This morning, by a vote of 154 nations in favor (including the United States), 23 abstentions, and three against (Syria, North Korea, and Iran), the U.N. General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The treaty will be open for national signature on June 3, 2013, and will enter into force for its signatories when it has been signed and ratified by 50 nations.
Though the vote in favor of the treaty seems overwhelming, a closer look shows something different. Among the major exporting and importing nations, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, and Russia abstained. So did most of the Arab Group, as well as a range of anti-American regimes, including Bolivia, Cuba, and Nicaragua, and a smattering of others, including Belarus, Burma, and Sri Lanka.
A further 13 nations did not vote, including some known opponents of the treaty, such as Venezuela and Zimbabwe. Finally, while Pakistan voted in favor of the treaty, its statement in explanation implied that it was voting for the treaty because it anticipated that India would abstain, and it wanted to look good by comparison.
Thus, what the U.N. vote amounts to is the tacit rejection of the treaty by most of the world’s most irresponsible arms exporters and anti-American dictatorships, who collectively amount to half of the world’s population.
The problem with the ATT was never the idea that nations should have a system for controlling their arms exports: The U.S. is widely acknowledged to have the best such system in the world. The problem with the ATT was always that it would end up constraining the U.S. (and other democracies), but not the genuinely dangerous, lawless, and irresponsible regimes in the world. The fact that these regimes abstained or voted against the treaty is proof of that point: They have openly stated that they have no intention of being bound by the ATT.
The treaty is still substantially flawed. So is the process by which it was adopted. A “key U.S. redline” for the treaty negotiations was that they “have consensus decision making to allow us to protect U.S. equities” and “to ensure that all countries can be held to standards that will actually improve the global situation.” That standard has not been met: It is clear that not “all” nations are on board with the ATT.
Worse, by supporting the move to the General Assembly, the U.S. has discouraged China, India, and Russia from participating in future consensus-based negotiations, because they now know that, if push comes to shove, the negotiations can always give up on consensus and go to majority rule in the General Assembly. The adoption of the ATT has gravely weakened genuine multilateral diplomacy.
This precedent is also bad for the U.S., because next time we are likely to be in the minority. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Countryman’s words on the move to the General Assembly are likely to be quoted against the U.S. for years to come. As Countryman put it:
It’s important to the United States in the defense of our interests to insist on consensus, but every state in this process has always been conscious of the fact that if consensus is not reached in this process that there are other ways to adopt this treaty, including via vote of the General Assembly. And that alternative has served to focus the minds of all the states here on obtaining not a lowest common denominator treaty but actually an effective one, one that would gain the support of the majority.
The next time out, when the “international community” demands a treaty—on global warming, for example, or the use of armed drones—that is not in the interests of the U.S., they will be free to use the precedent that we have just reinforced: If you don’t like the results of a multilateral negotiation, and even if a substantial number of important states are opposed, you should run to the General Assembly and push the treaty through.
So now we have an undesirable treaty, one that will be expanded and elaborated on over time, and one that was adopted through a bad process. This is just about the worst of all possible worlds. It is encouraging that, in spite of the U.N.’s rush to adopt, Senators Jerry Moran (R–KS), James Inhofe (R–OK), and Max Baucus (D–MT), with Representative Mike Kelly (R–PA) in the House, have already raised serious and bipartisan concerns about this process, but they will need all the support of their colleagues as the treaty moves forward internationally.