September 18, 2015 | Commentary on Arms Control Treaties, United Nations, American Leadership

In Cancun, the U.S. Gets Played

The Conference of States Parties—the first meeting of nations that have ratified the controversial Arms Trade Treaty (ATT)—wrapped up in Cancun on Thursday. Because it’s wisely not ratified the ATT, the U.S. was there as an observer.

So was I. And on Thursday, I got to observe as the U.S. got played.

Nominally, the ATT is about controlling the illicit arms traffic, and about encouraging nations to show responsibility in whom they sell arms to. On its face, that’s a sensible idea. What isn’t so sensible is believing that a treaty will force nations to do what they evidently don’t want to do. 

For example, the ATT will supposedly bring transparency to the arms trade by requiring nations to declare their arms imports and exports. Well, if they want to do that, they can: They don’t need a treaty to impose the responsibility.

The entire treaty is littered with similar paradoxes, and it’s further poisoned by the overweening tendency of the progressive activists who support it to spend most of their time blaming the U.S. (and Israel, of course) for the world’s problems.

The Senate, under the leadership of Republicans Jerry Moran and Jim Inhofe, has made it clear that the ATT isn’t wanted there, and the House, led by Rep. Mike Kelly of Pennsylvania, has been just as inhospitable. As a result, the U.S., a mere treaty signatory, didn’t have a vote at Cancun.

It wouldn’t have mattered if we did. When the U.S. had an opening chance to object in public to the conference’s rules, we didn’t take it. After that, decisions were taken by majority vote. Of course, voting isn’t everything: the U.S.’s voice is more important than a single vote. 

Against behind-the scenes objections by the U.S., the CSP also adopted majority rule decision-making. And it put the treaty’s secretariat in Geneva, where they will likely be housed with those of the U.N., even though the U.S. has always wanted to keep the treaty’s institutions separate.

But the kicker came on Thursday as the conference was wrapping up. One of the U.S.’s biggest objectives was to make sure that the secretariat stuck strictly to administrative duties, and didn’t become a headquarters for expanding, re-interpreting, and implementing the treaty.

Late Thursday, the president of the conference suddenly presented a new program of work for the secretariat, a program that wasn’t administrative at all, including “collating best practices on the implementation and operation of the Treaty,” and “identifying lessons learnt and need for adjustments in implementation.” That’s exactly what the U.S. didn’t want the secretariat to do.

The U.S. protested immediately. Not that it mattered, since we don’t have a vote, and we’d have been outvoted if we did. But smoothly, the President of the conference then explained that this wasn’t a document for the conference to adopt – just one that could be recorded as having been considered. And now that the U.S. had objected, the conference had indeed considered it.

Gotcha!

And that was that. The program of work, just as the U.S. didn’t want it to, went into the conference’s report. And that report was the kicker: It recorded a huge catalog of pro-treaty activist organizations, led out of alphabetical order by the Control Arms Coalition—which ran the show on their side—as having “participated in the work of the Meeting as observers.”

In a separate item, the report noted that a further eight organizations, including the National Rifle Association, the Second Amendment Foundation and The Heritage Foundation, had merely made “a request to participate in the work of the Meeting as observers.” In fact, we had been observers, though undoubtedly we didn’t participate as intimately as the activists.

But the conference’s report wasn’t about to acknowledge that. To its credit, the U.S. delegation again raised a protest, but the point had been made: some animals are more equal than others. 

As always, the problem in Cancun wasn’t that the U.S. said the wrong things. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Countryman’s statement on what the treaty is (and is not) was admirable. The U.S. delegates were courteous to the skeptics and showed their usual professionalism. Indeed, one of our few advantages in Cancun was that our team obviously knows what it’s talking about.

The problem is that what the U.S. wants out of the treaty isn’t what the activists or most of its signatories want. We can argue; we can try to persuade, and we can speak. And all of that will have some impact. But all of that is not enough. Like much of what goes on at the U.N., the ATT is going to be one long struggle—not to achieve anything positive, but to limit the damage.

The picture isn’t all bleak. Indeed, there was a palpable sense at Cancun that the ATT’s balloon was leaking. With the U.S., China, Russia and India, among others, not having ratified it, the treaty represents a tiny, and mostly the European, share of the world’s arms trade.

The conference’s decision to put the treaty secretariat in Geneva just emphasizes the point: this is basically a regional European institution. The rest of the states party are mostly so ill-governed that they don’t have the ability to implement the treaty.

Until enough African and other nations accede to it, Europe will have the votes to run the show, and even then it will be hosting the secretariat and, together with Japan, paying an overwhelming share of the secretariat’s budget. And there is nothing we can do about it. 

It won’t ever go away—nothing in the orbit of the UN system does—but it will become just another cob-webbed part of that system, lacking in credibility and content to shuffle on, zombie-like, without drive or purpose. That’s not great, but it’s not terrible: it will make the long struggle to limit the damage easier as it goes on. 

As Thursday’s shenanigans show, the ATT is a rigged game. And the only way to win a rigged game is not to play. The alternative, as we found in Cancun, is to get played.

-Read Ted R. Bromund’s previous dispatches from Cancun here, here, and here. Bromund is the senior research fellow in Anglo-American relations at the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

-This piece originally appeared in The Weekly Standard

About the Author

Theodore R. Bromund, Ph.D. Senior Research Fellow in Anglo-American Relations
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom