Obama’s Attitude Toward Treaties: Probably About Right

Dan Drezner isn’t happy that the Obama administration hasn’t put much effort into winning passage of international treaties:

Politics is art as well as science, and there’s something just a little bit chickens**t about the Obama White House’s tactics. Politics isn’t only about winning — sometimes it’s just about making the effort. And the truth of the matter is that when it comes to dealing with Congress, this administration hasn’t made the effort. By my recollection, during its entire first term, the only international relations piece of legislation that got the full court Obama White House press was the New START treaty with Russia. Now given what was going on with the economy, one could argue that the administration had the right set of priorities. But one way to help jumpstart the global economy would be a series of potentially significant foreign economic policy moves — including the ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention, by the way.

….I hope that in its second term, the White House cares enough about foreign policy to actually engage Congress rather than throw up their hands and say, “crazy Republicans, what can you do?” Actually, President Obama, you could do one whole hell of a lot if you made an effort.

I’d probably take the other side of this argument. Dan’s core reason for Obama to prioritize this stuff is that it might “jumpstart the global economy,” but he slid by that assertion a bit too quickly for my taste. My guess is exactly the opposite: Obama could be the biggest treaty dynamo in the history of the Republic, and even if he succeeded the impact on the global economy would be barely measurable. In any case, I’d sure like to hear the counterargument.

Unfortunately, I suspect that Obama is right: foreign treaties just aren’t all that important, and expending political capital on them doesn’t make much sense. Republicans are crazy, and even the impact of the Law of the Sea Convention—which is certainly far greater than the disabilities treaty would have been—isn’t enormous. Something like the Doha Round would probably have a significant effect if we could make progress on it, but that goes way beyond needing a bit more schmoozing from Obama.

Bottom line: I sympathize, but I suspect that Obama’s priorities are about right. New START was important. Basel III was important. Keeping the NATO coalition together over Afghanistan was important. Dealing sensibly with Asia—which he has—was important. But trying to persuade the Michele Bachmann wing of the Republican Party to pass a few more treaties? It’s hard to see a big payoff there.