The outcome of the U.N. Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is still uncertain, but one thing’s for sure: The ATT is not going to go away.
It’s obvious that there’s no consensus yet on the crucial parts of the treaty, including its scope (what kinds of weapons, items, and activities the treaty will cover) and its criteria (what standards signatories are supposed to use to assess their exports of arms). It’s not inconceivable that the conference will fall apart without a treaty.
From the U.S. point of view, the ideal outcome would be for the countries in the Non-Aligned Movement to reject the treaty, which would sink it even more effectively than a U.S. veto, but without allowing the treaty’s supporters to blame only the U.S. for its failure. What may be more likely is a disagreement among the Permanent Five members of the Security Council (U.S., U.K., France, China, and Russia), with Russia wanting a treaty allowing it to arm Syria and the U.S. wanting one that would not prevent it from arming the opposition.
But that would not be the end of the process. Now that the concept of the ATT has been invented, it cannot be uninvented. There are too many countries and too many left-wing nongovernmental organizations that want a treaty. So if this July’s conference collapses, there will sooner or later be another conference.
Either the U.N. will reconvene and try again, or the treaty’s supporters will break out of the U.N. and draft a treaty—one that would be guaranteed to be bad for the U.S.—outside the U.N. And in the interim, there is the U.N.’s ponderously named “Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects” and its International Small Arms Control Standards to keep the process going.
On the other hand, the prospects are no better if this conference succeeds in producing a treaty. Regardless of what the Senate does, the treaty machinery will grind on with annual meetings of the signatories and a regular review conference. The treaty will be elaborated with best practices and standards, all held to be binding on the signatories. And when this treaty doesn’t work, its defenders will blame the U.S. for not ratifying it, and will raise the cry for another treaty.
In other words, the treaty’s proponents are playing a long game. The ATT under negotiation this July has problems of its own, about which I have written at length. But this is fundamentally a process, not an event. This July’s conference is just a gateway drug, a bad idea that will lead on to other bad ideas when the narcotic hit of this effort stops producing the desired high.