When International Treaties Stall at Home

09/13/2010 05:18 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Last week, I was sitting in a class on international treaty obligations and compliance with Antonia Chayes, Professor of International Politics and Law at The Fletcher School. We were discussing the difficulties of (a) ratifying an international treaty at home and (b) complying with said treaty after ratification, and I couldn't help but think of the recent news off the Global Security Newswire that Senator John Kerry (D-MA) has submitted a draft ratification resolution for New START, which was signed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev earlier this year.

I'm not interested here in the fine-print details of Kerry's draft proposal. Rather, what fascinates me is the degree to which domestic politics influence international relations, and vice-versa. Obama won the national election two years ago (can you believe we're already halfway through this term?) on a platform that focused on increasing American national security by lowering our reliance on nuclear weapons, especially in light of the relatively new global threat of nuclear terrorism. And, whether he deserved it or not, Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize shortly after being inaugurated. He also made some very powerful speeches, put out a forward-looking Nuclear Posture Review, and even hosted the first Nuclear Security Summit a few months ago. He actually followed through on his commitment to advance arms control talks with Russia, and one year after announcing in Prague that the United States is committed to a world free of nuclear weapons, he and Medvedev kept their promise and signed New START.

But despite all this progress and momentum, not all is good and harmonious on the nuclear front. Things have stalled here at home, and from the beginning, New START in particular has faced a steep uphill battle from Senators on both sides of the party divide, though the more vocal opponents are Republican. And given that national Congressional elections are just two months away, and that the President's national approval ratings have dropped by over 20 percentage points since he took office, people are clamoring for change -- and our elected officials are all too happy to pander to those interests. From playing on electorate fears to just giving the people what they want to hear, many of our Representatives and Senators are losing sight of the big picture. They think ratifying New START would undermine national security, would cut funding for critical defense projects, and would make us appear to the rest of the world as weak apologists who are all too eager to disarm unilaterally.

The reality is precisely the opposite. Our Congressmen and women really could learn a lot from paying attention to smart people like James Acton at the Carnegie Endowment, who writes that, contrary to the picture Republicans in particular are painting of the President as a naïve idealist, the Obama administration is composed of realists who understand that "the world must be made a significantly safer place before nuclear weapons are eliminated:"

... trying to create the conditions that would allow nuclear weapons to be safely eliminated is not "dangerous" [...] On the contrary, because a prerequisite to abolition would be much stronger bulwarks against states that violate international laws and norms -- including nonproliferation ones -- creating the conditions for abolition would significantly enhance U.S. security.

Ratification of New START would be one such condition for eventual global and mutual abolition, and getting the treaty passed through Congress would actually serve to enhance national security, not erode it.

Just today, Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) offered a resolution text that amends Senator Kerry's draft proposal and includes verbiage that, it is hoped, will be more amenable to Republican concerns. Though I don't particularly like the provision that the United States can withdraw from the treaty if the proposed $10 billion for Obama's stockpile plan is not approved by Congress, it certainly should make the treaty more digestible for those GOP Senators who still don't believe ratification of New START is an overall good thing.

And though New START is just one example, it is a particularly salient one of an international legal phenomenon that fascinates me: Treaties are negotiated, sliced and diced, rehashed, renegotiated (with many interim iterations) and finally signed -- only to have all that progress hit a dead end when it comes to ratification and entry of said treaty into force.

What can be done, from both an international treaty negotiation perspective and a domestic political perspective, to prevent roadblocks like this from cropping up all the time? I'm open to any and all answers.