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Can we really back out of a treaty like that? January 4, 2008

Posted by gordonwatts in politics, science.

Ok — this is more of a question than a comment… Because I just don’t understand. The united states had an international agreement – a treaty – that specified how we would fund ITER — and that we would.

But during the latest budget cuts for science, ITER was totally zeroed out. How can we do that? Are we just saying “we don’t honor treaties” or something? Aren’t these things binding? At the very least it makes our country much harder to deal with – a serious lack of credibility.

Or is there something special about the ITER treaty that allows us to do this? An emergency escape clause, where the emergency definition is left up to the country?

A web search revealed the following:

  • The treaty only came into effect on Oct 24. That didn’t last long, did it!?
  • It is listed in the EU treaty database (who know they had such a thing!).
    • PDF of the 20 pages of the treaty. Wonder if the USA had the same text?
  • The treaty has a withdrawal clause — but it is designed to be possible only after 10 years – in short, they designed things to be stable during construction of the device. Which makes a hell of a lot of sense.
  • There is mention of financial responsibilities, but the treaty contains no actual numbers – just references to budgets that must be submitted to the director general of ITER.
  • The DOE ITER web site.
    • US responsibility seems to be about 250 million (I may not be reading those numbers right).
    • 160 for FY 2008.
    • Can tell what we were obligated to give by the treaty from this.

So, it is a big mystery to me. If we were not to pay anything then we are clearly in violation of the treaty. Is that what has happened? My impression is the language in the spending bill from congress was very specific about not moving money around to fund ITER – so, they really want us to violate the treaty.

This isn’t totally academic, btw. This funding model — using international treaties — was one of the possible ways to arrange funding for the ILC. Of course, we may have just shown the way to making this useless.

If anyone knows how this is actually working, I’d appreciate a note in the comments or send me an email.



1. John S. Wilkins - January 4, 2008

It’s OK. Years of the US defaulting on its obligations with the UN has educated us all about the US and treaties.

2. gordonwatts - January 4, 2008

Sigh. Good point. 😦

3. Anonymous - January 4, 2008

It’s a very good question. The text of the U.S. Constitution (Article VI) states:

This Constitution, and the Laws of the United States which shall be made in Pursuance thereof; and _all Treaties made_, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States, shall be the supreme Law of the Land; and the Judges in every State shall be bound thereby, any Thing in the Constitution or Laws of any State to the Contrary notwithstanding.

(underline emphasis added)

It’s more than pretty clear. I assume that when Congress now enters these things, they must put in some sort of their own escape clause to avoid being bound by that clear text of the Constitution?

If not, has this ever been tested in federal courts? I assume the treaty organization would have legal standing there.

4. Anonymous - January 4, 2008

I’m guessing the answer is that ITER was entered in the U.S. not as a formal treaty, but as a congressional-executive understanding (similar to NAFTA and just about every other “treaty” in the past 20 years). These do not have the force of true treaties and are bound by the most recent U.S. legislation.

But some expert should confirm.

5. Kevin - January 4, 2008

As far as cutting funding, it wouldn’t be the first time a particle physics machine was killed due to politics.

As for me, I still haven’t learned the status of my NSF CAREER submission this year (last year I was rejected in early Decmeber). I would think that means it reviewed well but that the lack of the promised 10% increase is stalling my little science project. This budget fiasco is having ripples across the whole science landscape.

6. gordonwatts - January 4, 2008

Kevin — that _really_ sucks. I’d be so pissed if I had my grant approved but then didn’t get funded because of this. Especially because the CAREER is prestigious!! Pehraps they can say “well, we gave it to you, you can say you have one, but no money!). The later would obviously not be the best case, but it would be better than nothing! Good luck!!!

Anonymous — exactly. I looked through the text of the EU treaty and didn’t see anything, but I can’t find anything like that nice online site for the USA. We really do need someone that knows something about ITER. Unfortunately, I don’t know anyone directly involved with ITER to forward this question to. I suppose I could do a cold-call. 🙂

7. pace - January 7, 2008

I don’t know about the legal issues surrounding this, but the move by Congress to cut this funding echoes the way the U.S. abandoned ITER the last time in 1999. There might be some more legal precedent and information if you can find details about how that previous commitment was terminated.

8. gordonwatts - January 7, 2008

Thanks, Pace. I think at this point I need to find someone who actually knows what is going on — stuff we can find on the web can allow us to speculate, but not much more than that at this point.

9. Das ITER-Projekt: USA spaltet in der Fusionsforschung « Begrenzte Wissenschaft - January 10, 2008

[…] Budget für ITER, das als staatliches Vertragsprojekt explizit im Budget ausgewiesen worden war, strich er vollständig und belegte es sogar mit dem bedenkenswerten Zusatz, dass die Mittel dafür nicht aus anderen […]

10. Politics Friday: What a Bore - The Quantum Pontiff - July 20, 2010

[…] Watts asks a good question about the zeroing out of funding for the ITER. Treaties? We ain’t got no treaties. We […]

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