In just a month the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), now ratified by a sufficient number of nations, will enter into force. If the United States Senate doesn't ratify it by April 29, the US will have no formal role in its interpretation or implementation.
Initiated during the Reagan administration and signed by President Bush, the convention bans the development of chemical weapons, requires the destruction of existing stockpiles, and establishes a comprehensive inspection system. The US, which played a key role in negotiations, has begun to destroy its own stockpiles. The treaty, first submitted to the Senate four years ago but only recently the subject of challenges by conservative opponents, has yet to be reported out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Opponents say the treaty is not in US interests because violations can't be verified and states believed to be manufacturing chemical weapons - such as North Korea, Iraq, and Libya - have not signed. They further interpret the treaty to require the US to share information with other states on defenses against chemical weapons. They explain that although chemical weapons are easy to fabricate, defenses against them represent sophisticated techniques that should remain secret. Inspection procedures, they believe, would permit foreign access to US chemical industries and the possible loss of corporate secrets.
A few opponents reflect a not uncommon American attitude: "We don't need a treaty because we are the world's only superpower. We can take whatever action we deem necessary to prevent another nation from making such weapons. Direct action is preferable to sanctions or to the difficult diplomatic step of accusing a country of violating a treaty."
Proponents of the agreement point out that the trade in potentially lethal materials and the manufacture of chemical weapons are increasing. No international legal document outlaws their use. The treaty would establish an international regime and provide for increased export monitoring through exchanges of information among the signatories. Proponents reject the interpretation that the US must share secrets on defense. They point out that on-site inspections can be conducted only with the consent of the nation concerned.
Internationally negotiated treaties are not perfect instruments; they represent a consensus among states with widely varying interests. The Chemical Weapons Convention is no exception. Common chemicals useable in weapons can be easily manufactured and transported. Detecting the secret development of nerve gas (used in the subway attack in Japan) is difficult. Yet a treaty sets an international standard that, for many nations, is an essential element in a decision to exchange information or to impose sanctions on suspected violators. For the US to decry the development and use of chemical weapons but refuse to ratify the international treaty against such weapons is untenable.
Whatever the merits of the criticism of the CWC, the current circumstances point once more to weaknesses in a ratification system in which agreements signed in good faith and after extensive negotiation by US diplomats can't in timely fashion reach the Senate floor for full debate. Like the second Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT II) and the Panama Canal Treaty, they become vulnerable to last-minute political and ideological campaigns.
Those who drafted the clause in the Constitution giving the president power to make treaties "provided two-thirds of the Senators present concur" wanted Congress to have a role in agreements with foreign countries. It's questionable whether they intended the provision to become the impediment that it is to US diplomatic leadership and credibility.
* David D. Newsom, former undersecretary of state, is Cumming Memorial Professor of International Affairs at the University of Virginia.