Late last week, the Obama administration did what I feared it would do: It endorsed the UN’s Arms Trade Treaty negotiations. The goal is to craft a treaty negotiated and ready for signature by 2012 that would impose standards on the entire conventional arms trade. The projected treaty’s scope is vast. Here, by way of example, is what the United Kingdom believes it should cover:
. . . all conventional arms, ranging from handguns and other small arms and light weapons (SALW), to main battle tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles, combat aircraft (including helicopters), warships and conventionally armed missiles. To ensure that such arms are not used in breach of international commitments, an instrument should also cover munitions for the equipment listed above, including ammunition for SALW and larger weapons, the technology to produce and maintain such equipment, and their parts and components.
One obvious problem with this laundry list is that such a broad a treaty will likely – indeed, inevitably– cover nothing in practice by virtue of trying to cover everything in theory. And that would only subvert the U.S.’s export controls, which are widely acknowledged, not least by the administration, to be the best in the world.
So what did the administration do? It agreed to join the negotiations, but only if they proceeded on the basis of consensus.
And why? In order, the Washington Post reports, “to forestall criticism from U.S. conservatives that an arms trade treaty would be a first step toward regulating the [domestic] U.S. arms trade.”
Evidently, the Second Amendment is one area – our export controls are another – where even this administration willingly concedes that the U.S. is, in fact, exceptional.
So in the negotiations, it will be the U.S.’s high standards and Second Amendment rights versus the lower standards and limited rights of everyone else. Who will be the one breaking the consensus? Yes, it will be us. And who will be portrayed as a devious unilateralist, holding up the world’s progress towards a treaty? Yes, it will be us. And what has the administration done by agreeing to participate on the basis of consensus? Yes, it has guaranteed that all the pressure to achieve consensus will be exerted on us.
In fact, the NGOs that are the driving force behind the treaty are already making this argument. The administration has not defended our position, either on export controls or the Bill of Rights. Instead, it has handed everyone else in the world an argument they will use to make sure we spend the entire negotiating process apologizing for our exceptionalism and grudgingly giving way on point after point.
This treaty is a deeply unserious endeavor, more about facilitating the arms trade than about controlling it. I’ve grown weary with itemizing European hypocrisy on this score, but one more example never hurt. In its submission on the projected Treaty, France states:
France is one of the main protagonists in the arms trade and ranks among the leading world exporters. It applies a responsible and binding arms trade control policy in strict compliance with its commitments at the regional and international level.
Three weeks ago, France suspended its arms exports to Guinea after the Guinean army broke up a civilian demonstration with exceptional force, including rape. The officers were photographed using French-made crowd-control weapons. Guinea is, quite simply, one of the most oppressive places in the world. It scores a bottom of the rung ranking from Freedom House, which reports on its innumerable violations of basic rights and its complete lack of electoral democracy. And yet France, with its “responsible and binding arms trade control policy,” and its enthusiastic support of the arms trade treaty, had no qualms about supplying arms to a country with an already well-known record of human-rights abuses.”
What is the point of trying to achieve consensus in arms trade negotiations when states like France — never mind China and Russia — are so obviously uninterested in actually behaving responsibly?
Indeed, what is the point of the negotiations at all? For this administration, the point appears to be proving our good intentions, as though we are responsible for the world’s ills. Obama has already done a lot of apologizing. The way his administration is approaching the arms trade treaty negotiations sets us up to do even more.