The recent UN General Assembly’s approval of the Global Arms Trade Treaty has been met with excitement and relief among human rights advocates and many politicians globally.  Passed in a 154-3 vote with 23 abstentions, the new UN Treaty is meant to regulate $70 billion in global conventional arms trade in an effort to prevent the acquisition of such weapons by human rights abusers.  However, the approval by the UN General Assembly does not guarantee the Treaty’s success, and only after ratification by 50 states will it enter into force. Crucial to this success, many argue, will be ratification by the United States.

Image courtesy of  Andrew Kelly, © 2012, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Andrew Kelly, © 2012, some rights reserved.

U.S. ratification is viewed as paramount for many reasons. For example, a lack of support by the world’s largest gun exporter (accounting for “30 percent of [the] global volume”)[1] would not set a good precedent for the Treaty’s potential success. Further, U.S. ratification is seen as essential for bringing major arms producers including China and Russia into the Treaty. Encouragingly, the U.S. was among those giving a vote of approval at the General Assembly’s meeting. However, widespread speculation suggests that the Treaty will face serious challenges in its passage through the U.S. Senate, and thus the potential for American ratification remains questionable.

Concerns over the Treaty’s impact on both domestic and international U.S. policy lie at the heart of Senate opposition. In the domestic context, many Republican Senators argue that the Treaty threatens to undermine Americans’ Second Amendment gun rights.  According to Republican Senator James Inhofe of the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Treaty “would require the United States to implement gun-control legislations required by the treaty, which could supersede the laws our elected officials have already put into place.”[2] Such arguments have led America’s powerful gun lobby, the National Rifle Association (NRA), to “[promise] to fight against ratification.”[3] A closer look at the Treaty however, suggests that Republican claims are unfounded.

Importantly, the Treaty does not “dictate domestic gun laws in member countries” as so many Republicans and NRA members have surreptitiously suggested.[4] Instead, it calls on countries to establish import/export controls on light weapons in order to ensure that such weapons are not used “in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects . . . or other war crimes.”[5] Such controls would include “record-keeping requirements for imported guns,” which, according to the NRA, would “[undermine] the country’s sovereignty.”[6] In fact, the Treaty’s text “Reaffirms the sovereign right of any State to regulate and Control conventional arms exclusively within its territory.”[7] On domestic legislative grounds then, Republican and NRA oppositional arguments to the Treaty seem particularly weak.

A consideration of the potential impact of the UN Treaty on American international policies helps clarify the true root of opposition. As noted above, the Treaty’s primary aim is to prevent the acquisition of conventional weapons by human rights abusers. In fact, the U.S. already has a series of export laws in compliance with those in the UN Treaty. Technically then, U.S. ratification would not force a change in America’s international policy. However, even despite such laws, the U.S. has a long record or exporting arms to states or regimes engaging in human rights abuses, including in Chile, Indonesia, Israel, and Nicaragua.

Not only have such arms sales helped bolster American political and strategic power against enemies in foreign regions (for example, against communist governments in South America, or against radical Islamist militants in the Middle East), but have also created big business for American arms dealers. Often times, the economic profit of selling arms to such governments is two-fold. So for example, when American weapons manufacturers sell conventional weapons to Israel, not only do they reap profit from the Israeli sales, but from the “new demand by Arab states . . . for additional weapons to challenge Israel.”[8] Along with manufacturers, the NRA benefits from this arms race, especially given that today, a large portion of its funding “[originates] from gun industry sources.”[9] Finally, pro-gun politicians benefit from a lucrative arms manufacturing business as they rely on the political and economic support of the American arms industry. It seems possible then that concerns over the profits of the arms industry, rather than over the infringement of American rights, lie at the center of Republican and NRA opposition to the UN Treaty. If the U.S.’s gun exports were subject to international (rather than solely domestic) scrutiny, its arms sales to abusive regimes might face more opposition.

The U.S.’s simultaneous support and opposition to the UN Arms Trade Treaty is reflective of a historic pattern of American exceptionalism. According to scholars, America’s perception that it “differs qualitatively from other developed nations, because of its unique origins, national credo, historical evolution, and distinctive political and religious institutions” often leads it to support one standard for the rest of the world and another, less constraining one for itself.[10] So while the U.S. approved the Global Arms Treaty at the General Assembly vote, supporting a set of international standards for the rest of the world, it may simultaneously refuse ratification of the treaty itself on the grounds that its own superior national standards already suffice.

Not coincidentally, America’s proclaimed exceptional character often works in favor of its national interests. By citing its own “distinguished” political system, the U.S. can opt out of constraints that might damage its own political or economic self-interests. In the case of the Global Arms Trade Treaty, the U.S. may hope to both curb the acquisition of light arms from its enemies, while simultaneously maintaining the freedom to sell to those who support its national interests, whether human rights abusers or not.

Ironically, in the case of gun control especially, the U.S. standards seem far from globally superior. The still recent Newtown shootings and stalled legislative response suggest that in fact, American domestic gun policy is extraordinarily inferior. Additionally, in the context of national interest, it seems possible that curbing flow of conventional arms globally would actually bolster, rather than constrain, America’s power and security in the long-term. As in the case of 1980s U.S. arms sales to the Taliban, short-term interests in the context of arms sales can be extraordinarily detrimental to long-term security.

The question remains then, will the U.S. join Iran, Syria, and North Korea in the group of countries ultimately opposing the Treaty, or will it drop its exceptional act and help bolster international security by reinforcing a decade-long effort to curb flow of conventional weapons globally?



[1] Zengerle, Patricia, 2013. “New U.N arms treaty faces rough road in U.S.” Reuters, April 3rd, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Aronsen, Gavin, 2013. “UN Adopts Historic Arms Trade Treaty Despite NRA Opposition.” Mother Jones, April 2nd, 2013.

[5] United Nations General Assembly, 2013. “Final United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty.” New York, 18-28 March, 2013.

[6] Aronsen, Gavin, 2013. “UN Adopts Historic Arms Trade Treaty Despite NRA Opposition.” Mother Jones, April 2nd, 2013.

[7] United Nations General Assembly, 2013. “Final United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty.” New York, 18-28 March, 2013.

[8] Zunes, Stephan, 1996. “The Strategic Functions of U.S. Aid to Israel.” [Online] Available at: http://er.users.netlink.co.uk/Palestina/zunes.htm . [Accessed on March 21, 2013].

[9] Hickey, Walter, 2013. “How the Gun Industry Funnels Tens of Millions of Dollars To the NRA.” January 16, 2013.

[10] Monten, Jonathan, 2005. “The Roots of the Bush Doctrine: Power, Nationalism, and Democracy Promotion in U.S. Strategy.” International Security, 29(4), pp. 119.

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