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Arms Trade Treaty on deck at United Nations

If the NRA and its allies manufacture paranoid and bizarre arguments to oppose popular measures pending in Congress, imagine what they'll do when it's the
President Obama addresses the U.N. General Assembly
President Obama addresses the U.N. General Assembly

If the NRA and its allies manufacture paranoid and bizarre arguments to oppose popular measures pending in Congress, imagine what they'll do when it's the United Nations considering a proposal on guns.

The United Nations on Monday will once again take up an arms trade treaty that has drawn the NRA's ire amid assurances that the Obama administration is "steadfast in its commitment" to getting it done.The White House helped pull the plug on treaty talks ahead of last year's election amid heavy lobbying by the U.S. gun lobby. Now the world body is taking another shot at reaching consensus on a treaty, and this time the Obama administration says it's committed to getting it done."The United States is steadfast in its commitment to achieve a strong and effective Arms Trade Treaty that helps address the adverse effects of the international arms trade on global peace and stability," Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement Friday.

For the right, the argument is predictable but wrong: U.N. rascals, quite possibly in black helicopters, are coming for your guns, which makes the Arms Trade Treaty a dire threat, not just to the Second Amendment, but to American sovereignty.

Among more sensible observers, the proposed treaty isn't especially controversial at all -- the measure is intended to encourage other countries to "emulate America's tough arms export standards and require them to publicly respond to accusations that certain arms sales could be used to target civilians and otherwise violate humanitarian law."

Specifically, the ATT would, among other things, ban arms transfers if exporting countries "know or should have known of a substantial risk" that the weapons would be used to violate humanitarian law.

Republican opposition notwithstanding, there are reportedly plenty of countries reluctant to endorse the treaty, which makes the role of U.S. leadership all the more important.

But the fact remains that American leadership is made more difficult when international observers see 128 members of Congress and a powerful right-wing lobbying group expressing apoplexy -- unrelated to reality -- over the proposed treaty.

What's more, there's a larger context to consider: are treaties themselves a thing of the past?

Following up on an item from several months ago, we're increasingly looking at a political dynamic in which Senate ratification of treaties has gone from difficult to practically impossible.

After Senate Republicans killed the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons With Disabilities, Dan Drezner called the opposition "dumber than a bag of hammers," but added something that stuck in my head:

I've blogged on occasion about the development of a sovereigntist lobby that reflexively opposes all treaties because they erode U.S. sovereignty. For these people, any infringement on American sovereignty is a death blow to freedom, regardless of the benefits from joining.

That's true, but what goes generally unsaid is that this sovereigntist lobby, coupled with the radicalization of Republican politics, has created conditions in which the United States may no longer be able to ratify any treaty for any reason on any issue.

By constitutional mandate, it takes 67 Senate votes to ratify a treaty, which means any measure that has even the slightest chance would need a significant chunk of the Senate Republican conference to meet the two-thirds threshold -- and by all indications, that's no longer a realistic option.

Kevin Drum noted after the disabilities treaty was defeated:

Movement conservatives tend to tolerate trade treaties, but that's about it.... They don't like treaties, they've never liked treaties, and if there's nothing obviously wrong with one they'll invent a bunch of bizarre conspiracy theories in order to get themselves worked into a frenzy about it.

Quite right. The next step, however, is a broader understanding of the consequences.

The disabilities treaty was an opportunity for the United States to show some global moral leadership, but it was killed. U.S. military leaders strongly support the Law of the Sea treaty, but Republicans refuse to allow it to be ratified, too. The Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) deserves a fair hearing, but the GOP won't give it one. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is now the longest of long shots (the United States joins Somalia and South Sudan as the only countries on the planet who refuse to ratify it).

In late 2010, the Senate just barely ratified the New START nuclear treaty, over the objections of most Senate Republicans, and it enjoyed the support of the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs, eight former secretaries of state from both parties, five former secretaries of defense from both parties, seven former Strategic Command chiefs, national security advisers from both parties, nearly all former commanders of U.S. nuclear forces, and former President George H.W. Bush.

The point, in other words, is that extremist elements that dominate Republican politics in the 21st century have severely undermined the nation's ability to lead in a global arena. The right has also raised fears about "sovereignty" when it comes to treaties, but up until very recently, ratifying measures was still seen as entirely feasible. Today, even if the White House endorses a treaty, international diplomats realize that it's no longer up to the president, and Senate ratification of anything is extremely unlikely.

There are plenty of treaties that deserve to be crafted and considered -- most notably one addressing the climate crisis -- but until the fever in Republican politics subsides, we appear to have entered a post-treaty phase of American leadership.