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Reluctance to sign on to treaties isolates U.S.

Have we _ that is, Americans _ got a really serious problem with the rest of the world?

Over the last decade or so, significant numbers of countries, concerned about problems that transcend their borders and threaten to overwhelm them, have been signing on to one treaty or convention after another aimed at reining in abusive regimes, ending the mistreatment of the weak and cutting back on the proliferation of all kinds of weapons from nuclear bombs to land mines.

Washington, even while participating in the writing of another pact, seems to have been watching all this with an array of not-very-positive reactions: diminishing enthusiasm in the White House, unease in the Pentagon and mounting outrage in Congress, always on the lookout for invasions of American sovereignty to beat back.

Withholding American backing for international pacts sometimes puts the United States in decidedly mixed company. Only two nations are holding out against the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the United States and Somalia. When 120 nations agreed last year to set up a permanent International Criminal Tribunal for the future Hitlers, Pol Pots and Saddam Husseins, Washington was one of seven dissenters. The others were China, Iraq, Israel, Libya, Qatar and Yemen.

With the cold war reduced to history and only one superpower left, it seems to some politicians that foreigners, most of them not reliable friends, want to tie this Gulliver down with Lilliputian ropes. "There is a healthy skepticism across the political spectrum about what direction these treaties can take," said Ian Vasquez of the Cato Institute in Washington. "Another healthy attitude is that the United States does not sign on to multilateral treaties in a casual way, which I do think occurs in other countries." Americans reckon that many nations ratify agreements they have no intention of abiding by, although this does not stop their leaders from trying to use them against the United States.

However, beyond American borders the view is different. Canadian officials, for example, lose no opportunity to chide Washington for its failure to pay American assessments to the United Nations, a situation that rankles worldwide. "Is the United States committed to multilateralism or not?" a Middle Eastern envoy asked last week. "We need American leadership."

Now two unresolved issues are prompting new looks at American attitudes toward international covenants. One is arms control. Earlier this month, a commission of disarmament experts from around the world warned that American reluctance to ratify a pact against nuclear testing, or to press Moscow for further mutual reductions in strategic weapons, or to give full attention to deteriorating relations with Russia and China, were creating an atmosphere of insecurity worldwide.

At the same time, the Japanese-backed commission found Washington was whittling away inspection safeguards in the Chemical Weapons Convention and lagging in commitments to tighten international rules against biological weapons. The United States has also opted out of an international convention banning the production or use of land mines, killers of millions of the world's poorest people caught in the most brutal of civil wars.

The second battleground is the International Criminal Court. Weeks of talks have taken place at the United Nations to clarify details about the court's operations. Most diplomats, including Americans, are convinced that the court is likely to be up and running in a matter of a few years, replacing the ad hoc tribunals for the Balkans and Rwanda. The question is, where will the United States be then?

"What we are seeing now is a trend that was exemplified by the U.S. opposition to and isolation on the convention to ban antipersonnel mines," said Richard Dicker, associate counsel of Human Rights Watch. "On the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it has to do with the military recruitment of individuals less than 18 years of age, and the U.S. Department of Defense does recruit some 17-year-olds. It's for that military, Pentagon-driven reason that the United States has put itself in opposition to everyone in the world."

This predicament is not entirely without precedent. "It took 40 years for the U.S. to ratify the Genocide Convention," Dicker said. "It took 25 years for the U.S. to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This is part of a broader issue, and it's particularly concentrated or crystallized in the case of the International Criminal Court, because here what you have is the creation of a new judicial body that would extend the rule of law in its broadest conception."

For American officials, that is exactly the problem: the specter of a sweeping judicial process outside American control with the potential to interfere with American policy decisions, especially when waging war or sending troops abroad on international missions short of combat. This is the treaty that Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has preemptively declared "dead on arrival" in Congress, if and when it shows up for ratification.

David Scheffer, the Clinton Administration's ambassador at large for war crimes, has met dozens of government delegations here over the last few weeks in his effort to convince foreign capitals that Washington is not uniformly opposed to an International Criminal Court, but that American concerns about its reach and the risk it could pose if used politically against the United States and, more particularly, American soldiers will have to be addressed.

His arguments represent a classic American caution about entangling foreign alliances _ in this case a treaty that will change the face of international criminal law, and could involve Americans whether or not they are party to it.

"We cannot sign the present text of the treaty," Scheffer said. "We've made that very clear. But we also want to engage very constructively with other governments to see if there is a pathway for our support.

"A lot of governments recognize that if the United States can be brought on board, the treaty, in a pragmatic sense, can be greatly strengthened, because we can bring our resources, our enforcement capabilities, our diplomatic skills, and so much of what we provide to the ad hoc tribunals." If this campaign doesn't work, the isolation of the United States, for all its power, can only grow, and with it a distrust of American motives now that Washington stands above the world.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, director of graduate and international legal studies at the Harvard Law School, prepared a hypothetical memo to the president on the options, pro and con, open to the United States in a recent study for the Council on Foreign Relations. She noted that in the wake of the bombing of Serb targets and the occupation of Kosovo, "the apparent conflict between our humanitarian justification for NATO action and our vote against the ICC in July 1998 feeds suspicion and confusion about our foreign policy."

Even more important, she added: "Beyond Kosovo, our position on the court will affect our ability to exercise leadership in shaping the international order for the next century."

Barbara Crossette is the United Nations correspondent for the New York Times.