Daniel W. Drezner

Will the United States be ratifying any treaties soon?

Bryan Bender had a long story in yesterday’s Boston Globe about the Obama administration’s aspirations for treaty ratification:  Marking a major reversal from the Bush administration, which considered most treaties to be too restrictive of US sovereignty, the Obama administration says it will seek ratification of three major pacts aimed at reducing nuclear weapons. It ...

Bryan Bender had a long story in yesterday’s Boston Globe about the Obama administration’s aspirations for treaty ratification

Marking a major reversal from the Bush administration, which considered most treaties to be too restrictive of US sovereignty, the Obama administration says it will seek ratification of three major pacts aimed at reducing nuclear weapons. It also will seek approval of a set of regulations to manage use of the oceans and, by the end of the president’s first term, a new treaty to combat global climate change….

International treaties are signed by the president, but under the Constitution must be ratified by the Senate to become law. They need at least 67 votes to pass, not a simple majority of 51, typically requiring strong support from the president’s own party and a significant number of votes from the opposing party. Democrats now control 60 seats in the Senate, counting two independents who usually vote with the party.

Obtaining 67 votes has proved difficult under the best of circumstances and helps explain why fewer than 20 major security treaties have been ratified since the end of World War II, according to David Auerswald, a professor of strategy and policy at the National War College in Washington.

“The foreign policy consensus in this country has disappeared on many issues,’’ said Auerswald, a leading specialist on treaties. “Given that the Democrats only have 60 of the 67 votes necessary to approve a treaty, they have to hold their ranks and pick off seven Republicans. Yet moderate Republicans are a dying breed in the Senate, making the Democrats’ task that much harder.’’

At first glance, I’d share Auerswald’s skepticism.  The Bush administration, for example, wanted the Senate to pass the Law of the Sea Treaty.  Despite Bush’s support and the ardent backing of the U.S. Navy, ratification went nowhere — there were a suficient number of "new sovereigntists" to kill the chances for a floor vote.     

Of course, that was a whole election cycle ago.  Looking at the U.S. Senate, let’s do some arithmetic.  Assuming Obama has the backing of all 60 Democrat-ish Senators, who might offer support on the GOP side for, say, the Law of the Sea Treaty?  My tentative list: 

  1. Olympia Snowe (ME)
  2. Susan Collins (ME)
  3. Richard Lugar (IN)
  4. Orrin Hatch (UT)
  5. Lisa Murkowski (AK)
  6. George Voinovich (OH)
  7. John McCain (AZ)

So it’s possible… hmmm…. well, maybe not McCain.  It’s a little unclear, actually. 

I suspect this is going to boil down to whether John McCain wants to be the Arthur Vandenberg of his era. 

Either way, however, I suspect the Obama administration would encounter difficulties getting these same seven senators to vote yea on a raft of international treaties.  Unless there are more GOP Senators available for the picking, I suspect Obama will have to pick only his favorites to push. 

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