In June 2000, when Biden was ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, President Bill Clinton set off for Moscow to negotiate a new arms control treaty with Vladimir Putin that would have limited the United States’ ability to build defenses against ballistic missile attack. The morning the talks were scheduled to begin, the president was greeted by on op-ed on the front page of Izvestia by committee chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.). “After dragging his feet on missile defense for nearly eight years, Mr. Clinton now fervently hopes that he will be permitted, in his final months in office, to tie the hands of the next President,” Helms wrote. “Well I, for one, have a message for the President: Not on my watch. Let’s be clear, to avoid any misunderstandings: Any modified ABM treaty negotiated by this administration will be dead-on-arrival at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. . . . The Russian government should not be under any illusion whatsoever that any commitments made by this lame-duck Administration, will be binding on the next administration.”
The message was received in Moscow. There was no new arms control deal.
Biden also surely remembers how in 1998, when the Clinton administration was negotiating a U.N. treaty to create an International Criminal Court, Helms did more than send a letter expressing his opposition — he sent his aides to Rome to join the negotiations and make his opposition clear. I was a member of that team. Meeting with the United Nations delegates (with Biden’s aides present), we delivered a clear message from the chairman: Any treaty Clinton negotiated that did not give the U.S. a veto over the ICC in the Security Council was “dead on arrival” in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. However, unlike the Obama administration, the Clinton team smartly tried to use Helms’s opposition as leverage to negotiate more protections for Americans.
Helms did not simply write to foreign leaders explaining the Senate’s constitutional role in foreign policy. Together with Biden, he went to the U.N. headquarters in New York to deliver the message in person. On Jan. 20, 2000, Helms became the first U.S. senator ever to address the U.N. Security Council, where he warned of steep consequences if the U.N. failed to accept the U.N. reforms he and Biden had passed. And he explained to the gathered world leaders what a mistake it was to try to ignore the role of the Senate in foreign policy. Citing the example of Woodrow Wilson’s failure to secure congressional approval for the League of Nations, Helms declared, “Wilson probably could have achieved ratification of the League of Nations if he had worked with Congress.” Helms and Biden then invited the Security Council to Washington, where he gathered all the U.N. ambassadors in the old Senate chamber for a lecture from Senate historian Richard Baker on the Senate’s role in U.S. foreign policy. (Russia’s then-U.N. ambassador, and current foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov turned to Helms’s aide after the lecture and asked, “Where in the bastion of democracy can I have a smoke?”)