November 5, 2013 is U.S. National Treaty Day. Well, not really, but it might as well be given how much treaties are going to be in the news tomorrow. For starters, the United States Supreme Court hears oral argument in the case of Bond v. United States (for the pleadings, see SCOTUS blog’s as-always-excellent round-up). As we’ve blogged previously (a lot), the case challenges the scope of the U.S. treaty power as the basis for implementing legislation in areas where Congress otherwise could not legislate. In this case, there’s some salacious facts leading to a rather unlikely prosecution under the implementing legislation for the Chemical Weapons Convention (let’s just say the case is a far cry from the scenario that won the OPCW this year’s Nobel Peace Prize). In the process, Bond questions the continued precedential value of one of the most discussed (and read) cases in U.S. foreign relations law — Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ opinion in Missouri v. Holland.
Then, in the afternoon, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee takes up the UN Disabilities Convention . . . again (here’s the line-up for those testifying). The Convention got a lot of attention the last time it reached the Senate floor, with Senate Republicans voting it down despite the poignant appearance of former Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, who came to support advice and consent to the treaty. U.S. Senators John McCain and Robert Menendez have an op-ed in USA Today taking their case for Senate advice and consent to the general public.
Of course, the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Disabilities Convention are not the only two treaties to have garnered media attention in recent weeks. U.S. Secretary of State Kerry’s signature of the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty promoted a rather furious domestic back-lash about whether the United States should join that treaty (At present, it sure looks like there’s easily enough Senate votes to oppose it). And, that’s not to mention the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It continues to be supported by a large majority of business and national security interests but remains stymied by Senate opposition from a very vocal minority who fear the loss of “sovereignty” that would come with U.S. consent.
I could easily write one (or more posts) on each of these treaty issues. For now, though, I want to call attention to a common theme that runs through all the on-going debates. In each case, the treaty fight ends up being framed as a fight between those who would situate U.S. treaties (and with them, U.S. law) within a larger community — international communitarians if you will — versus those I’d call autonomists — who seek autonomy from any international regulation whether in defense of national law, states’ rights, or individual liberties. Thus, opponents to UNCLOS want the U.S. to be able to regulate its own maritime environment just as those who oppose the Disabilities Convention oppose its potential to go beyond the Americans with Disabilities Act. Of course, the Disabilities Convention also raises the specter of further intrusions into U.S. state regulations akin to the fears of internationally-based prosecutions that lie at the heart of the Bond case. And all of this is not to mention the NRA and their (rather unrealistic) charges that the Arms Trade Treaty would require the United States to violate the Second Amendment and the constitutional liberties individuals enjoy to bear arms.
This division between communitarians and autonomists helps explain how treaty debates are now almost always framed in all-or-nothing terms. The decisions on whether to join or enforce U.S. treaty commitments become zero-sum games; only one side can win and the other must lose. That narrative certainly makes for good media stories. But, I wonder if playing the game this way is truly in the nation’s interests. It seems we end up with some examples where communitarians can claim complete victory (see, e.g., the new START treaty or the gold standard of an international engagement — the Montreal Protocol) while autonomists have equally compelling winning claims on their side (see, e.g., Medellin). Citing such divergent results, however, only seems to inflame the passions of the “losing” side and risk entrenching no-compromise strategies that seem a recipe for disaster (see, e.g., this October in Washington).
So as the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Disabilities Convention take center stage, I’d like to flag a simple point: U.S. treaty-making and implementation is a much more flexible and nuanced practice than the existing debates suggest. There are not just some, but many, potential outcomes in these cases that would not require the definitive death of the treaty power OR states’ rights. Indeed, as Peter’s most recent post suggests and as I’ve written previously, looking at the history of U.S. treaty-making post Missouri v. Holland, it’s pretty clear that the United States regularly accommodates state interests/rights in entering and implementing U.S. treaty commitments. Thus, a win for the United States in Bond is unlikely to mean states rights get overridden by all future treaty-making. Similarly, there are ways for Ms. Bond to win this case (think, creative statutory interpretation) that don’t necessarily mean we all get to stop reading Holmes’ opinion. One could make a similar point about the Disabilities Convention. The Senate doesn’t have to give unconditional advice and consent — it has a long history of RUDs (reservations, understandings, and declarations) that might be used to mitigate the scope of U.S. commitments to that treaty regime. Even federalism interests writ large can be protected (see, e.g., the RUDs included in U.S. ratification of the Organized Crime Convention or the UN Corruption Convention).
Now, there will be those who say RUDs are inadmissible and run counter to the object and purpose of one or more of these treaties, just as there will be those who say joining any treaty will lead to some impermissible sacrifice of U.S. “sovereignty.” My point (hope) is that Senators (and Supreme Court Justices) don’t have to always accept these cases as they are characterized at the poles. There are plenty of precedents that may be brought to bear balancing competing interests such as federalism and international engagements at the same time. We’ll see if any such hybrid results appear possible in the coming days. I’d hope so, but given current trends in American politics, I’m not sure I’d bet on it.