The Day the Obama Administration Holstered Its Gun

Is the president letting domestic politics come before international treaties restricting the arms trade? Or is it just good democracy to let everyone have a say?

President Obama Shoots Targets At Camp David
CAMP DAVID, MD - AUGUST 4, 2012: In this handout provided by The White House, U.S. President Barack Obama shoots clay targets with a shotgun on the range on August 4, 2012 at Camp David, Maryland. Obama has put forth great effort to pass legislation to ban assault rifles in the wake of the Newtown, CT shooting and was recently quoted as saying "we do skeet shooting all the time," at Camp David. (Photo by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)

Late last year, 90-some countries that signed a brand-new treaty regulating how countries should transfer weapons across borders met in Berlin, where dozens of diplomats started hashing out the details of how the new agreement will work. One country was conspicuously absent: the United States.

The Obama administration stayed away not because it opposes the Arms Trade Treaty. In fact, the United States has praised it, signed it, and called it a “significant step” toward keeping arms out of the hands of terrorists and rogue states. Even now, the State Department is preparing to send the treaty and a package of supporting material to the Senate for its consideration. Rather, the administration was championing groups that might at first glance seem like strange bedfellows for a president who has called for greater regulation of firearms. The administration was standing up for the right of gun-rights groups — like the NRA-aligned World Forum on Shooting Activities, the Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute, and the Heritage Foundation — to have a voice in how the arms treaty will be implemented.

The spat is just the latest evidence that conservative activists and NGOs are insisting upon a place in international forums often dominated by their ideological opponents. And the backing they got from the Obama administration shows that they can be a potent force.

This particular controversy began last September, when the treaty’s signatories convened their first preparatory meeting in Mexico. Several U.S.-based groups that oppose international regulation of small arms — who are concerned that it might be a stepping-stone to stricter regulations at home — wanted to attend the session, just as they had attended the negotiations that produced the treaty. But they faced a new obstacle: The meeting registration form created by the Mexican government and administered by a coalition of NGOs required applicants to explain in writing how they were supporting the “object and purpose” of the treaty. Dissenting voices, of course, could not do so. These groups mostly oppose the treaty’s object and purpose, and the meeting organizers accordingly denied their applications to attend.

Word of the rebuff quickly made its way to Capitol Hill. Congressman Mike Kelly, a Republican from Pennsylvania, wrote directly to President Obama. He called the exclusion of these groups a “flagrant violation” of the principle of open debate and warned that treaty supporters were seeking to keep discussions “within a closed and limited circle.” A few weeks later, Sens. Jerry Moran (R- Kan.) and James Inhofe (R-Okla.) chimed in. They argued in their own letter to the president that the exclusion of critics was evidence of a broader campaign to turn the treaty against American interests. They claimed that some of the treaty’s NGO backers — they didn’t specify which ones — were now calling on the United States to stop providing weapons to Israel. “It is these organizations,” they warned, “that have been given the responsibility of serving as doorkeeper to the treaty process.”

There was plenty of routine politics in the congressional correspondence; conservative lawmakers can score easy points by opposing both gun control and meddlesome multilateralism. But the tussle over NGO participation also reflects deeper questions about the role of activists in international diplomacy and treaty-making. In the last several decades, coalitions of NGOs have emerged as powerful players in multilateral negotiations. In the mid-1990s, a coalition of activists galvanized support for a treaty banning anti-personnel landmines, winning a Nobel Prize for their efforts. Around the same time, human rights groups strongly advocated for the Rome Statute, the treaty that created the International Criminal Court. “NGOs have worked their way into the heart of international negotiations,” noted Jessica Mathews, a then-senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, at the time. Working with shifting coalitions of states, these groups have helped promote and publicize international negotiations that might otherwise remain obscure.

That new influence has also generated plenty of questions about who exactly these activist organizations represent. Are NGOs the voice of world public opinion — or just a new generation of special-interest groups? Given their general ideological support for deeper global governance, progressive activists have been by far the most active and numerous in international treaty negotiations. But conservative organizations have made their influence felt as well. On a range of issues, they have decided to enter what many of them consider the hostile ground of multilateral negotiations. In a recent book, the scholar Clifford Bob documented the National Rifle Association’s decision in the mid-1990s to become an observer at the United Nations. Since then, NRA leaders have periodically appeared at U.N. meetings.

Progressive activists can often link global processes to domestic politics, but the latest controversy provides new evidence that conservative NGOs can do the same — particularly in the United States. It’s clear that the politics of ratification loom large in the Obama administration’s defense of the prerogatives of treaty skeptics. If the United States is ever going to join the arms trade treaty, it will have to survive the Senate. Accusations about lack of transparency, the administration fears, will bolster the (often strained) arguments that treaty opponents are making about the impact on domestic gun ownership.

Treaty advocates saw the U.S. decision to boycott the Berlin meeting as an overreaction and a worrying sign that U.S. commitment to the arms trade treaty was thin. Rachel Stohl, a treaty advocate at the Stimson Center, criticized what she called Washington’s “strong-arm tactics” and unwillingness to engage constructively with other states on NGO participation. Anna Macdonald, the executive director of Control Arms, sees nothing remarkable or unprecedented about a requirement that attending NGOs broadly support the treaty objectives. “It seems a bit strange to be putting quite so much effort to ensure the participation of those who are vehemently opposed to a treaty that [the United States] has signed and presumably wants to work,” she told me. But Macdonald also insisted that transparency is beneficial, and argued that meetings of treaty signatories should be streamed live online.

It appears that those organizing the next arms trade treaty meeting, to take place in Trinidad and Tobago later this month, have struck a compromise that will satisfy the Obama administration. The new registration process allows NGOs that support the treaty to register, but also provides a mechanism for industry groups and “other relevant organizations” to apply, although they’re not guaranteed participation. Several treaty critics have applied to attend, although it is not yet clear whether they will. If these gun-rights supporters — no friends of the Obama administration — don’t get an invite, there’s a good chance the United States will once again keep its distance as well.

Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images

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