On Friday, President Trump announced that he will unsign the Arms Trade Treaty. The reactions tell you all you need to know about the treaty and its supporters. But to me, the biggest surprise — though it shouldn’t have been a surprise— was the way that the Treaty was assumed to be beyond criticism, and obviously a good thing, merely because it’s an example of multilateral diplomacy.
Of course, conservatives were delighted, but reactions among progressives and other treaty backers fell nicely into two camps. First, larger in volume and more vociferous in tone, there were the critics who assumed that the president acted at the behest of the military-industrial complex, that there was simply no possible connection whatsoever between the Treaty and the Second Amendment, and that dumping the treaty was a Trumpian prelude to a massive and abusive increase in U.S. arms sales abroad.
The second set of critics, though no less opposed to the president’s action, were smaller in number and more polite in tone. This group tends to be composed of U.S. government or treaty insiders. The gist of their response was that the treaty was about bringing the export control standards of other countries up to that of the U.S., that it had and would have no effect on the U.S. export control system, and that it therefore was and is A Very Good Thing.
I’ve wondered for years why no enterprising journalist has asked the treaty backers who argue that it will have no effect on the U.S. export control system what they think about the treaty backers who argue that it is necessary to constrain the U.S. Or, for that matter, vice versa. The two points of view are diametrically opposed: they cannot both be true (though they can both be false, in that the U.S. does not need the treaty to run an effective export control system, and might well find that the treaty does limit its freedom to run its system as it sees fit.)
The argument the insiders gave me for the treaty is that it will have no effect on Russia or China. But the insiders assert that it is, or might be, helpful with countries that are making undesirable arms exports and are in the middle — not well-governed democracies, but not totally lost causes either. That is at least a coherent position. I have never accepted it for two reasons.
First, it is an argument from authority. It rests on an argument that might be summarized as “trust me, this helps.” That isn’t good enough. Second, I am much more interested in preserving our own system than I am in affecting the decisions of others — whereas the treaty’s vociferous supporters have no interest in affecting the decisions of anyone but the democracies. That naturally leads me to conclude that the insiders are seriously underrating the dangers of the treaty’s direction of travel. It is all too easy to believe that none of its progressive external backers will ever amount to anything. But sometimes, progressive activists become senators. Heck, sometimes they even become president.
So I have also wondered why the second set of supporters, the insiders, don’t regard the views of their external supporters as a problem. The insiders proclaim, publicly and privately, that they don’t want to change the U.S. system, but the fact that is that all of their external allies do want to change it. And I’ve wondered why the insiders don’t seem to care that their external allies are, almost without exception, bitter critics of the West in general and the U.S. in particular, while they show almost no interest in the foreign activities or domestic oppression of the world’s autocracies.
That may strike you as an exaggeration. If you believe that, I encourage you to spend 10 years reading their work, which is what I have done. But just so I’m not accused of making an argument from authority myself, here are a couple examples. In February, Amnesty International published yet another report on the war in Yemen. Here is their summary of it. Their attack on Western policy in Yemen runs to several pages. Their comment on Iran’s activity in Yemen, in its entirety, reads: “and Iran has been implicated in sending arms to the Huthis.” Iran gets 11 words, in the passive voice. This kind of wildly unbalanced attention, and the use of passive voice, is completely characteristic of the treaty’s supporters.
Even better (or worse) was the item that crossed my desk on Sunday. The umbrella NGO behind the treaty, Control Arms, runs a curated daily roundup of items that appear under the hashtag #armstreaty. On Sunday, the lead item in #Armstreaty Daily was headlined “PressTV – ‘Withdrawal from UN arms treaty disaster for Trump.’ PressTV is the propaganda arm of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and the report highlighted an appearance on PressTV by an English sympathizer with Iran and Putin’s Russia, Marcus Papadopoulos. Either Control Arms doesn’t know what PressTV is and who Papadopolous is, or they Iove the treaty so much they welcome praise for it from a Russian tool. Either way, they’re fools.
In fact, reading #Armstreaty Daily is an education in the mentality of Control Arms — which is universally recognized as the driving NGO force behind the treaty. And remember, this is the material they want to be known by, because it’s the material that they select. On April 9, it celebrated “Campaigners head to court to stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia,’ cheering the on-going campaign to stop British arms sales through legal action. You would think this precedent might make the treaty’s supporters in the State Department nervous. Apparently, though, they think it can’t happen here.
A couple months previously, on February 14, Control Arms had followed Amnesty International and asked: “This type of weapon is being wielded by UAE-backed militiaman in Yemen’s conflict. So why is a Belgian company marketing it at a global arms fair?” Accustomed as I am to reading this material, this one made my head hurt: apparently, Control Arms believes that because a militia has used a firearm, it is therefore undesirable, or wrong, or maybe even illegal to advertise that firearm at an arms fair. There is no end to this kind of nonsense.
The treaty’s external supporters are not so much interested in the arms trade, or wars, or humanitarian abuses as such as they are interested in chasing the latest anti-Western ambulance. Their motto might as well be “if it bleeds, it leads.” But they care about only one kind of bleeding — the kind that can be blamed on the U.S. USA Today ran a piece in response to the president’s decision proclaiming that “U.S., World’s Top Weapons Dealer, Will Leave Arms Trade Treaty It Was Not Following Anyway.”
As a statement of fact, that is probably correct: it is likely that the (belated and inadequate) U.S. efforts to arm the Syrian rebels against Bashir al-Assad violated the treaty. But if that is true, it means that the treaty creates a presumption against supporting anyone who rebels against a tyranny. In other words, it kills the Reagan Doctrine, and, de facto, it puts both the U.S. and the treaty on the side of the tyrants — on the side of the bleeding they impose. That is certainly my interpretation, and it is a major reason I opposed the treaty from the start.
Having heard all of these arguments for a decade, none of them surprised me. What did interest me was the way that most of the coverage was framed by two assumptions: 1) The treaty had to be understood as — in the Washington Post’s words — an example of “world governance”; 2) It was therefore a good thing. The phrase “world governance” is remarkably slippery, but let’s assume the Post is right.
What is remarkable is the second assumption: that a completely aspirational treaty, one that empowers governments to do what they already have the power to do anyhow, one that contains absolutely no definitions and (thank goodness) no enforcement mechanism, one that offers no incentives whatsoever for compliance, one that completely ignores the fundamental problems of government incompetence and malevolence, one which was and is completely uninterested in any unintended consequences, one which has no standard for success, one which is so uninteresting to its supporters that they neither pay their bills nor submit their reports, and one which assumes that the way to improve the performance of governments is to get them to sign pieces of paper is an example of helpful and effective multilateral diplomacy. It is not. It is both the negation of diplomacy and a sustained assault on the idea of the treaty as it has been traditionally understood.
And that is why I have always opposed the Arms Trade Treaty: it is bad diplomacy. In the U.S. we take treaties seriously and we are right to do so. The Arms Trade Treaty is not a serious document. It is a promise to be good — later. It imposes rules that, in the nature of things, will only impinge on the rule-abiding democracies, which are precisely the places that need more rules the least. The reaction to the president’s dismissal of the treaty shows how little understanding of (never mind appreciation for) this position there is.
But make no mistake: this position is neither radical nor new. It is the traditional American one. The fact that it has all but disappeared from among the elite, who prefer a treaty backed by supporters who praise PressTV while contemning the U.S., shows that the treaty is not the core problem. The core problem is that the elite no longer understand why treaties like the Arms Trade Treaty are a bad idea.
This piece originally appeared in Forbes https://www.forbes.com/sites/tedbromund/2019/04/30/reflections-on-president-trumps-unsigning-of-the-arms-trade-treaty/#4de54c9353a6