I am not one of those who believe the United States’ days of world leadership are behind us. All my life I have been an admirer of our northern neighbor. I believe its strengths — its democracy, its founders’ wisdom, its people’s ingenuity and diversity — give it unique authority in the world.
But many of its citizens and their leaders seem to take such authority for granted now, as if it were American property. The truth is, it must be earned, and today the United States is passing up opportunities to earn it.
The Arms Trade Treaty, approved by the United Nations in April, is one such opportunity, and it must not be allowed to slip by. Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry signed it. Given the enormous presence of the United States in the international arms market, the treaty’s ratification, which requires a two-thirds vote in the Senate, is essential to its success. However, the treaty will face stiff opposition.
Two Republican Senators, James Inhofe and Jerry Moran, have gleefully pronounced the treaty “dead on arrival,” writing that the United States must not ratify it unless North Korea, Syria and Iran sign it, too. To do otherwise, they assert, would leave the United States “handcuffed.”
Gentlemen, you have it backward. The United States would not be handcuffed by a treaty that prevents the sale of conventional weapons to individuals or states that would use them to violate human rights. If the Senate fails to ratify the treaty, your country will be handcuffed by its own reluctance to lead. The United States, which claims to desire a safer, more peaceful world, would shrink from moving toward that goal unless the rest of the world acted first.
Yours is the country that stood alone in the world’s first and only use of nuclear weapons; the country that stood nearly alone in invading Iraq; the country that seemed ready to stand alone at the brink of unilateral action against Syria.
So why should it be afraid to lead in matters of peace?
One reason, clearly, is the extraordinary influence of the National Rifle Association over the United States’ elected officials. I have rarely spoken out about the NRA, since I believe its position on gun control within the United States is for the American people and government to resolve. But I have campaigned for a treaty to control the international arms trade since the mid-1990s, after Costa Rica, having abolished its own army decades before, witnessed the carnage caused by unrestricted arms sales to other nations of Central America.
In opposing the Arms Trade Treaty, the NRA now seeks to impose its agenda on the rest of the world, and I can no longer be silent.
The NRA’s reckless argument that the treaty violates United States sovereignty is simply without any basis in fact. It is shameful to think that any definition of national sovereignty could include a right to sell arms for the violation of human rights in other countries.
To the NRA, I say: Inflict your agenda on your own nation if you must, but spare the rest of us. Spare us the notion that the interests of a single interest group, in a single nation, should trump the rights of all other nations to protect their citizens. Spare us your misguided references to a Constitution whose brilliant authors would be aghast to see you equate the right to put a rifle in your gun case with the right to put an AK-47 in the hands of a child soldier.
You should, instead, read the treaty with the seriousness it deserves. You would see that it supports the very causes you endorse: the safety of all citizens, and freedom from fear and oppression.
Ratification would also support a renaissance of U.S. leadership on the world stage. Your country is responsible for nearly half of the world’s outrageous $1.7 trillion in military spending, and home to the world’s largest stockpile of nuclear weapons. It has unparalleled economic power to attack the root causes of terrorism and unrest by fostering human development, regulating the arms flow to terrorists and dictators, and pursuing the dream of a world without nuclear weapons. But America keeps waiting for someone else to make the first move.
If leadership toward these goals does not come from Washington, only the most arrogant American could think it would never come from somewhere else.
Oscar Arias Sanchez, a former president of Costa Rica, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987.