Does President Bush Hate to Sign Treaties?

Does President Bush Hate to Sign Treaties?

Just in case the Bush Administration’s recent diplomatic initiatives were in danger of changing the President’s image, the LA Times reports on a new study finding that President Bush has signed fewer treaties at this point in his term than his predecessor Bill Clinton and even than his father.

Now President Bush may indeed be unilateralist, and even anti-internationalist (and that is not necessarily a bad thing) but this deeply flawed study does little to support this view. Why?

(1) The study is based on 550 treaties, the vast majority of which are deposited with the U.N. But by focusing on these treaties, the authors are already privileging multilateral treaties over bilateral treaties including extradition, trade, and investment treaties. Why don’t the U.S. and President Bush get “credit” for signing and ratifying bilateral treaties such as the U.S.-Australia Free Trade Agreement or the U.S.-Russia Strategic Offensive Reduction Treaty?

(2) The study focuses on treaties rather than on the main form of international agreements made by the U.S: executive agreements. In fact, executive agreements might be a better measurement because the real obstacle to treaty ratification is the Constitution’s two-thirds of the Senate requirement, which does not apply to executive agreements. In any event, to the extent the study has a point, it is that the Senate (under both Democratic and Republican leaderships), rather than the President, that is the main stumbling block for treaty ratification. And this is pretty much by design: the Constitution added a supermajority requirement precisely to make ratification of treaties difficult and the system appears to be working quite well. (note that according to the study, that crazy isolationalist Franklin Roosevelt ratified 0 treaties during his four terms).

(3) The study criticizes the U.S. government’s selectivity: it eschews labor treaties for instance, while pursuing anti-terrorism treaties. But I would actually suggest such selectivity is generally a good thing. First, it almost certainly conforms to the priorities of the voters, were they asked. Second, it suggests that the U.S. government is assessing treaties based on the individual merits of each treaty system, rather than blindly joining all treaties simply because they exist.

(4) Finally, the study assumes that signing and ratifying treaties correlates to good international behavior and not signing or ratifying treaties correlates to bad behavior. But this is a highly questionable assumption. Many not so friendly countries sign lots of treaties. North Korea and Libya, for instance, are always ready to sign, perhaps knowing that signing the treaties is essentially meaningless in such domestic systems. Oddly, then, it is the U.S. government’s respect for treaties that leads it to refuse to join such treaties unless it believes it can actually live up to those legal obligations. After all, if the U.S. were the realist blowhard many internationalist critics suggest it is, it would sign all treaties and then simply ignore all of them.

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