When Trump ‘unsigned’ arms treaty, it was about more than guns

Why We Wrote This

Do international treaties enhance U.S. security or limit its power? That's been a core issue under President Trump that is perceived differently by his base and U.S. allies. The Arms Trade Treaty is a case in point, even if symbolically.

Michael Conroy/AP
President Donald Trump, at a National Rifle Association forum in Indianapolis, holds up an executive order with his signature as he announces his rejection of the Arms Trade Treaty signed during the Obama administration, April 26. It was never ratified by the Senate.

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The Obama-era international Arms Trade Treaty was intended to set global standards for conventional arms transfers and deny weapons to human rights violators. The U.S. signed the treaty but never ratified it.

But President Donald Trump’s “unsigning” of the treaty in front of an NRA audience was pointed drama. Calling the treaty a threat to Second Amendment rights, he presented the image of a leader rejecting one effort after another by the international community to constrain American power and limit individual freedoms.

But for many diplomats and experts in international affairs, rejection of the treaty stands as further evidence of a U.S. withdrawal from its global leadership role in establishing norms of behavior. And this at a time the world faces a growing plate of issues, from climate change and biodiversity loss to conflict-driven migration and terrorism.

“The Arms Trade Treaty was never envisioned as a big game changer,” says Daniel Prins, at the U.N.’s Office of Disarmament Affairs. “But like other advances in international law, it is an attempt to build norms and standards that admit themselves into behaviors of countries and over time enhance those countries’ security and well-being.”

When President Donald Trump recently withdrew the U.S. imprimatur from the international Arms Trade Treaty – flinging into a crowd of National Rifle Association members the big Sharpie he’d just used to sign his order – the showmanship had no legal implications.

But the dramatic gesture was filled with symbolic meaning.

Mr. Trump said he was “unsigning” a document the United States had negotiated with other members of the United Nations and which former President Barack Obama signed in 2013.

Experts in international law noted, however, that the U.S. had never ratified the treaty – intended to set global standards for conventional arms transfers and deny weapons to human-rights violators – which had lain forgotten in the Senate for years.

In any case, they added, the signature of one president can’t be revoked by another.

But the thick black signature the president showed his appreciative audience was of course intended for a domestic political base.

Legalisms aside, the image the base was being shown was of a leader rejecting one effort after another by the international community to constrain American power and reach into sovereign nations, including the U.S., to limit individual freedoms.

The deeper meaning

For many diplomats and experts in international affairs, however, Mr. Trump’s dramatic rejection of the Arms Trade Treaty, or ATT, symbolizes something else entirely: It stands as further evidence of a U.S. withdrawal from its global leadership role and from the post-World War II notion that international cooperation does not limit America’s power and prosperity but enhances them.

“The Arms Trade Treaty was never envisioned as a big game changer that would suddenly regulate global arms exports or have a significant impact on shipments of arms to questionable regimes,” says Daniel Prins, chief of the conventional arms branch of the U.N.’s Office of Disarmament Affairs. “But like other advances in international law, it is an attempt to build norms and standards that admit themselves into behaviors of countries and over time enhance those countries’ security and well-being.”

More broadly, Mr. Trump’s move is another example of a global turn to a heightened sense of sovereignty and nationalist focus at a moment when the world faces a growing plate of issues, from climate change and biodiversity loss to conflict-driven migration and terrorism, international experts say. Such challenges can’t be addressed effectively by countries acting alone, they add, but demand multilateral cooperation.

Mr. Prins notes that the ATT, for the first time in an international treaty, draws a direct connection between the global arms trade and protection of human rights. He cites that as an “advance” in international law, not just for populations facing repression, but also for powers like the U.S. that have an interest in seeing human rights protected.

“Setting norms and standards of behavior doesn’t detract from anyone but actually enhances the position of those who were already upholding high standards,” says Mr. Prins, who was closely involved in the ATT’s negotiation and now assists in its implementation.

“So in this case, if the Arms Trade Treaty can help stop rogue regimes from shopping around for weapons,” he adds, “it becomes a benefit to arms exporters that already had the highest standards against supplying such regimes.”

‘Never surrender’ sovereignty

In announcing his rejection of the ATT at the NRA’s national convention April 26, Mr. Trump labeled the treaty a threat to Second Amendment rights and an abdication of American power. “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy,” the president said to cheers.

Accompanying Mr. Trump’s announcement was a White House statement calling the ATT unnecessary for the U.S. and a boon to unscrupulous arms exporters.

“The ATT is simply not needed for the United States to engage in responsible arms trade,” the statement said. “America will continue to abide by United States laws that ensure our arms sales are implemented after careful legal and policy reviews.”

Noting that large arms exporters like Russia and China are not party to the ATT, the White House said the treaty “will only constrain responsible countries while allowing the irresponsible arms trade to continue.”

Jason DeCrow/AP/File
John Kerry, then U.S. secretary of state, signs the Arms Trade Treaty as Under Secretary-General for Legal Affairs Miguel Serpa Soares looks on during the 68th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Sept. 25, 2013.

But for others, that perspective eschews America’s traditional role as a global leader whose power is enhanced by the rule of law and standards of behavior.

“Treaties create norms and set the rules of the road, and for many decades the United States has been a leader in that process and considered that overall it benefited from the rules-based order supported by treaties,” says Waheguru Pal Sidhu, a clinical associate professor in New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and an expert in arms control and nonproliferation.

U.S. leadership is missed

“But under the Trump administration, the U.S. is increasingly moving out of treaties, and that is doing two things,” he adds. “It is telling the world, both allies and adversaries, that [the U.S. is] basically checking out. And increasingly, it’s encouraging other groups of countries to come together to work on treaties and arrangements without the leadership of the United States, and they’re finding that it’s not easy.”

He cites the ATT as one example. Without the U.S., the mid-size arms-exporting countries of the European Union are basically alone in pressing for high global standards for arms sales, he says.

On the other hand, the U.N.’s Mr. Prins notes that more than half of U.N. member states – just over 100 – are now party to the ATT. One attraction for poorer countries is the funding and expertise made available (some of which the U.S. has been providing) to set up databases of weapons transfers, he says. Similarly, some African and Latin American countries already awash in small arms have sought assistance through the ATT in getting a handle on irregular weapons imports.  

But Dr. Sidhu adds that the Paris Climate Accords and the Iran nuclear deal are also examples of international agreements that are hobbled by a U.S. absence.

Indeed, international affairs experts increasingly cite the U.S. retreat from its traditional role as a leader of the international order as a factor in what they see as the international community’s lagging ability to address the world’s most pressing challenges.

“The United States under President Donald J. Trump continued to abdicate much of its traditional role of upholding the international order, ceding leadership in some areas to its rivals and eschewing partnering with its allies to bolster the order,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, in issuing an annual report card last week by a group of the world’s top think tanks assessing international cooperation on issues from terrorism to the global economy.

In part “as a result” of that abdication, Mr. Haass, said, “the gap between global challenges and responses grew larger” over the last year.

The value of U.S. participation

For many, that “gap” will continue to widen as the U.S. continues its retreat from global leadership, and as others – allies and adversaries – seek to fill the void.

“When the U.S. is participating in something, it bolsters the status of that something – or should I say there was a time when that was very much the case,” says John Cerone, a professor of international law specializing in human rights and international organizations at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Mass.

Now, “If the U.S. is flouting treaties, it not only makes the U.S. look bad, but it makes it easier for other states to refuse to participate, he says, “and that undermines the system of international cooperation that has been important to so much global progress.”

Professor Cerone cites the ATT as an example of a treaty of limited scope “and very deferential to national sovereignty” that seeks to establish and improve international norms of behavior, in this case advancing regulation of international trade “to keep weapons out of the hands of warlords and those who would commit genocide.”

Calling the ATT a “modest start,” he also sees it as a “helpful stepping stone” for addressing a significant global challenge.

“But that’s how things develop in international law and practice. Of course it helps if the big powers like the U.S. are on board,” he adds, “but experience shows that over time even the small stepping stones tend to develop into something more important.”

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