Advice and Objection?

To the chagrin of presidents and prime ministers, most constitutional systems require international treaties to be ratified—sometimes by plebiscite, more often by elected representatives. More than once this democratic complication derailed the “best-laid plans.” The French non by 54.7 percent in May 2005 spelled the end of the European constitution and forced a reluctant Brussels to make concessions to its member states. Irish voters, who rejected the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 (before accepting a modified version a year later), no doubt slowed the pace of European integration.

Even when parliamentary, rather than voter, consent is required, life doesn’t get much easier. Before finally agreeing to the Maastricht Treaty (the treaty that created the European Union) in July 1993 by a vote of 339 to 299, Britain’s House of Commons spent a year in bitter debates, which, on several occasions, threatened to bring down Prime Minister John Major’s Conservative government. For seven years Russia’s successive parliaments—the Supreme Soviet, the First Duma and the Second Duma—held up the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START II), signed by Presidents Yeltsin and Bush in January 1993. When the document was finally ratified by Russian legislators on a 288-131 vote in April 2000, both presidents were enjoying their retirement.

The U.S. Constitution’s treaty clause requiring a two-thirds Senate majority for “advice and consent” on international agreements, has long been a thorn in the side of the White House. On November 19, 1919, by a vote of 38 to 53, the United State Senate rejected the historic Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I. The isolationist senators’ principal argument against the treaty was the establishment of the League of Nations, which was, ironically, achieved through the efforts of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Eight decades later, on October 13, 1999, another Republican Senate dealt a humiliating blow to another Democratic president: on a largely party-line vote of 48 to 51, senators failed to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, which had been signed, first among world leaders, by President Clinton. GOP leaders called the treaty “fundamentally flawed”; the White House accused Republicans of “partisan politics of the worst kind.”

The new START treaty between the U.S. and Russia, signed by Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev on April 8, will soon come up for ratification. Both presidents promised a synchronized start to the ratification procedures in the first week of May. But if the approval by Russia’s rubber-stamp parliament is guaranteed, the outcome on Capitol Hill is far from certain. In a joint statement released after the treaty’s signing, Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl and the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking member John McCain objected to “references to missile defense, some of which could limit U.S. actions” and asserted that it will be difficult for [the START treaty] to pass the Senate without the fully funded robust nuclear weapons modernization program.”

It would take 34 of the Senate’s 41 Republicans to block the treaty’s passage. Russian Senator Mikhail Margelov, who is in Washington this week to try to convince his U.S. counterparts of the treaty’s benefits, suggested that START’s rejection would send the “wrong signal” to aspiring nuclear states such as Iran. Senate Democrats are urging their Republican colleagues not to use arms control as a partisan issue. With crucial midterm elections just six months away, however, this may be too good an opportunity to miss.

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