Australian Outlook

In this section

US Treaty Withdrawals Undermine the Post-WWII Multilateral System

09 May 2019
By Dr Samuel Berhanu Woldemariam and Dr Amy Maguire
President Trump addresses the National Rifle Association's national conference in Indianapolis on 26 April 2019. Photo: Tia Dufour/White house, Flickr

In the latest of a series of withdrawals from international treaties and organisations, the Trump administration has abandoned its commitment to ratify the Arms Trade Treaty. By continuing to act unilaterally and to focus on pursuing domestic goals over international ones, the United States is undermining the global multilateral system it worked so hard to create.

On 26 of April 2019, President Donald Trump announced that his administration would ask the Senate to stop the ratification process of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) that the United States signed in 2013. He then signed a letter to that effect from the stage during his speech to the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting in Indianapolis. The ATT entered into force on 24 December 2014 and has 101 Parties. The administration of President Barack Obama initiated the ratification procedure when it submitted the ATT to the Senate on 9 December 2016.

President Obama’s letter of transmittal stated that the ATT:

will contribute to international peace and security, will strengthen the legitimate international trade in conventional arms, and is fully consistent with rights of US citizens (including those secured by the Second Amendment to the US Constitution).

The letter further noted that the:

United States national control systems and practices to regulate the international transfer of conventional arms already meet or exceed the requirements of the Treaty, and no further legislation is necessary to comply with the Treaty.

In stark contrast to his predecessor, President Trump equated the ratification of the ATT with a surrender of US sovereignty. He stated: “By taking these actions, we are reaffirming that American liberty is sacred and that American citizens live by American laws and not the laws of foreign countries.”

The European Union criticised the decision saying the revocation of the signature will “not contribute to the ongoing efforts to encourage transparency in the international arms trade, to prevent illicit trafficking and to combat the diversion of conventional arms.”

The Arms Trade Treaty

The ATT is a multilateral agreement that contains 28 articles. Its stated objectives are to establish an international standard for regulating the international trade of conventional arms and to prevent and eradicate the illicit trade in conventional arms and their diversion.

The treaty applies in respect of the export, import, transit, trans-shipment and brokering of conventional arms ranging from warships to missiles and missile launchers, and to small arms and light weapons.

The treaty requires that a state party shall not authorise the transfer of conventional arms listed under Article 2(1) of the treaty where such authorisation would violate (1) UN Security Council resolutions adopted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, (2) international agreements to which the state is a party, or (3) where the state has knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms would be used in the commission of war crimes.

State parties are required to keep national records of their export authorisations, imports of conventional arms as well as those that transit through their territory.

The treaty further promotes transparency by requiring state parties to report on measures taken to implement the treaty and to address diversions, and to report concerning authorised or actual exports and imports of conventional arms.

The Withdrawal

This withdrawal is another in a series, following the Trump administration’s withdrawals from the Paris Climate Accord, the UN Human Rights Council, the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) and its refusal to negotiate or sign the Global Compact on Migration.

The Trump administration recently confirmed that the United States will withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty citing the violation of the treaty by Russia. The Russian government strongly denies these allegations and in turn accuses the United States of undermining the viability of the treaty. The Trump administration has further withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and threatened to withdraw from the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

It is disconcerting to see the United States, a leading actor in international politics, pull out of treaties and organisations at such a pace. Perhaps even more disconcerting is the “either you agree with us or we will leave” narrative that is unilaterally imposed on the other members of the respective treaties. Withdrawal is being used as a weapon to secure the unilateral interests of the United States and this poses serious challenges to the post-World War II multilateral framework that is based on mutual understanding and negotiations. The United States has been a leading advocate of this framework. It master-minded the creation of the League of Nations and played a crucial role in the formation and operation of the UN.

The complex challenges facing the world today demand greater, rather than reduced, cooperation. No country can single-handedly manage these challenges. The sudden retreat to an “America First” policy sacrifices multilateralism upon the altar of US domestic politics. No doubt, States should seek to promote their interests in their international relations. However, the nature of global challenges today demands that we seek to engage with the international community in doing so. This inevitably requires capitalising on common interests, finding win-win solutions and remaining open to constructive compromise.

The Trump administration’s recent flurry of withdrawal activity is disorienting for US allies and potentially risky for all players in the international community. Competing international actors may take this as a sign to brace for an impending Cold War-like environment. Overall, these withdrawals set a dangerous precedent for evading international responsibilities for the sake of domestic political gains.

It is also in the best interests of the United States and its citizens that the administration should seek to engage with, and not alienate itself from, the international community. Management of the global flow of arms is essential to maintaining international peace and security. The United States, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, should lead by example in this regard. By withdrawing from the ratification process of the ATT, the United States is also forgoing its privileges under the treaty to hold other nations accountable in respect of their arms trade activities.

The aggressive pursuit of unilateral solutions is weakening the multilateral framework of international relations. The Trump administration needs to re-examine its foreign relations orientation in this regard. “Making America great again” requires retaining and maintaining bridges, not burning them down.

Samuel Berhanu Woldemariam is a PhD (Law) candidate at the University of Newcastle and a former legal officer with the Ethiopian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Samuel’s research interest spans across a range of areas in international law. 

Dr Amy Maguire is an associate professor in International Law and Human Rights at the University of Newcastle Law School, Australia.

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.