On Friday afternoon—the traditional time to issue unpopular statements—U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry signaled the conditional commitment of the U.S. to the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).
The conditions were as important as the commitment: According to Kerry, the U.S. wants a “strong and effective Arms Trade Treaty” that “recognizes that each nation must tailor and enforce its own national export and import control mechanisms,” “does not impose any new requirements on the U.S. domestic trade in firearms or on U.S. exporters,” and “bring[s] all countries closer to existing international best practices.”
There is nothing new in this statement: It is what the Obama Administration has been saying since 2009. But if the Administration took its standards seriously, it would have to withdraw from the treaty negotiations immediately. There is no chance that the U.N. negotiations, which open today in New York, will produce a “strong and effective” treaty.
As Kerry himself noted, many nations have no controls—in theory, in practice, or both—on their conventional arms transfers, either because they are incompetently governed or because they don’t want to have any controls. The treaty will not make the incompetent competent, and it will not turn the bad nations into good ones.
It says a lot about diplomacy today that the U.S. is backing the negotiation of a treaty which Kerry himself describes as “encouraging all nations to establish meaningful systems and standards for regulating international arms transfers.” Treaties are not supposed to be an encouragement; they are supposed to be, once ratified, a binding commitment.
The entire ATT is a deeply unserious effort that rests on the idea that treaties are merely expressions of shared aspirations, and that a brief treaty can do what years of U.N. Security Council resolutions have failed to do—make the world’s autocracies live up to the standards of the democracies.