1. Opinion

A U.N. treaty on disabilities and the ghost of Henry Cabot Lodge

Sens. William Borah of Idaho, left, and Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, center, formed the primary opposition to the Treaty of Versailles supported by President Woodrow Wilson.
Sens. William Borah of Idaho, left, and Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, center, formed the primary opposition to the Treaty of Versailles supported by President Woodrow Wilson.
Published Dec. 14, 2012

When the Senate failed to ratify the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities this month, one of the main reasons offered by Republican senators voting against the treaty was that it would infringe on American sovereignty, undercutting the nation's freedom and independence.

Interestingly, that is the same argument Republicans used to block the Treaty of Versailles after World War I, thus keeping the United States out of the League of Nations.

During the early years of World War I, before the United States became a combatant nation, President Woodrow Wilson sought unsuccessfully to negotiate a "victory-less peace," where the killing could stop and the conflict would be resolved at the conference table. Then, after the United States entered the war in 1917, he introduced his famous Fourteen Points, the centerpiece being the creation of an international body of nations where conflicts could be resolved peacefully, without the need for future wars.

Wilson took his ideas to Paris in 1919 but met intense opposition from the leaders of Britain and France, who wanted revenge for the suffering they had endured during the war. Ultimately, Wilson was forced to limit his proposal to the single point he considered most important — the establishment of a League of Nations. As a result, this provision was successfully incorporated into the Treaty of Versailles, which Wilson signed and brought back to the Senate for ratification.

The Senate, which had been united in its support of the war against Germany, now divided along party lines over the peace treaty. Democrats, under the leadership of Wilson, supported ratification. Republicans, under the leadership of Henry Cabot Lodge, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opposed the treaty.

The partisan battle lasted for months and centered around one major sticking point, the idea that joining the League of Nations would force the United States into surrendering a portion of its sovereignty to a global power superior to all nations. Those who understood the treaty knew that this was not the case, but fear has always been a potent political tool. As Sen. Lodge explained his position, "I am certain that we can do it best by not … subjecting our policies and our sovereignty to other nations."

Such political rhetoric sounds remarkably similar to the arguments presented by the senators who opposed the U.N. disability treaty. (Only eight Republicans joined all Democrats in supporting the treaty, which has been signed by 155 nations and ratified by 126. The final vote was 61-38. With 99 senators present, ratification would have required 66 votes.)

Former Sen. Rick Santorum explained the opposition this way: "Our nation has been the worldwide leader when it comes to protecting the disabled. We should be telling the U.N., not the other way around, how to ensure dignity and respect for the disabled."

Actually, the U.N. disability treaty does just that. It simply asks the rest of the world to develop policies to protect the rights of the disabled, to set standards equal to those established by the United States in the Americans With Disabilities Act. It does not infringe upon the sovereignty of the United States or any other nation for that matter.

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Despite these facts, it appears that many modern-day Republicans oppose the United Nations for the same reason their colleagues in post-World War I America opposed the League of Nations. They distrust the rest of the world and they are afraid that the United States loses something when it participates in the international community of nations as an equal rather than as a global superpower.

History is a tug-of-war, and here is an excellent example of an ongoing struggle. It is a conflict that pits those who envision a world where the United States stands alone, superior to the rest of the nations on the planet, against those who seek to bring all nations to the conference table in search of peaceful solutions to the common problems of our world.

Defeating the U.N. disability treaty must have made the ghost of Sen. Lodge a very happy fellow.

David Lee McMullen is visiting assistant professor of history at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and author of "Strike! The Radical Insurrections of Ellen Dawson." He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.