Michael KreponDysfunctional by Design

Some organizations are purposefully designed to require a high degree of consensus before acting in deference to minority rights. The obvious example is the UN Security Council, where all five permanent members have veto privileges when dealing with threats to international peace and security. Collective security by means of the UN is, as D’Artagnan said, “All for one and one for all.”

I’m no expert about climate change, although my back is still sore from shoveling a 100-year record snowfall this winter in Central Virginia. Trying to reach agreement at the climate change conference in Copenhagen was like convening 200 die-hard Red Sox fans to determine, by consensus, which relief pitcher Tito Francona should send to mound. (Note to non-U.S. readers of ACW: feel free to substitute your favorite team and sport.)

Then there’s the U.S. Senate, where a super-majority of 60 votes (out of 100) on procedural matters is required to pass a substantive piece of legislation by a simple majority – if the minority insists on doing so. Don’t ask me how, but the word “filibuster” which used to refer to an American military adventurer fomenting insurrection in Latin America, now describes bloviation and other obstructionist tactics on Capitol Hill.

The more power and responsibility the United States has gained in world affairs, the more the filibuster has turned the Senate into a dysfunctional body. The Senate voted 24 times to invoke cloture to stop filibusters between World Wars I and II. By comparison, between 1945 and 1980, the Senate invoked cloture 145 times. Matters got worse during Ronald Reagan’s two terms, with cloture being invoked 115 times; add 71 cloture votes in the four years of the George H.W. Bush administration.

The “unilateral moment” heralded by Charles Krauthammer after the demise of the Soviet Union coincided with a period of even more intense partisanship. There were 207 cloture votes during Bill Clinton’s presidency, followed by 276 during George W. Bush’s two terms, with a record 112 cloture votes in the 110th Congress alone. But records were made to be broken, and the Senate has become a graveyard for bipartisanship during the Obama administration.

As readers of ACW are well aware, the Senate’s rules for consent to treaty ratification are even more daunting, requiring a two-third’s vote.

The Conference on Disarmament in Geneva now makes the US Senate look like the Daytona Speedway. Consensus is required at the CD, and consensus these days is very hard to come by. Pakistan is now fronting efforts to block a work program whose centerpiece is a fissile material cutoff treaty. Consider this payback for the U.S.-India civil nuclear deal and a reflection of Pakistani security concerns about India’s growing conventional military capabilities.

The CD, which began (under a different name) with ten nations, now has 65 that can veto forward progress. When procedural rules favor dysfunction and when the stakes are high, more creative methods of accomplishment become imperative. A small vanguard of states can get the ball rolling on the Fissile Material Cutoff Treaty with verification experiments laying the groundwork for a necessary precursor to the FMCT – a global moratorium on fissile material production for weapon purposes. Once this ad hoc body – a coalition of the willing, if you will – begins to gain traction, recalcitrant states at the CD will become interested in reviving the CD so as to retard its progress. Which is why coalitions of the willing must be willing to continue their work in parallel with the CD.

More creative approaches to negotiate space security – another CD agenda item – are also imperative. As discussed in this space earlier, an unverifiable treaty banning ill-defined space weapons is not in the cards. But a code of conduct for responsible space-faring nations, including a ban on the use of space objects for target practice, is now possible. The sooner major space powers get this ball rolling outside the CD, the better.


  1. anon (History)

    The Senate is going to start looking a lot more like the CD. Although it takes 34 “no” votes to stop ratification of a Treaty, it only takes one “no” vote to stop consideration of a treaty. Remember that the Senate operates by unanimous consent, and, if one Member objects to the unanimous consent agreement needed to begin debate on the Treaty, then the debate won’t begin. This would be the type of “no” that could be overcome by a vote of 60 (its essentially a filibuster), but one can imagine the Republicans standing together to stall the debate on the Treaty, particularly if they knew that they didn’t have the 34 votes needed to stop the Treaty after the debate.

  2. Mark Gubrud

    As discussed in this space earlier, a comprehensive ban on space weapons (ASATs and weapons stationed in space or prepared for stationing in space) is entirely definable and adequately verifiable. So if it is not in your deck of cards, I want a new dealer.

    A Code of Conduct such as the EU Draft CoC is certainly possible, but it will do nothing to block the continuing development, testing, production, deployment and proliferation of space weapons.

    A ban on the use of “space objects” (BTW, how do you define that one?) for target practice would eliminate one possible source of severe space debris pollution, but would have little effect on security, both because further deliberate impacts on orbital objects is unlikely, and because it is irrelevant and unnecessary as long as impact tests against suborbital objects continue, fully allowed, as “missile defense.” The proposed ASAT test ban is, by itself, very bad arms control. Verifiable, yes, but irrelevant, unnecessary, and misleading since it would in no way impede the actual space arms race, or even prevent maturation of the particular threat (KE ASAT) it does address. In fact, it could be taken as legitimizing the further development and deployment of both ASAT-capable HTK “BMD” and other forms of ASAT – and it is these other form which the US, China, Russia and others are most likely to want to test or use in the future.

    As for Pakistan’s obstruction of the CD, it is hard to believe this is entirely a function of Pakistani security concerns or even their internal politics, since Pakistan is largely a US client and there is no evidence of significant US pressure on Pakistan to allow the CD programme to proceed. I read somewhere that Pakistan possesses 80 nukes. I’m sure someone has a better number, but what would India be like after say, just a dozen nuclear detonations on strategic targets and population centers? India would recover, sure, if it were only a dozen, but just what issue with the Pakistanis is going to be worth that price?

  3. Scott Monje (History)

    The origins of the UN veto, of course, were rooted in a realist interpretation of the experience of the League. At the time, people saw the failure to convince the United States to join the League as a major setback to its effectiveness. The veto was an incentive to join, since it ensured great powers—if they joined—that they could prevent the combined forces of the UN from being used against them. People may also have expected it to encourage compromise among great powers since nothing could be accomplished without the agreement of all of them. Again, this would have been seen as a nod to realism, since it avoided the passing of formal decisions that great powers could then undermine through the withholding of support or active opposition. On the other hand, balancing this somewhat, is the often overlooked rule that the Security Council can pass no decision that is supported only by the great powers. At least some elected members must also support it. In this, it is perhaps an improvement over, say, the Concert of Europe. But, of course, the outcome was all too often to avoid weak and ineffective decisions by making no decisions whatsoever. This, in turn, encouraged countries to operate outside the system, as through “coalitions of the willing.” The threat here is that going outside the system can easily undermine the institution itself, even if your original intention—as in your example of the CD—is to bolster it.

    By the way, didn’t Krauthammer herald the “unipolar moment”?

  4. Josh (History)


    If there is one thing that the record of U.S.-Pakistan relations might teach us, it’s that the U.S. cannot snap its fingers and get its way on issues related to nuclear technology, weapons, or testing. For better or worse.

    The belief that the more powerful partner will always prevail in a contest of wills is a little bit like the base-rate neglect problem: it fails to take into account the relative intensity with which the parties regard the issue at hand. A superpower’s high priority is no match for a regional power’s matter of life and death.

  5. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    I don’t understand your point.

    If the GOP had only 33 “no” votes on a treaty, why do you think they would get 41 votes to sustain a filibuster?

    As a practical matter, I think a President needs two votes to ratify a treaty: those of the Senate Majority and Minority leaders.

  6. anon (History)

    Why do I think they can get 41 votes to delay a debate if they can’t get 34 votes to kill the treaty? Because the filibuster is a procedural vote,and could be presented that way (we just wanted to slow down the process to assure adequate consideration of all the implications, etc.) There may be some Rs willing to support the treaty eventually, but they’d accept the delay to allow Kyl to fully vent his spleen. They also might hold together as group, to deny the President another “win,” on the procedural issue, even if they couldn’t raise 34 votes against the treaty. There may also be some who think that they’ll be picking up more R seats soon, so a delay may eventually mean they kill the treaty, but this assumes they are close to 34 no votes, and I don’t think they are that close.

    I’m not sure he has the minority leader, or, more precisely, I think the minority leader might defer to Kyl on this.

    Sorry if this isn’t making any sense, I’m tired, and Senate procedure is tiresome.

  7. Scott Monje (History)

    Kyl may want to vent, but so far his conditions haven’t really been show-stoppers. He’s pretty much demanded things that are likely to be in the treaty anyway. And Lugar, who’s a notable name on this subject, seems to have been downright cooperative. (Were these comments intended for some other posting?)

  8. Mark Gubrud

    Josh, I understand your point, but I cited not the lack of US effectiveness in inducing Pakistan’s cooperation with the CD but the absence of any evidence of US effort or pressure to obtain their cooperation.

    As for Pakistan’s life and death interests, I reiterate my pointing to the absurdity of anyone’s thinking India will be deterred by more nuclear weapons if it is not deterred already by the 80 or so Pakistan is believed to possess. India and Pakistan are being encouraged by the US, Europe, China and Russia selling them arms and setting a fine example of contempt for arms control and conspicuous waste on dangerous military hardware.

  9. mark hibbs

    Having just returned to Europe from Beijing where we discussed the issue of Pakistan, China, India and the FMCT at length, it would appear that China is prepared to decouple its interest in an agreement on space from the FMCT, but China has no interest in initiating a discussion of the FMCT outside the CD. Pakistan’s position on this is often reiterated by many Chinese interlocutors, given China’s security dilemma with the US as discussed in one of Jeffrey’s previous postings and elaborated in detail in a paper by Li Bin. In a nutshell, Pakistan may be obstructing progress in Geneva on this, but they are doing it with the self-assurance of a state that feels it has one very powerful friend on this issue. The problem of Pakistan/FMCT is less a problem of noisy filibustering by the CD’s small fry and more a problem of Russian dolls where the unmovable object is a member of the P-5.

Pin It on Pinterest