International news 08 July 2009

Obama to World: We're Back and Ready to Ratify
Politics Daily
Jill Wallace
Posted: 07/8/09

President Obama is taking steps on nuclear weapons and climate change that are in line with his pledge to rebuild U.S. alliances around the world. It's a window on what we could see in the next four to eight years: The birth of new treaties and the revival of old ones that have long been stalled, some for decades.


This shift was a cornerstone of Obama's campaign. He made it clear that he sees international laws and institutions as potential "pillars of U.S. policy and influence as opposed to constraints that hinder and hobble the United States," says Stewart Patrick, director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.


In May, the State Department sent the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a list of 16 treaties on which "the administration supports Senate action at this time." All the treaties have been signed some nearly 30 years ago but the Senate never ratified them.


Committee chairman John Kerry has said he wants to take up at least two treaties between now and the end of 2010, both signed during the Clinton administration. One is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which governs how countries use oceans and which was supported by former president George W. Bush.


The other is the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and other Related Materials (its Spanish acronym is CIFTA). During his April visit to Mexico, Obama said the treaty would "curb small arms trafficking that is a source of so many weapons used in this drug war."


Kerry is also interested in the Carter-era Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and says he wants to "re-examine the case for ratifying" the 1996 Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty. But there is no timeline on those.
Obama is moving ahead on his own in some areas. In Moscow, he and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to cut their nuclear arsenals by about a third, the basis for a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty when the current one expires Dec. 5.


And eight years after Bush rejected the Kyoto treaty on warming, Obama is trying for a dramatic turnaround from lagging to leading. In L'Aquila, Italy, on Thursday, he will chair a climate change meeting of 17 economic powers. The discussions are a prelude to a U.N. climate conference in December in Copenhagen, and could guide its work.


Obama is armed this week with House passage of the first U.S. cap on the carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. In addition, the United States appears ready to endorse for the first time a goal of limiting warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The State Department did not respond to inquiries Tuesday, and White House press secretary Robert Gibbs did not have the answer when he was asked about it early Wednesday en route from Moscow to Rome. (Update: The White House later confirmed that was correct). The new position was reported last week by Reuters and The Guardian.


The push to revive stalled treaties comes as the Senate is already dealing with health care, energy, financial regulation, the economy and a Supreme Court nominee. And if you think it's hard to find 60 votes to stop a filibuster, imagine the challenge of rounding up the two-thirds majority of 67 that's needed to ratify a treaty.


Beyond that, Obama has only so much political capital. He's already used up some on his stimulus bill and auto company rescues, and he is preparing to part with a whole lot more to win changes in health and energy policy.


A nuclear agreement that reduces both tensions with Russia and money spent on weapons likely won't be a difficult sell. "My guess is this will be relatively popular and help him," says Patrick James, director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Southern California.
But other international pacts fall squarely into the culture-war terrain of U.S. politics. Even those with broad support are bound to trigger intense resistance.


For instance, gun rights groups consider the CIFTA treaty aimed at illicit gun trafficking to be a threat to legal gun owners. Conservatives say the Law of the Sea treaty would undermine U.S. sovereignty and military operations. And while foreign policy experts say it's absurd and embarrassing that the United States hasn't ratified the treaty banning discrimination against women, some conservatives say it's an attack on the family and on U.S. sovereignty, and anyway, it's not needed in the United States.


Take all those arguments and multiply by 100 to predict the furor that would erupt if Obama signed us up for the 9-year-old International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, which prosecutes people accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.


The Bush administration, raising the specter of American soldiers brought before anti-American judges, adamantly opposed the court. Obama has said the United States should "cooperate" with it. There are ways to do that short of joining -- participating in preparations for a 2010 assessment of its performance, for instance, or agreeing to provide intelligence if asked. Still, it's a toxic political issue. "If I were advising him, I'd say stay away from it," says James.


With so many other treaties awaiting attention, don't look for Obama to go there. But he and Kerry may go for that comprehensive test ban treaty. In a setback for Bill Clinton, it received only 49 of the needed 67 votes in 2000, then Bush came into office and opposed it. Now backers see hope in several developments including Obama's popularity, public-opinion backlash against what CFR's Patrick calls "unilateralism and treaty-bashing," and bipartisan supporters who include former Republican secretaries of state George Shultz and Henry Kissinger.
There's also the simple fact of more Democratic votes in the Senate 60 if everyone is there. All Obama needs is seven Republican votes. J. Brian Atwood, a former treaty negotiator and former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development, urges courage. "People get scared away from testing this thing and going to the Hill and making the case," he says, but the votes are within reach.


I'm trying to imagine that day, the day the Senate ratifies a comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty. Or any treaty, new or stalled. It will be like Inauguration Day all over again more stark evidence that the future has begun.