Trump Unsigns the Arms Trade Treaty: How Did We Get Here?
You might have heard that President Donald Trump struck another fatal blow to multilateral diplomacy last week when he announced that the United States would withdraw its signature from the Arms Trade Treaty and would no longer seek to ratify the landmark agreement regulating the international trade in conventional weapons. With great flair and flourish, Trump signed a letter while onstage at the National Rifle Association’s annual conference asking for the Senate to return the Arms Trade Treaty to the White House so it could “be disposed of.” While this act may prove politically expedient for Trump in the short term, it is wrought with longer-term strategic and diplomatic challenges that could haunt the United States for years to come.
In remarks crafted to appeal to special interest groups, Trump repeated typical gun lobby talking points about the Arms Trade Treaty that demonstrate a willful mischaracterization of the treaty’s intent and effect. Commenting that the treaty threatens the rights of U.S. citizens, Trump exclaimed that “we will never allow foreign bureaucrats to trample on your Second Amendment freedom” and that “we will never surrender American sovereignty to anyone.” Such statements not only reinforce a false narrative about the Arms Trade Treaty, but risk isolating the United States from its closest allies that remain committed to increasing responsibility, mitigating human rights abuses, and addressing security concerns associated with the unregulated global trade in conventional arms.
What Does the Arms Trade Treaty Do?
Contrary to the president’s statement, the Arms Trade Treaty does not limit U.S. sovereignty over arms export decisions, nor does it put a foreign government in charge of U.S. domestic regulations. The treaty regulates only the international trade in conventional arms — that’s all weapons from small arms to fighter jets and everything in between. Its stated purpose is to contribute to international peace and security and reduce human suffering caused by the irresponsible and illicit arms trade. The Arms Trade Treaty also promotes transparency and accountability in the global arms trade by requiring governments to report annually on their arms exports and imports, building confidence in what has historically been an opaque business.
The treaty encourages governments to stop supplying lethal weapons of war to human rights abusers, violators of international humanitarian law, terrorists, and organized criminals by prohibiting certain kinds of arms transfers and establishing specific criteria for making arms transfer decisions (all of which are already reflected in U.S. law and regulations). These are not controversial measures. It is common sense to ensure that the weapons the United States sells are used for the purposes intended and do not undermine American national security interests, foreign policy objectives, economic priorities, or principles and values.
In simple terms, the Arms Trade Treaty tells governments what to do in order to participate in the arms trade responsibly, but not how to do it. It provides a flexible approach that allows governments to right-size their national arms transfer control systems — the laws, regulations, and policies that governments have to control arms moving into, out of, and through their territories. Not everyone needs a system as sophisticated as the United States, for example — no other country does as much arms trading. But the treaty mandates that participating governments have national control systems with control lists of items that are subject to import, export, brokering and transit and transshipment regulations. These requirements are common-sense elements of every national control system. They do not create a burden. Rather, they simply make legitimate trade more efficient and help curb diversion of legal weapons to illegal markets. For example, the treaty requires governments to develop laws and regulations for arms brokering — closing a loophole that has allowed nefarious arms brokers to skirt a patchwork of national laws and avoid detection. While Trump’s remarks seriously misrepresent the nature and purpose of the treaty, he was right about one thing: Most Americans have never heard of the Arms Trade Treaty. The treaty was negotiated over a five-year period that began in the George W. Bush administration, was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in April 2013, and was signed by then-Secretary of State John Kerry several months later.
I spent those years as the consultant to the treaty process — from its beginnings as a group of governmental experts examining the scope, parameters, and feasibility of an Arms Trade Treaty through two negotiating conferences. One of the reasons I was selected as the consultant was because I was an American who understood the U.S. export control system and the concerns of U.S. negotiators. I worked closely with the conference presidents and diplomats from the United States and around the world looking for compromises in text language to develop a treaty that made a meaningful difference. Having the United States on board, as the world’s largest arms exporter, was important to the diplomats negotiating the treaty, and sacrifices were made by those demanding stronger and more specific language in order to keep the United States at the table.
With all the concessions made to get the United States to sign on to the treaty, unfortunately, the Obama administration never sold the treaty’s virtues to the American public or Congress. This neglect allowed a false narrative about the Arms Trade Treaty — largely propagated by conservative groups and gun-rights activists, such as those at the National Rifle Association — to take hold and dominate the discussion. With no champions on the Hill, the treaty has been allowed to languish in the Senate since it was first transmitted for consideration of ratification in 2016 with no action.
Getting Up from the Table
Even though the U.S. government remained silent on the Arms Trade Treaty domestically, it actively participated in discussions on the treaty internationally at the working group level and at Conferences of States Parties, speaking up when proposals were not in the U.S. interest or when diplomats tried to interpret the treaty in ways inconsistent with the actual text. Participation in these meetings has helped ensure that U.S. perspectives and interests were heard and taken into consideration as the treaty matured. In walking away from the treaty now, the United States will have to rely on other countries to serve as guarantors for U.S. interests — a role that is best played by the United States itself. Now countries can promote treaty interpretation or establish common practices that are more consistent with their views and experiences and which ignore U.S. perspectives.
Treaty critics, including the president himself, point out that Russia and China remain outside the treaty. But so too do Iran, North Korea, Syria, India, and Pakistan, many of which have tense relationships with the United States. After Trump’s theatrics last week, China announced that it was considering joining the Arms Trade Treaty. China has not opposed the treaty in principle, rather it initially did not approve of how the treaty was adopted at the United Nations. China regularly participates in treaty meetings as an observer but has upped the ante in light of the Trump announcement. China is clearly taking advantage of the leadership void that Trump has opened up, using the opportunity to move from cautious observer to a near enthusiastic supporter of the treaty — a shrewd political move. No one knows how the president’s decision will be implemented. Senior administration officials said during a phone briefing last Friday that they are unsure about how the mechanics of the decision will work and whether the United States will attend and participate in future Arms Trade Treaty meetings. This is concerning. If the United States is not in the room, it cannot make sure that the future of the treaty remains consistent with U.S. interests. By abdicating responsibility, the United States is ceding space to others to influence the interpretation and implementation of the treaty.
Where to from Here?
The Arms Trade Treaty is aspirational, but it does not act in isolation. The treaty is not a panacea to solve every problem associated with the global transfer and use of conventional weapons but rather is one tool in a diverse and varied toolbox available for states to ensure responsibility in the international arms trade. And while there are problems with the treaty text — due to compromises made to get the United States on board the treaty — more than 100 governments are party to the treaty (including most U.S. allies), and more than 30 additional governments have signed on to it, cementing new norms and standards for operating in a previously unregulated global arms trade. The Arms Trade Treaty will survive without the United States, but not having the world’s largest arms exporter inside the treaty undermines its intent.
U.S. negotiators saw this treaty as an opportunity to raise other countries up to the U.S. standard and level the playing field for American industry, which was subject to stricter national controls and more complicated bureaucratic processes than those found in other countries. U.S. negotiators recognized that the Arms Trade Treaty would face a challenging political environment within the United States and therefore made it clear that the treaty did not create additional responsibilities or burdens for U.S. industry, nor require changes to U.S. laws or regulations. U.S. industry supported these efforts because they seek efficiency and predictability in an increasingly globalized market. Nothing will change for U.S. exporters when the United States unsigns the treaty, as they will still be subject to strict U.S. export control laws. But, these exporters could see their supply chains or access to customers put at risk if a trading partner puts limits with those countries that are not signatories or parties to the treaty.
As mentioned, on April 29, the president sent a letter to the Senate saying that ratification of the treaty is not in America’s interest and asking for it to be returned to the White House. Once that occurs, the president should stay quiet on the Arms Trade Treaty. He has accomplished his political objectives and given a win to an embattled special interest group. Another administration can reconsider the U.S. role in the Arms Trade Treaty in the future and seek treaty ratification. But the damage to the U.S. relationship with partners and allies will likely take longer to repair. The United States has sent a signal with this announcement — that it will no longer be bound by the object and purpose of the Arms Trade Treaty. Not having the United States as a treaty partner legitimizes the irresponsible transfers of countries like Russia, Iran, and North Korea. It tells governments that they do not have to utilize restraint in their arms transfer decisions. Yes, the United States will continue to follow its national laws and regulations, but the bad behavior of those countries that do not have such strict standards has now become much harder for the United States to condone.
The United States has not only weakened its commitment to promoting and ensuring responsibility in global arms transfers, it has left a hole in leadership and undermined its negotiating position in the future. For now, we must live with the consequences of this foolish decision and hope the U.S. reputation can recover from yet another rejection of international engagement.
Rachel Stohl is managing director at the Stimson Center and was the consultant to the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations.
Image: U.S. Army photo by Master Sgt. Michel Sauret