Foreign Affairs, 1 September 2013, Vol.92(5), pp.113-124
The U.S. Senate rejects multilateral treaties as if it were sport. Often, presidents don't even bother pushing for ratification, since they know the odds are long: under the U.S. Constitution, it takes only one-third of the Senate to reject a treaty. The United States' commitment problem has grown so entrenched that foreign governments no longer expect Washington's ratification or its full participation in the institutions treaties create. The world is moving on; laws get made elsewhere, with limited (if any) American involvement. The foundation of the Senate's posture is the belief, widespread among conservative Republicans, that multilateral treaties represent a grave threat to American sovereignty and democracy. Treaties, they argue, create rules that interfere with the democratic process by allowing foreigners to make law that binds the United States. These 'sovereigntists' portray treaties as all constraint, no advantage. Treaty-making, however, is an expression of sovereignty, not a threat to it, and by excluding itself from the process, the United States loses the opportunity to influence global problem solving. China is taking a greater interest in global issues; rising powers such as Brazil, India, and South Africa are asserting themselves; and Europe is consolidating and thus enhancing its negotiating power. American disengagement is allowing all these trends to accelerate. Yet rejection is just the beginning of the story. Over the past two decades, the executive branch has developed and expanded a variety of lower-profile methods for asserting the country's interests abroad in ways that do not require Senate involvement. The Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations figured out that on some issues, they could circumvent the Senate entirely, and they developed new ways to participate in international forums, sometimes even exercising leadership in institutions that the Senate had refused to allow the United States to join. Call it 'stealth multilateralism.' Using a patchwork of political and legal strategies, the United States has learned how to respond to the global problems that are pulling it into the world even as Senate Republicans are trying to hold it back. As sound and effective as such measures can be, however, stealth multilateralism has its limits, since treaties establish more stable, transparent, and predictable relationships than political commitments. Both the United States and the rest of the world would benefit from a return to responsible multilateral engagement in which treaties regain their central role. Adapted from the source document. Reprinted by permission of Foreign Affairs. Copyright by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.
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