On December 4, 2012, by a vote of 61-38 the United States Senate failed to consent to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It takes 66 votes to consent to a treaty, so at least for the time being the United States will not be a party to the latest global treaty extending international recognition of human rights.
The treaty, already signed by 155 nations and ratified by 126 countries, including Britain, France, Germany, China and Russia, states that nations should strive to assure that the disabled enjoy the same rights and fundamental freedoms as their fellow citizens.
The vote was essentially partisan. Every Democratic Senator plus eight Republican Senators, including Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN) who has arguably been the most important Senate Republican on foreign policy issues for decades, voted to consent to the treaty. For the record here are the 38 Senators who voted against the treaty:
Senator Cochran initially voted for the treaty, but changed his vote when it became clear that the treaty would fail.
Treaty supporters argued that the convention is based largely on the Americans with Disabilities Act, which was signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. Negotiations for the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities were begun during President George W. Bush’s administration. It had the support of many prominent Republicans, including the first President Bush, former US Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, and one-time Republican presidential nominee Robert Dole, who watched the vote from his wheelchair parked on the Senate floor.
Those who voted against the treaty offered an interesting array of explanations for their votes. Several opponents argued that joining the treaty would make the US less sovereign in how it deal with disability rights policy. In some sense, this is true. Every time a country makes a treaty obligation it agrees to limit its sovereignty. The fact that the treaty is a UN-sponsored treaty was another objectionable point for some Senators. It is an article of faith for many conservatives that the UN is an evil institution that seeks to control the world and subvert the American way of life. This may not be a mainstream point of view, but it could be a factor in Republican primary elections when turnout is much smaller than in general elections and insurgent candidates representing the ideological extreme of the party have had considerable recent success defeating more moderate incumbents. After all, that is why Senator Lugar is leaving the Senate (and why the newly elected Senator from Indiana is a Democrat).
Opponents of the treaty also offered arguments based on what seem like narrowly tendentious interpretations of the treaty. Former Senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum used his PAC to spread the fear that the treaty would give Geneva-based (that’s in Europe, so you know it’s really bad) UN bureaucrats the ability to dictate to the parents of children with disabilities how they should provide for those children. This was apparently very alarming to families that home school their children.
“I am frankly upset,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., “that they have succeeded in scaring the parents who home-school their children all over this country.” He said he said his office had received dozens of calls from home-schooling parents urging him to vote against the convention.
Abortion opponents also seized on language in the treaty guaranteeing the disabled equal rights to reproductive rights could lead to terminated pregnancies.
So what can we learn from this episode?
- The Republican party has generally repudiated the generations of internationalist foreign policy leaders who held sway from the Eisenhower administration. This Republican party internationalist tradition, which can even be traced to the 1920s and Herbert Hoover, has long been in tension with both an isolationist wing and an imperialist wing of the party. The potential power of Tea Party voters brimming with UN conspiracy theories has either driven out or silenced Republican internationalists, many of whom now find Democrats more reliable stewards of US foreign policy. They are reinforced by scholars and policy makers, often referred to as “New Sovereigntists” who fundamentally reject global governance. While foreign policy issues rarely determine national elections, the repudiation of a tradition embodied by Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, George Bush (both of them), Colin Powell, Henry Kissinger, Richard Lugar, and I could go on and on, will make it harder for Republicans to present themselves as reasonable potential presidents.
- President Obama and presidents who follow him will be more and more inclined to conduct diplomacy and reach agreement with other countries in ways that avoid the Senate.
- On the other hand, the inability of US presidents to deliver the Senate on practically any international treaty of consequence weakens the standing of the US in global affairs. Why, after all, should US preferences be treated seriously in the negotiation of international agreements if nobody believes the US will ultimately become a party to the agreement? The foundation of US foreign policy strategy since World War II has been the creation, articulation, and defense of a liberal international order based on institutions and rules that largely reflect US values and preferences. One of the most important values promoted by the US has been human rights. Even if US relative power in the world should decline, which really seems inevitable, a robust liberal international order would mean that the world would still be congenial for US interests and values. The failure to approve the Disability Convention and other agreements makes the US look like it has lost faith in the values it once asked the rest of the world to embrace. Not necessarily a death knell for the liberal international order, but not a sign of robustness either.
- Editorial: Treaty Rights for the Disabled (nytimes.com)
- UN disability law fails in Senate (bbc.co.uk)
- Despite Bob Dole’s Wish, Republicans Reject Disabilities Treaty (nytimes.com)
- Dysfunction and Lies: Senate Vote Beyond Shameful (themoderatevoice.com)
- U.S. Senate Rejects Treaty on the Rights of the Disabled – Bloomberg (bloomberg.com)
In a recent post on the Foreign Policy site, Daniel Drezner (that’s right, the Theories of International Politics and Zombies guy) speculates about why so many Republicans have been unwilling to give the Obama administration much, if any, credit for foreign policy success. With the demise of Muammar Gaddafi, Drezner claims, “it becomes harder and harder to argue that Barack Obama’s foreign policy is a failure.”
Drezner, a professor at the Fletcher School of Diplomacy at Tufts University, wonders if Obama could turn his greater successes in foreign policy compared to other policy areas to his electoral advantage in 2012. Here he imagines an Obama speech in which the incumbent president asks voters to consider what he could accomplish in domestic and economic policy if only he had the same room to maneuver that he has in foreign policy.
As president, I have to address both domestic policy and foreign policy. Because of the way that the commander-in-chief role has evolved, I have far fewer political constraints on foreign policy action than domestic policy action. So let’s think about this for a second. On the foreign stage, America’s standing has returned from its post-Iraq low. Al Qaeda is now a shell of its former self. Liberalizing forces are making uneven but forward progress in North Africa. Muammar Gaddafi’s regime is no longer, without one American casualty. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are winding down. Every country in the Pacific Rim without a Communist Party running things is trying to hug us closer.
Imagine what I could accomplish in domestic policy without the kind of obstructionism and filibustering that we’re seeing in Congress — which happens to be even more unpopular than I am, by the way. I’m not talking about the GOP abjectly surrendering, mind you, just doing routine things like sublecting my nominees to a floor vote in the Senate. I’ve achieved significant foreign policy successes while still cooperating with our allies in NATO and Northeast Asia. Just imagine what I could get done if the Republicans were as willing to compromise as, say, France
Drezner is resurrecting the “Two Presidencies Theory,” which was first presented in the 1960s by the legendary political scientist Aaron Wildavsky. According to this theory, presidents have more constitutional and statutory authority to make foreign policy decisions than they do in domestic policy areas. Other political actors, especially in Congress, may also show greater deference to the president when it comes to foreign policy. As a result, presidents may prefer to give more time and attention to foreign policy problems than to domestic issues where they are less able to make an impact. Some presidents, like Richard Nixon, come to office intending to concentrate on foreign policy and end up devoting even more of their presidencies to international affairs than they had intended. Others, like Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, show little interest in foreign policy but eventually come to increase their emphasis on international affairs.
The Two Presidencies thesis has been challenged from the moment it was first proposed. Some scholars found evidence that suggests that the theory is robustly supported. Others have claimed the demise of the two presidencies as Congress has become less deferential in the foreign policy area. Still others have suggested that the two presidencies theory only covers Republican presidents. And some claim that the two presidencies phenomenon continues to persist much as Wildavsky described almost fifty years ago.
Whatever is the case about the two presidencies, it is unlikely that President Obama will be able to turn his administration’s foreign policy successes to his advantage. To some extent, his own foreign policy successes may render foreign policy issues less salient for most voters in 2012. Winding down the U.S. involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya will leave the state of the economy the only important question for most.
On the other hand, Republicans will not likely enjoy the built-in advantage they have enjoyed with voters about foreign-policy questions since the end of World War II. The contenders for the Republican nomination, with the exception of Romney and Huntsman, have expressed little interest in foreign policy. And the Grand Old Party, which has mostly spoken with one voice about foreign policy questions, is fractured among neo-conservatives, isolationists, traditional realists and whatever foreign policy point of view Herman Cain expresses. Unfortunately for President Obama, this may not matter. President George H.W. Bush and Senator John McCain show us that foreign policy expertise and accomplishment are unlikely to save the day when voters are focused on economic worries.
In governing, there may frequently be two presidencies. At the ballot box, just one.
- Obama’s Military & Foreign Policy Successes: How Did He Do It? (themoderatevoice.com)
- The Untold Story Of The Actual Obama Record, Ctd (andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com)
- Howard Kurtz Asks If Media Too Slow To Give President Obama Credit For Muammar Gaddafi Killing (mediaite.com)
- Will Foreign Policy Wins Help in 2012? (foxnews.com)
- Obama’s foreign successes may help little in 2012 (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Romney: Obama’s handling of foreign policy has weakened our standing in the world (hotair.com)
- Paul Joins Obama Foreign Policy Pile-On (thepage.time.com)
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