Rachel Stohl is managing director of the Stimson Center and was a consultant in the Arms Trade Treaty process.
President Trump announced on Friday — during a speech that pandered to special-interest groups and was symbolic of his administration’s disdain for multilateral agreements — that the United States would “unsign” the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a landmark agreement that regulates the international trade in conventional arms.
It took more than five years of negotiations to develop the ATT, and I spent those years as a consultant in the treaty process, working with diplomats to draft the text. Each word was hard-fought by U.S negotiators to ensure that it aligned with U.S. national security priorities, foreign policy goals, economic interests and long-standing American values and principles.
Much to the consternation of other governments, the United States insisted that the treaty reflect U.S. standards and require no changes to U.S. law. Recognizing that the treaty would face an uphill ratification battle in the Senate, U.S. negotiators intentionally crafted the treaty to ensure that signatories held special rights and privileges in exchange for U.S. influence and leverage on the treaty’s interpretation and development in the future. The president has now given up that influence.
Friday’s announcement is an affront to the talented U.S. diplomats who fought for a treaty the United States could be part of and to U.S. allies that compromised to keep the United States engaged. Adding insult to injury, Trump’s description of the ATT in his fiery remarks also perpetuated the false mythology that has distorted the ATT since the negotiations. So let me set the record straight.
Trump reinforced a false narrative about the treaty — one that was generated and propagated by the NRA, politicians and other special-interest groups to prey on fears of “full-scale gun confiscation” and boost fundraising efforts. These groups want the American public to believe that the ATT infringes on U.S. sovereignty and Second Amendment rights. This is a lie.
The ATT purposefully excludes issues surrounding domestic gun laws or regulations. It does not restrict or hinder the Second Amendment, nor does it create a national gun registry. In fact, the preamble makes specific reference to the legitimate trade, lawful ownership and use of certain conventional arms for recreational, cultural, historical and sporting activities. Insinuating that the ATT undermines U.S. laws and puts American liberty under foreign control is dishonest and misleading.
The ATT does not threaten U.S. sovereignty, nor hinder the ability of the United States to acquire weapons for its own security. In fact, the treaty reaffirms “the sovereign right of any State to regulate and control conventional arms” within its territory.
In reality, the ATT establishes common international standards for the cross-border trade in conventional arms. It sets out criteria that states must consider when making arms transfer decisions — things such as whether the weapons would be used for human rights abuses, terrorism or organized crime. These are not only common-sense considerations for strengthening security and preventing human suffering, but also are sound business approaches and support the legitimate arms trade.
The ATT strengthens national laws and ends impunity for those that transfer arms with little regard for their impact on conflicts, communities and individuals. The ATT seeks to close loopholes that make it easier for unscrupulous arms dealers to find havens to traffic their deadly wares.
The ATT also facilitates transparency and accountability in the global arms trade by mandating that governments provide an annual report of conventional arms exports and imports with other governments. The global arms trade has operated for years in the dark shadows of secrecy and opacity. The ATT allows governments to have confidence in their trading partners by shining a light on government transfers.
Trump’s decision to walk away from the ATT sends a clear message that the United States is more comfortable standing with rogue regimes such as Syria, North Korea and Iran than with its closest allies, including the European Union, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea.
Yes, Russia and China remain outside the more than 100 governments that have committed to strengthening rules for international arms transfers. But that is not company the United States should want to keep nor aspire to emulate.
The United States has no more liberty nor is more secure because of this decision. Instead, it has now relinquished its leadership and lessened its moral authority to increase responsibility and reduce risk in the international arms trade.