Daniel W. Drezner

When is Obama gonna try on foreign policy?

When is Obama gonna try on foreign policy?

Pop quiz:  which administration has been more enthusiastic about joining international treaties, George W. Bush or Barack Obama? 

The Obama administration has been slow to submit new treaties to the Senate, and only nine have been approved so far. In contrast, the George W. Bush administration secured Senate approval of 163 treaties over eight years. These included not only bilateral treaties but also multilateral agreements on many important subjects, including human rights, atmospheric and marine environmental protection, the laws of war and arms control.

That paragraph comes from John Bellinger III, Bush 43’s former State Department legal adviser.  Now, one obvious pushback to this is that Obama has had to deal with a sovereigntist caucus in the Senate that is even more rabid than it was under Bush.  Bellinger acknowledges the obvious, but then goes on to argue that fault also lies with the Obama administration: 

 It isn’t enough to blame Republican opposition to international agreements, which certainly has risen among the party’s senators in recent years. That trend only makes it more important that President Obama work harder to gain Senate support for treaties in his second term….

President Obama must devote more energy to securing Senate approval for pending treaties, both by using the presidency’s bully pulpit to explain the benefits and by directing administration officials to pay more attention to the concerns of individual senators. Despite increasing Republican hostility toward treaties, the president should still be able to persuade between 12 and 15 pragmatic Republican senators to support treaties that give concrete rights to Americans and American businesses or that promote important American interests.

The president should begin with the Law of the Sea Convention, which enjoys strong support from all branches of the United States military and from the American business community. He almost certainly could have gained Senate approval of this important treaty during his first three years in office but inexplicably waited until the maelstrom of the 2012 election year to push for it.

Over at the Monkey Cage, Erik Voeten looks at the political science of this and concludes that Bellinger has a valid point.  The reason that Obama has been lethargic on treaties?  The opportunity cost of the effort: 

The idea that it is indeed hard work to pass treaties is supported by a recent working paper by Judith Kelley and Jon Pevehouse. Passing a treaty isn’t a simple matter of tallying the votes. The Senate’s agree and consent process takes away legislative time and political capital that could be used for other, perhaps more valuable, legislation. This opportunity cost theory yields some interesting and counterintuitive hypotheses. Presidents should become less likely to advance treaties when their approval ratings are high and when their party controls the Senate because that is the time when they can pass more valuable legislation on domestic issues. Kelley and Pevehouse find strong support for these patterns in their analysis with data from 1967-2008.

I suspect that Bellinger is correct that the Obama Administration could have persuaded a few Republicans to switch sides on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities if it had expended more time and capital on the treaty. This is not just about Republican opposition but also about priorities in the Obama Administration, which have, rightly or wrongly, been more on the domestic side.

One could argue that this logic also applies to Obama’s cabinet selection process on foreign affairs.  With Susan Rice, Chuck Hagel and John Kerry, the White House strategy appears to be, "hey, let’s float the name, see if anyone gets upset, and see if the nominee can push back effectively before bothering to actually nominate the person." 

Now from a pure logic of politics, this strategy makes some sense on some foreign policy matters.  As embarrassing as it was that the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities did not get ratified by the Senate, it doesn’t change much.  There is no effect on domestic law and the U.S. takes a marginal hit on the global stage.  Even on cabinet appointments, one could be truly bloodless and argue that Susan Rice’s Value Over Replacement-Level Policy Principal wasn’t that high.  The fiscal cliff negotiations matter a lot more. 

Still, politics is art as well as science, and there’s something just a little bit chickens**t about the Obama White House’s tactics.  Politics isn’t only about winning — sometimes it’s just about making the effort.  And the truth of the matter is that when it comes to dealing with Congress, this administration hasn’t made the effort.  By my recollection, during its entire first term, the only international relations piece of legislation that got the full court Obama White House press was the New START treaty with Russia.  Now given what was going on with the economy, one could argue that the administration had the right set of priorities.  But one way to help jumpstart the global economy would be a series of potentially significant foreign economic policy moves — including the ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention, by the way.  And I’d feel safer about my bet with Phil Levy if I knew that the Obama administration was willing to get some skin in the game when it came to foreign policy and Congress. 

Letting peple like Susan Rice or Chuck Hagel twist in the political wind is, well, cruel.  So I hope that in its second term, the White House cares enough about foreign policy to actually engage Congress rather than throw up their hands and say, "crazy Republicans, what can you do?"  Actually, President Obama, you could do one whole hell of a lot if you made an effort.