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HOLMES: A treaty that actually helps us and our allies

ANALYSIS/OPINION: 

Britain's new defense secretary, Liam Fox, came to town last week. And he had a bone to pick with the leadership in the White House and Congress.

One of London's top priorities, Mr. Fox announced, is the ratification of the U.S.-U.K. Defense Trade Cooperation Treaty. It was signed three years ago, but the Senate has not yet voted on it.

This treaty would make it easier for British defense companies to do business with American companies to improve the interoperability of our forces and develop the "next generation" technologies our troops so urgently need. It would do so by allowing firms in the U.S. and the U.K. to buy what they need from approved suppliers without having to get an export license each time.

Despite support from the Obama administration, the treaty has run into a roadblock in the Senate. Senators such as Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican, have complained that the treaty does not give them enough oversight because it "eliminates advance notification to Congress" of all defense-related exports.They also worry about enforcement. And there are those who, with reflexive protectionism, simply do not like giving foreigners access to our markets.

This does not sit well with our British allies, who after all are deeply engaged alongside our troops in Afghanistan. The United Kingdom thinks the treaty is critical for improving its defense capabilities and interoperability on the battlefield. It also sees it as a bellwether of the state of U.S.-U.K. relations. As Mr. Fox said last week, the British don't mind being "junior partners" in our military operations, but they are not "supplicants."

These are very strong words. The Obama administration is rhetorically supportive of the U.S.-U.K. defense treaty, but it has not put much pressure on the Senate leadership to ratify it.

At hearings last December, the assistant secretary of state for defense trade matters, Andrew Shapiro, supported both the U.S.-U.K. defense treaty and a similar treaty with Australia. He told the Senate that the treaties will ensure "that our forces can get the best technology possible, in the most expeditious manner possible."

That's something our current system can't do. Our laws require a case-by-case review of every item to be sold overseas. In 2006 alone, the U.S. State Department handled more than 7,000 requests for an export license for sales to the U.K. And that high number does not even include what the U.S. Commerce Department reviewed regarding "dual-use" exports. According to a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), "multiple agencies have concurrent authority to enforce arms and dual-use export controls."

Simply put, our current regulatory morass imposes an undue burden on our best allies, and therefore on our own troops. The British and the Australians are being pushed down a road where they may be forced to buy fewer U.S. systems because they can't get past all of our red tape quickly enough to make a difference on the battlefield. Why we would throw the British into the arms of the European Union's defense industry is a question our senators appear not to be asking.

There are ways to address all the objections raised by senators. If the Senate is concerned that the treaty will undermine its oversight responsibilities — by being "self-executing," for example — then it could attach conditions to the ratification. One of these could be that nothing prevents Congress from passing legislation down the road related to our export-control arrangements. Others could be that Congress gets to review all regulations related to implementing the treaty, as well as demanding that the president certify that nothing in his administration's promulgated regulations would alter in any way what the treaty says.

These defense treaties are in America's interest. Our military forces need to be able to rely on completely interoperable systems to respond quickly to whatever new threats they face. Closer defense cooperation with the U.K. and Australia will help provide these defense capabilities.

They also make good fiscal sense. Our defense companies must be able to form efficient partnerships with British and Australian companies to get our troops the state-of-the-art equipment needed to fight the battles they face now and in the future.The treaties would prevent absurdities such as Boeing being constrained, as it is now, from sharing U.S. technology with its own subsidiary in Australia.

But we also should remember that the U.K. and Australia are special allies. They fight alongside us in our wars. They support us when it counts the most — when we most need them, and when the rest of the world (and Europe) looks the other way or even opposes us.

This alone should convince the administration to fight harder for these treaties. And it should persuade pettifogging senators to stop blocking a treaty that keeps a promise we should have kept long ago.

• Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a vice president at the Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.

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