Executive Power

The Obama Administration and Treaties

By John Bellinger
Wednesday, December 19, 2012, 9:22 AM

I have an op-ed in today's New York Times entitled "Obama's Weakness on Treaties" arguing that the Obama Administration needs to work harder to get Senate approval of treaties in its second term.   Here are a few excerpts:


ON Dec. 4, the Senate rejected the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by a vote of 61 to 38, five short of the two-thirds majority needed for approval. Conservative Republicans had mischaracterized the treaty, which was intended to promote the rights of the disabled in other countries, as infringing on American sovereignty. But the treaty was also mishandled by the Obama administration, which has secured Senate approval of the fewest treaties in any four-year presidential term since World War II.  It isn’t enough to blame Republican opposition to international agreements, which certainly has risen among the party’s senators in recent years. That trend only makes it more important that President Obama work harder to gain Senate support for treaties in his second term.


The Obama administration has been slow to submit new treaties to the Senate, and only nine have been approved so far. In contrast, the George W. Bush administration secured Senate approval of 163 treaties over eight years. These included not only bilateral treaties but also multilateral agreements on many important subjects, including human rights, atmospheric and marine environmental protection, the laws of war and arms control.


Now President Obama must devote more energy to securing Senate approval for pending treaties, both by using the presidency’s bully pulpit to explain the benefits and by directing administration officials to pay more attention to the concerns of individual senators. Despite increasing Republican hostility toward treaties, the president should still be able to persuade between 12 and 15 pragmatic Republican senators to support treaties that give concrete rights to Americans and American businesses or that promote important American interests.

The president should begin with the Law of the Sea Convention, which enjoys strong support from all branches of the United States military and from the American business community. He almost certainly could have gained Senate approval of this important treaty during his first three years in office but inexplicably waited until the maelstrom of the 2012 election year to push for it.

Over the last 230 years, the Senate has approved more than 1,500 treaties. In 2013, Mr. Obama must demonstrate leadership by putting greater effort in securing Senate approval of essential treaties that advance American interests, including the Law of the Sea Convention.