Frank Chmura Stock Connection Worldwide/Newscom

The row between China and the European Union at the U.N. conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) got Thursday off to a heated start. By the time Friday came to a close, it seemed possible that the conference might collapse into the same acrimonious confusion that ended last July’s negotiations.

Kuwait, speaking for the Arab League, led off with a laundry list of familiar demands: a mandatory dispute settlement mechanism, a clause approving of terrorism, mandatory financial assistance from the U.S., guaranteed seats for the Arabs on the Secretariat to be created by the treaty, and much more, all of it utterly unacceptable. Iran claimed it would feel it had “ownership” of the text only if all negotiations took place in a committee of the whole, a classic time-wasting approach. Russia mischievously proposed that the treaty give the responsibility for the Secretariat’s duties to the U.N., an idea it knows the U.S. will oppose.

Venezuela demanded the treaty focus on “non-state actors,” i.e., anyone who might rebel against the tattered Chavez regime, and concluded with a lengthy oratorical attack on NATO for violating international humanitarian law by relying on nuclear weapons. Cuba echoed the demand to focus on “non-state actors” and endorsed Iran’s wish to negotiate in a committee of the whole. Mexico, speaking for several Latin American nations, demanded that the treaty drop all references to national laws, an approach intended to create a treaty that would conflict with rights protected by the Second Amendment.

Nigeria agreed with Mexico and added the demand that the treaty include ammunition, which was immediately endorsed by Norway and Iceland, which noted they were backed by 114 other nations. Egypt echoed all of Kuwait’s demands and added a few more of its own, including a demand that an arms exporter be allowed to rely only on “documented evidence” to reject an arms sale, a proposal that would result in forcing the democracies to sell to any dictatorship that managed to obscure the evidence of its atrocities.

Ghana weighed in with a revealing comment that the purpose of the focus on “non-state actors” was, in its words, “gun control.” That was a classic gaffe. Finally, Mali piped up with a lengthy plea for all texts to be available in all U.N. languages—a completely reasonable request in theory but in practice intended to bog the process down. It also repeated the Arab League’s demand for “implementation assistance”—i.e., lots of foreign aid—and then won the unintentional honesty prize for the day by stating that “for countries that have difficulty finding health care and food, the technical complexities of the treaty require more assistance. We are going to be ratifying a treaty, but it won’t be very effective or efficient on the implementation front.”

That’s exactly correct. Mali is being held together right now with French troops. It has never controlled its own borders and now does not even control its own territory. Since 1945, foreign aid has piled up a track record of consistent, expensive failure, and no amount of foreign aid is going to allow a basket case like Mali (which has not even managed to eliminate slavery) to develop and administer a system of import and export control. The same is true of many other nations, many of them by no means as badly off as Mali. Its demands illustrate, once again, that the problem is not the lack of an ATT—it’s the fact that the world has a lot of undemocratic and ill-governed nations.

None of the demands made on Thursday were unexpected or new. But what they illustrated is that this conference is not producing a meeting of the minds. In fact, it’s showing that most of the world either wants a perfect treaty or—for the dictatorships—one that would guarantee their right to buy all the guns they want. Before Thursday, the odds were in favor of the conference producing a treaty. But now, the various factions appear to be digging in, and the likelihood that the holier-than-thous, the dictatorships, or the U.S. will break consensus is growing.

The fact that the conference president threw away his planned Friday schedule for a series of closed-door meetings testified to the sense that this conference, from the point of view of the treaty proponents, is not going well. By Monday, we will have a new (and supposedly much-revised) treaty draft. If the conference is going to produce a treaty, that draft—or pressure behind the scenes—will have to convince the discontented majority to stop complaining and go along. On Thursday’s evidence, that looks less likely than it did when the conference opened.