When he helped pioneer an antismoking movement a decade ago, Eduardo Bianco looked to the United States for novel ways to keep young people in Uruguay from taking up cigarettes.
Today, the 49-year-old cardiologist no longer considers America a leader in the fight against smoking. That’s because it is not among the 57 nations that ratified the first global tobacco control treaty, which took effect in recent weeks and imposes tough restrictions on tobacco advertising and packaging.
The Bush administration signed the treaty in May, but the president hasn’t sent it to the Senate for ratification, saying it needs further study. Uruguay did ratify the treaty -- and Bianco was among those who persuaded his government to do so.
The tobacco treaty is the latest example of the Bush administration’s reluctance to join international treaties.
On issues including public health, maritime policies and environmental protection, Bush has signed or won ratification for far fewer treaties than his immediate predecessors, Presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush.
The White House says that it supports global agreements as long as they don’t undermine America’s ability to act in its own best interests. But critics say the administration’s stance is endangering America’s standing in the world and hindering efforts to resolve global problems.
The Kyoto Protocol, the international accord to combat global warming, recently took effect with ratification by 141 countries -- including every industrialized nation except the United States and Australia. The president said the Kyoto pact was unrealistic and would hurt the U.S. economy by forcing American companies to shoulder the bulk of cleanup costs.
The Bush administration has reversed U.S. support for several other major treaties, including the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. The missile treaty was rejected because it was seen as an obstacle to building an American missile shield.
The administration also nullified America’s signature on the International Criminal Court and indicated it was not planning to support a prior commitment to ratify the landmine ban treaty by 2006. Last month, the U.S. helped block a global treaty to curb mercury use.
Some consumer advocates, legal experts and others say Bush’s hesitancy to join treaties has reinforced the notion that the United States is a “go it alone” superpower interested only in coalitions it can control.
Those fears were heightened last week when the Bush administration appointed John R. Bolton, an outspoken critic of multilateral institutions, as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Bolton pushed for U.S. withdrawal from the missile pact and opposed U.S. involvement in the International Criminal Court. The U.S. said Thursday that it was withdrawing from an accord that allowed the International Court of Justice to rule on U.S. treatment of foreigners in its jails.
Those who disagree with the administration’s stance say the U.S. is alienating foreign allies at a time when nearly every pressing issue it faces, such as curbing the spread of nuclear weapons, fighting disease and tracking terrorism financing, requires global cooperation. And they say it is doing so just as the political and economic landscape is increasingly being reshaped by China, India and the European Union.
“The message we are giving to the world is, ‘We are powerful and we don’t care,’ ” said Ved Nanda, an international law expert from the University of Denver and board member of the United Nations Assn. of the United States, a foreign policy think tank. “The only terms we are willing to play by are our terms.”
Bush would not be the first president to show a wariness toward international entanglements.
Throughout history, U.S. leaders have shown an “extraordinary ambivalence” about global pacts because of a concern that national laws would be superseded by an international authority, said Shepard Forman, founder and director of the Center on International Cooperation, a Washington think tank.
Treaties are not the only measure of international cooperation. Informal coalitions and trade pacts, working through international agencies such as the United Nations, World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund or World Bank, are avenues that have been pursued by various administrations.
Citing the importance of economic stability, Bush has made the United States a leader in promoting trade, pushing for completion of a new round of global trade talks and dozens of bilateral agreements.
Bush has signed six treaties, none of which have been ratified by the Senate, according to an analysis of 550 treaties by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a Minneapolis agriculture policy group.
Ten treaties signed by Bush’s predecessors were ratified under his watch.
Clinton, in two terms, signed 32 treaties and oversaw the ratification of 30 more, according to the study. Bush’s father signed 13 treaties during his single term and got 10 more ratified.
Once a treaty is signed, the president must send it for ratification by two-thirds of the Senate.
Some controversial treaties were signed but gathered dust for decades. It wasn’t until 1988, four decades after it was signed, that the United States ratified the U.N. genocide convention. The U.S. and Somalia are the only countries that have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was adopted in 1989.
Bush’s hesitancy to spend political capital on treaties may be a reason for delays in ratifying the Law of the Sea Convention, which was originally championed by the United States in the 1970s and has been in force since 1994. More than 100 nations have ratified the wide-ranging agreement governing such things as ocean navigation, fishing rights and seabed mining.
The treaty has garnered the support of Bush, the Navy and leaders in both parties. But conservatives argue the treaty would threaten U.S. sovereignty and endanger national security, forcing American fishing fleets and Navy ships to abide by the rules of a global body that could be hostile to U.S. interests.
Frank J. Gaffney Jr., president of the conservative Center for Security Policy in Washington, said he was confident the president wouldn’t push for the treaty now because it would antagonize the “core constituency” he needed if he was to win congressional approval of changes in Social Security and the tax code.
But, say legal experts, opting out of these treaties means the U.S. has less power to influence the debate. Because it is not a member of the global maritime treaty, the United States has little leverage to persuade Asian countries to agree to a regional accord to protect tuna stocks in the Pacific Ocean, said Harry Scheiber, co-director of the Law of the Sea Institute at UC Berkeley.
“What moral argument does the U.S. have for asking for cooperation, when we’re not ratifying the basic agreement under which this treaty is going forward?” Scheiber asked.
Similarly, if it does not sign on to the global tobacco-control treaty, the U.S. will not be involved in shaping the rules of enforcement. White House spokesman Trent Duffy said the State Department was still reviewing the tobacco control treaty.
Under the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco, countries are obligated to restrict tobacco advertising and sponsorship, increase the size of warning labels and limit the use of terms such as “light” and “low tar” that may convey a more healthful image.
The treaty also seeks to combat smuggling. After the 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States took a keen interest in that issue because of concern that illicit proceeds from contraband cigarettes were used to finance terrorism.
“It should be in the best interest of the U.S. to do something,” said Luk Joossens, smuggling expert at the Assn. of European Cancer Leagues in Brussels. “And the best way to do it is through an international treaty.”