President Obama addresses the U.N. General Assembly
It hasn't gotten much attention, but UN's International Telecommunications Union has hosted a conference this week, and much of the discussions have focused on a possible treaty on Internet freedom. Yesterday, however, the Obama administration's delegation balked at the proposed treaty's language, arguing that it opened the door to censorship.
A senior administration official told the Washington Post. "We can't conceive of a signing the text without a major revision at this point."
This struck me as interesting on its face, but it also got me thinking about treaties in general. Let's say the International Telecommunications Union's conference was going far better, and U.S. officials were duly impressed by the treaty on Internet freedom. Let's even say the Obama administration decided it's a treaty worth signing.
It probably wouldn't make much difference, since Senate ratification of treaties has gone from difficult to practically impossible.
After Senate Republicans killed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, Dan Drezner called the opposition "dumber than a bag of hammers," but added something that stuck in my head:
I've blogged on occasion about the development of a sovereigntist lobby that reflexively opposes all treaties because they erode U.S. sovereignty. For these people, any infringement on American sovereignty is a death blow to freedom, regardless of the benefits from joining.
That's true, but what goes generally unsaid is that this sovereigntist lobby, coupled with the radicalization of Republican politics, has created conditions in which the United States may no longer be able to ratify any treaty for any reason on any issue.
By constitutional mandate, it takes 67 Senate votes to ratify a treaty, which means any measure that has even the slightest chance would need a significant chunk of the Senate Republican conference to meet the two-thirds threshold -- and by all indications, that's no longer a realistic option.
Kevin Drum noted after the disabilities treaty was defeated:
Movement conservatives tend to tolerate trade treaties, but that's about it.... They don't like treaties, they've never liked treaties, and if there's nothing obviously wrong with one they'll invent a bunch of bizarre conspiracy theories in order to get themselves worked into a frenzy about it.
Quite right. The next step, however, is a broader understanding of the consequences.
The disabilities treaty was an opportunity for the United States to show some global moral leadership, but it was killed. U.S. military leaders strongly support the Law of the Sea treaty, but Republicans refuse to allow it to be ratified, too. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) deserves a fair hearing, but the GOP won't give it one. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is now the longest of long shots (the United States joins Somalia and South Sudan as the only countries on the planet who refuse to ratify it).
Two years ago next week, the Senate just barely ratified the New START nuclear treaty, over the objections of most Senate Republicans, and it enjoyed the support of the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs, eight former secretaries of state from both parties, five former secretaries of defense from both parties, seven former Strategic Command chiefs, national security advisers from both parties, nearly all former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces, and former President George H.W. Bush.
The point, in other words, is that extremist elements that dominate Republican politics in the 21st century have severely undermined the nation's ability to lead in a global arena. The right has also raised fears about "sovereignty" when it comes to treaties, but up until very recently, ratifying measures was still seen as entirely feasible. Today, even if the White House endorses a treaty, international diplomats realize that it's no longer up to the president, and Senate ratification of everything is unlikely, if not impossible.
There are plenty of treaties that deserve to be crafted and considered -- most notably one addressing the climate crisis -- but until the fever in Republican politics subsides, we appear to have entered a post-treaty phase of American leadership.