Will the Senate ratify an arms treaty?

WITH the eyes of the world focused on the Geneva arms talks, the senators serving as the observation team look like bit players in the negotiation drama. But before the lead actors shunt these ``extras'' aside, they had best remember that this is one drama which must play again in Washington -- before the very body these senators represent. The most carefully crafted agreement achieved in Geneva will close out of town if the Senate is unwilling to ratify what the negotiators have wrought.

Failure to ratify is no idle fear. The history of the 20th century is strewn with the wreckage of presidential foreign-policy initiatives that were shot down by senators with a different vision of the national interest. The classic case of the legislative and executive branches marching to different drummers was the refusal of the Senate in 1919 to ratify the Treaty of Versailles, which reshaped the map of Europe after World War I and created the League of Nations. President Woodrow Wilson had invested his heart in that blueprint for enduring peace, but the Senate, reflecting profound American suspicions of the Old World, was bent on disentangling the United States from global affairs. Because Versailles was a multilateral treaty, it went into force without US ratification; political sages continue to speculate on what might have been had the US been on the center stage instead of the sidelines during the rise of fascism and Soviet communism.

Harry Truman, learning from Wilson's rebuff, persuaded Sen. Arthur H. Vandenberg, a powerful and conservative Republican, to play a key role in planning and launching the crucial foreign-policy initiatives of the postwar period, the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan. Since that time, legislators have been generally included as observers on US teams negotiating major international agreements. But ``observation'' misses the essence of the Truman approach. Vandenberg was no observer; he was an active participant who helped shape the strategy and shared accountability for the outcome.

That the presence of legislative observers in the treatymaking process is no guarantee of Senate approval was abundantly demonstrated in 1979, when SALT II was up for ratification. Despite their presence while it was being negotiated, SALT II was under siege in the Senate from the day of its presentation. It had no real chance of passage even before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan forced its withdrawal.

No one suggests that foreign policy be made by a joint executive-legislative committee. The principle of separation of powers is fundamental to the American system of governance. The people send their legislators to Washington in part to hold the executive branch accountable, not to connive with it.

Sometimes it may prove to be a healthy thing when a relatively dovish President, such as Jimmy Carter in 1978, has to contend with a relatively hawkish Congress, or vice versa. Our system makes it excruciatingly difficult to get things done, but what is done will often better stand the test of time.

If the US negotiators in Geneva succeed in achieving a sound agreement (and according to a recent poll only 30 percent of the American people think they will), the prospects for ratification without crippling amendments would be immeasurably bolstered by bringing the Congress -- especially the Senate -- deeply into the process from the outset, beyond observer status on a scale not yet contemplated, even by Harry Truman.

The senators designated by the Senate leadership as official observers of the Geneva talks are extremely able. But observer status, strictly interpreted, is not good enough. A senator representing 5 million Americans cannot be counted on to support uncritically positions that he or she has no role in developing. He or she should be consulted in the position-building process before the negotiation and in the remolding and refinement of positions that inevitably occur during the negotiation. Let the professional negotiator, like the British barrister, deal with the adversary, but let the legislative team member, like the British solicitor, share in giving him counsel.

Such a role for the legislator in a critically important international negotiation does no violence to the Constitution. The two branches do not merge; they merely conduct their healthy adversarial relationship in a different way. The Congress has always controlled the purse strings of the administration -- and, therefore, ultimately the national-security policy of the government -- and the Senate has always had the power to advise and consent on treaties and appointments.

In these important arms control negotiations it is essential that the legislators help shape the product as it moves down the assembly line rather than be asked to take or leave it when it appears on the showroom floor.

Amos A. Jordan Jr. is president and chief executive officer at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based nonprofit research organization.

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