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Screw Treaties! or: Conservatives Wants America to Withdraw from the World

At the end of the August 22nd episode of KCRW’s Left, Right and Center, former journalist and Canadian parliamentarian Chrystia Friedland pissed me off.

She was describing how America had hoped for a “peace dividend” following the fall of the USSR, and then after the drawdown in Iraq. However, she used this history to caution that America “can’t withdraw from the world” (min 15:30), and (therefore) must be prepared to go to war with countries like Russia, Syria and Iraq.   

“Withdrawing from the world” is a familiar criticism of President Obama/Democrats when they don’t want to start another war. In June, Congressman Paul Ryan accused President Obama of “withdrawing from the world” by refusing to bomb ISIS or send troops back to Iraq. John McCain has said this too, in regards to Syria.

It seems every time the Washington war-hawk establishment gets spun up about another war--by our count, since President Obama’s reelection, it has happened with Egypt, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Ukraine, Iraq and Nigeria--they first trot out the lines about “Munich Moments”, then they try to portray advocates against another war as “isolationists”, and finish by admonishing that the U.S. cannot “withdraw from the world”.

We find these lines of attack, particularly when they come from hardcore conservatives or conservative think tanks, incredibly hypocritical. Take the Heritage Foundation. They host the text of a speech on their website from Walter Lohman, a director on their staff, called “Honoring America’s Superpower Responsibilities”, where Lohman repeatedly admonishes that America must not “withdraw from the world”. Lohman claims he is not just talking about military power, but other forms of engagement as well.

Fair enough. So let’s go to the Heritage Foundation’s website, and see its official stances on a host of international issues: Does it support more foreign aid spending? Nope. Does it support the UN Council on Human Rights? Nope. Should the U.S. honor the Geneva convention when it comes to terrorists? Nope. Should the U.S. pull back funding from the U.N.? Yep. Should it call for less peacekeeping missions to stop on-going wars? Yep.

Most importantly, does the Heritage foundation recommend rejecting almost every treaty placed in front of America? Hell yes.

See conservatives love to “engage” the world, when it means fighting there. Anyone who backs down from a fight is “withdrawing” from America’s superpower responsibilities. Yet when it comes to low cost, simple ways to spread the rule of law--and international norms, which seemed so important to uphold in both Ukraine and Syria--Republicans and conservatives balk. As Kevin Drum pointed out, conservatives in particular hate treaties.

This applies to Senate Republicans particularly. In the last decade or so they have…

- Promised to kill the the Rome Treaty that established the International Criminal Court. (President Clinton signed on to the treaty but never submitted it to the Senate, because he knew it wouldn’t pass. President Bush withdrew from it. (We’ve written before how an ICC for Terrorists, Pirates and Trans-National Criminals would solve about a dozen international issues in one fell swoop.)

- Filibustered or stalled the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was signed in 1994. (The U.S. does follow its provisions anyways.)

- Failed to sign onto treaties banning cluster munitions, land mines and white phosphorous.

- Rejected an international treaty on Human Rights for the Disabled. The U.S. most recently rejected the UN treaty on protecting disabilities, a treaty styled on US disability law!

- And more!

We’ve written about this before, defending ourselves--and fellow advocates for restraint in military adventures around the world--from charges of isolationism. But it seems important to bring it up again, especially when in Ukraine, the value of “international norms” was brought up again and again as the raison d’etre for intervention. In the words of Fareed Zakaria:

“But beyond these narrow considerations is a larger one: Do these countries want to live in a world entirely ruled by the interplay of national interests? Since 1945, there have been increasing efforts to put in place broader global norms — for example, against annexations by force. These have not always been honored, but, compared with the past, they have helped shape a more peaceful and prosperous world.”

We agree. International norms trump national self-interest, especially in the long run. But the true value of international norms isn’t created on the eve of war, it’s created in the years before conflict. The Senate, which has allowed its minority group to deny any new treaties since 1997, has done more to hurt international norms than not bombing Russia or the Islamic State.

The irony is that refusing to ratify global treaties makes the world more dangerous and free trade less likely.

And that forces the U.S. to go to unnecessary wars.

Now that’s withdrawing from the world.

five comments

Just want to say, I think Michael nailed this post.

It’s post like these when I wish out traffic were better. When discussing future wars, everyone needs to consider Michael C’s points.


I wasn’t aware that this was a standard phrase.
I was rather aware of the “isolationism” taboo. Bacevich laid out repeatedly how the United States were never isolationist and the whole thing about ‘bad things happened in the world when we were isolationist’ is merely a myth, a false memory.

I must also say that I like it more when Republicans/conservatives refuse to ratify than when any kind of American politician ignores treaty obligations from signed & ratified treaties. I’ve written several blog posts on how commonplace that is in ‘security policy’.
The conservatives are the rather more honest people in this: The democrats ratify and the Neocons used ‘security policy’ treaties only to bring forward claims against others, without the intent to oblige to some of their equally legitimate claims.

And then there are the treaties which are getting warped in their meaning beyond recognition, such as the purely-defensive-alliance-turned-military-adventure-club known as “NATO” and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which is being used to hammer Iran for non-violations while the USA itself is in near-constant violation regarding the disarmament provision and probably violated it most directly in regard to Israel’s nukes.

“The irony is that refusing to ratify global treaties makes the world more dangerous and free trade less likely.”

We have free trade save for a few embargoes. The remaining trade obstacles are quite negligible. Further trade liberalization may hurt more than help, and according to leading trade economics researchers it would only give a very small one-time boost (one or two per cent GDP). The low hanging fruits and generally all fruits but those on top were picked already in trade liberalisation.

@Eric: What’s your traffic? (You may reply in private, of course.)


You don’t need treaties to stay involved with the world. China is doing quite nicely with a series of nation to nation discussions. Brazil, India and South Africa are developing closer ties without signing any formal agreements. Nations continue to negotiate their own free trade agreements. My point is that politicians (your post is about Americans, so let’s say American politicians in specific, but western politicians in general) don’t need to see the options exclusively as isolationism or multinational treaties. Simply maintaining connections and occasionally throwing in a few extra visits/meetings with other nations can pay dividends.


@ F, SO – I see your points, but I would lean heavily on the side of treaties. Treaties represent global norms. They establish the rules that world should run on. The universally agreed principles that every nation should follow. (Regardless of their power.)

Perhaps the best example I can think of is the most petty: a This American Life episode about the Bush administration challenging long accepted definitions of the border between America and Canada. They, incredibly short-sightedly, encouraged Americans to fight to expand their borders. They spit in the face of long established definitions of the border because they could.

This all applies to America because America still is the most powerful country in the world. And with that power comes the tendency to view itself as above the rules. But no country is above those rules. Treaties represent those rules.

Anyway, it’s not just about treaties. Michael C’s sixth paragraph outlines a whole host of other options conservatives hates, in addition to treaties.


In terms of strengthening economic relationships, here’s an economist article on Congress and the IMF.

http://www.economist.com/news/finance-an..