Magazine article The American Prospect

On America's Double Standard: The Good and Bad Faces of Exceptionalism

Magazine article The American Prospect

On America's Double Standard: The Good and Bad Faces of Exceptionalism

Article excerpt

WHEN THE UNITED STATES HOLDS TALIBAN detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without Geneva Convention hearings, then decries the failure of others to accord Geneva Convention protections to their American prisoners, it supports a double standard. When George W. Bush tries to "unsign" the International Criminal Court (ICC) treaty that Bill Clinton signed in 2000, yet expects other nations to honor signed treaties, he does the same. When U.S. courts ignore an International Court of Justice decision enjoining American execution of foreign nationals, even as we demand that other countries obey international adjudications that favor American interests, the United States is using its vast power and wealth to promote a double standard. In these and other instances, the United States proposes that a different rule should apply to itself than to the test of the world.

U.S. officials say that they must act to protect out security and to avoid unacceptable constraints on national prerogative. But to win the illusion of unfettered sovereignty, they are actually undermining America's capacity to participate in international affairs.

Over the past two centuries, the United States has become party not just to a few treaties but to a global network of closely interconnected treaties enmeshed in multiple frameworks of international institutions. Unilateral administration decisions to bend or break one treaty commitment thus rarely end the matter; rather, they usually trigger vicious cycles of treaty violation. Repeated insistence on a double standard creates the damaging impression of a United States contemptuous of both its treaty obligations and its treaty partners, even as America tries to mobilize those same partners to help it solve problems it simply cannot solve alone-most obviously, the war against global terrorism, but also the postwar construction of Iraq, the Middle East crisis, and the renewed nuclear militarization of North Korea.

HISTORICALLY, AMERICAN ADMINISTRATIONS HAVE tended to distance and distinguish themselves from the rest of the international community; humanrights advocates have often condemned this "American exceptionalism." But while the promotion of double standards is indeed corrosive, not all forms of exceptional American behavior are equally harmful.

America's distinctive rights culture, for example, sometimes sets it apart. Due to our particular history, some human rights, such as the norm of nondiscrimination based on race or First Amendment protections for speech and religion, have received far greater emphasis and judicial protection in the United States than in Europe. But out distinctive rights culture is hot fundamentally inconsistent with universal human-rights values.

Nor is America genuinely exceptional because it sometimes uses different labels to describe synonymous concepts. When I appeared before the UN Committee Against Torture in Geneva, Switzerland, to defend the first U.S. report on U.S. compliance with the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, I was asked the reasonable question of why the United States does not "maintain a single, comprehensive collation of statistics regarding incidents of torture and cruel, in-human or degrading treatment or punishment," a universally understood concept. My answer, in effect, was that we applied different labels, not different standards. The myriad bureaucracies of the federal government, the 50 states, and the territories did gather statistics regarding torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, but we called that practice different things, including "cruel and unusual punishment," "police brutality," "section 1983 actions," applications of the exclusionary rule, violations of civil rights under color of state law, and the like. Refusing to accept the internationally accepted term reflected national quirkiness, somewhat akin to out continuing use of feet and inches rather than the metric system. …

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