Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia Lee Sharpe

What’s the difference between a treaty and an agreement?  The most significant difference is Constitutional.  The former must be approved by the Senate, a Senate currently controlled by  Republicans.  Hence, no doubt, the Obama administration’s insistence on negotiating an international agreement, not a treaty, to mitigate the danger from Iran’s nuclear capacity.

What’s the Right Word?

Since the resulting document will be a multilateral accord, I find myself wondering which word the Russians are using and the Chinese and the French.  I figure the Brits are in sync with the U.S. on terminology, so how are the others’ preferred terms normally translated into English?  That should help us determine if the Obama administration is using doublespeak to avoid a Senate veto, as many Republicans claim, or whether the document should be regarded as a “mere” agreement, however important.

Whoops!  I almost forgot the most important language of all − Farsi.  What are the Iranians calling the endpoint?   How does it normally translate into English?

Even if the other signatories to potential accord are employing a word that’s closer to agreement than treaty in English, the Senate may not be persuaded that its consent is unnecessary, since the U.S. is supposed by hyper-nationalists to be the all-powerful, exceptional country that makes the rules.  (If only the exceptional part were true in regard to torture, the treatment of minorities and the tendency not to take rape seriously!)

The Nature of the Opposition

But non-Constitutional issues are also playing a role in the tussle between a Republican Senate and a Democratic President, some largely unspoken, others argued loudly.  For one thing, if an agreement is finalized and formalized by all parties in June, or thereabouts, it will be a very big deal.  That achievement plus the Affordable Care Act would put Barack Obama pretty close to a slot in the Great President category, enough in itself to tempt Tea Party Republicans into sabotaging the negotiations. Other Senators, especially those who often seem to have trouble remembering they weren’t elected to Israel’s Knesset, will be waiting for Bibi Netanyahu’s guidance before they cast a vote. And finally there are the unappeasable, essentially racist obstructionists who’d love to impeach Obama for being a black Muslim born in Kenya but would settle for blocking him from accomplishing anything at all.

A Workable Compromise

During these long years of deadlock and gridlock in D.C., I’ve thanked my lucky stars that I’m not still being paid to explain the politics of U.S. governance to foreign publics, but the recent compromise on how to handle any agreement coming out of Vienna is one I wouldn’t shrink from.  Not only do the procedures make a certain amount of sense, there’s a deadline for action.  All in all, this −um − agreement is a pretty good sample of democracy in action.  Given the fact that some of the sanctions that the Iranians wish to remove can only be rescinded by Congress, the argument that no agreement can work without Senate action has always had a certain validity.  This compromise circumvents stonewalling based on the separation of powers, and it also rules out of consideration unrelated matters like whether or not Iran has recognized Israel’s right to exist.  Not bad. 

A caveat: although a deal with Iran has high odds of being approved under this compromise, it could also end up in the trash can, an incentive, some say, to hard bargaining in Vienna.

Democrats and Autocrats

Meanwhile, it’s clear that President Rohani of  Iran has no understanding of governance in a democracy. “We are in talks with the major powers and not with the Congress,” he sneered recently.  Well, maybe in a theocracy like Iran or a One Party State like China or a neo-autocracy like Russia the top dog can act without reference to the people and/or their directly-elected legislative representatives.  Maybe the leaders in these 21st century dictatorships can ignore the rule of law, constitutional or statutory.  But the U.S. is a democracy and a pretty feisty one at that.  Yes, the Constitution gives to the President aka the executive the power to conduct foreign policy, but only as a representative of the people.  Moreover, it is the judiciary, not the executive, which can nullify a legislative act such as the imposition of certain sanctions on Iran, and then only on Constitutional grounds. 

It’s not simple to run a democracy, but sloppy or not, democracies have a number of advantages, especially this one: where principled compromise between political parties is possible revolutions are improbable.  What’s more, agreements made by an outgoing party are more likely to be generously honored by a successor party if both were reasonably satisfied with its terms.   Fiat may be efficient, but it can be fragile.  If the U.S. eventually signs a hard-negotiated agreement with Iran and the rest of the P5, it will probably stick, even if the Democrats lose the presidential race in 2016 and Bibi Netanyahu howls, in which case  the latter should internalize this: no American likes to be pushed around by anybody.