Stepping Down from the Stage: A New Horizon of Global Politics?

By Martha Molfetas - 13 December 2012

It isn’t new news that America has consistently been unable to ratify UN treaties. Even UN treaties that would largely benefit the United States and American companies, even treaties that have historically been supported by both Republican and Democrat Presidents-- like the Law of the Sea Treaty. What was rather unexpected was the failure to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD). Oddly enough, this treaty was modeled after legislation that provided equal access for Americans with Disabilities that passed in the 1980’s under Former President George H W Bush.  As in, this treaty would essentially reinforce existing laws of the land without requiring any financial or otherwise contributions by the United States Government.  The UNCRPD should have really been a no-brainer for the American legislative branch. Instead, it proved yet another opportunity for the best intentions to be dragged into the worst political power play—even though it received strong bipartisan support. As in previous votes, the Republican Party remains fragmented and unable to reach rationality with a fringe element believing any treaty represents a surrender of American sovereignty. Mainstream Senate Republicans were unable to swing the votes needed due to fear of recalcitrant reactions from their base in the next election. Those Republicans who did vote for it are not planning for reelection.

The failure of UNCRPD represents more than just another failed treaty. It shows the world that the United States is retreating from international politics. Through continual inability to ratify international treaties, America is choosing to step away from the table. Through not ratifying key treaties like the Law of the Sea, Kyoto, and the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban, how can America lead the way in an increasingly changing global political climate? Earlier this week, US National Intelligence Council released a report that depicted an uncertain future; one at the precipice of uncertainty between resources, climate change, and global economies. The report depicted an end to the ‘Pax-Americana’ and mono-polar-reality our global framework has operated in since the end of the Cold War. Instead, it presented several options for our global political future: a multi-polar world with America as the first among equals, a multi-polar world where China and the US collaborate for international stability, and a world where America retreats into isolationism and globalisation stagnates – creating a drastic shake up of our existing global reality.

In a world where key issues like resource scarcity and conflict is the new normal for millions with dwindling access to potable water. Where climate change is projected to displace 150 million people by 2050. Where the keys to negotiating the future of the Arctic rest in ratifying the Law of the Sea Treaty.  Where loose nukes pose a substantial threat in an age of terrorism. Stepping away from key institutions sends an image of exclusion to friends, and disinterest to enemies. The US has made strong strides towards nuclear disarmament with nations like Mexico and Russia, and in mediating Arab Spring conflicts. The majority of these recent successes have been led by the Obama Administration. While direct negotiations are important, treaties create a lasting impact and relationship that surpasses Presidential Administrations and political movements. Stepping away from key international treaties means the US doesn’t have a seat at the table, and has no say over treaty related disputes.

The US National Intelligence Council projects that by 2030, the economies of the US, Europe, Japan, and Russia will count for less than 50% of the global economy, today they count for 56%. In this future the economic success or failure of developing states like China and India will play a pivotal role towards shaping global economics and politics. This would represent a significant shift from West to East as the driving force for international discourse. It could even change the way international development is orchestrated. For the West, international development and responding to humanitarian disasters is a matter of ideologies of democracy and human rights. For China, investment in development is focused on financial gain, irrespective of democracy and human rights. An example of this is Sudan, where China became a key arms supplier and manufacturer in Sudan in the 2000’s. Chinese oil firms opened up oil production while also selling arms to Sudan at the height of conflict with South Sudan, when the international community instituted an embargo on the same regime.[1]

It is highly likely that American dominance as a mono-polar-power is diminishing as the world becomes increasingly interdependent due to globalization, and military dominance is becoming increasingly less important than global economy. However, it is important for America to continue to be a part of our shared global political future. A fragmented legislature today could send America down an isolationist path, changing global politics for the long haul in our insecure future. In the ever-changing tapestry of our insecure future, the time for American leadership is now.


[1] Carmody, P. 2010. Globalization in Africa: Recolonization or Renaissance? Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, Colorado.

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