more successful at getting votes on pending treaties, but the Senate’s response (if any) will bear watching.
What do others think? Is there anything I’m missing here?
[UPDATE: An astute reader points out that I was incorrect to cite fish treaties as an example of Senate hostility to treaty-making. In fact, all four treaties that have received Senate advice and consent since 2012 involved fish; in other words, fish treaties are the only treaties that have gotten through in the last four years. Tax treaties and treaties on scientific cooperation and conservation, which in the past were, like fish treaties, non-controversial, are better examples of the ongoing hostility to treaty-making]