What's Law Got to Do with It?

By Glennon, Michael J. | The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

What's Law Got to Do with It?


Glennon, Michael J., The Wilson Quarterly


The Bush administration has come under heavy fire for turning its back on the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, and other highly publicized multilateral initiatives. America is abandoning its traditional commitment to the rule of law in international relations, charge critics at home and abroad, and is recklessly bent on "going it alone." Unilateralist, hegemonic, imperialist--barely a day goes by without such indictments being leveled at some new American policy. "We shall pursue our efforts toward a humane and controlled globalization," French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine recently declared, "even if the new high-handed American unilateralism doesn't help matters." Some worry that the United States is compromising the majesty of international law and its shining promise of a more peaceful world in the century ahead, while others mutter that the United States is taking on the aspect of an empire--and a few in America gleefully embrace the idea. "We are an attractive empire, the one everyone wants to join," declares The Wall Street Journal's Max Boot.

As a matter of historical accuracy, the talk of empire is ill-founded. The United States is not an empire, nor could it conceivably become one. The term empire implies more than simple cultural dominance or preeminent military power. It applies to states that use force to occupy and control a group of other states or regions. The conquered states, robbed of autonomy and political independence, become colonies, provinces, or territories of the imperial power. Taxes are levied, laws are imposed, soldiers are conscripted, governors are installed--all without the consent of the subjugated state. Foreign policy, including all military alliances, trade agreements, and diplomatic relations, is dictated by the imperial capital. Rome was an empire. Napoleonic France, 19th-century Britain, and the Soviet Union were empires. But empire simply does not accurately describe America's relationship with France or Germany or Japan, or even with more dependent states such as Canada, Israel, or Guatemala.

Nor is the United States a hardcore unilateralist. It is a party to more than 10,000 treaties--probably more than any other nation in the world. About a third are multilateral agreements. True, the United States does not pursue its interests by multilateral means alone. But neither do other states. Last year, France rejected the declaration of the Community of Democracies in which 106 other countries pledged their cooperative support of democratic institutions in emerging democracies. New Zealand in the mid-1980s unilaterally banned visits from nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed ships. Sweden, Denmark, and Britain, declining thus far to adopt the euro, are prominent-but hardly the only-examples of European nations that unilaterally resist full integration. Norway refuses to join the European Union. Until recently, Switzerland took a pass on membership in the United Nations.

It is true that the United States has been ham-handed in backing out of negotiations without presenting alternatives. But in rhetoric as well as substance, the critics are off the mark. Their vocabulary is overblown, and their logic is distorted. The United States often has been doing what any other nation would do in its circumstances--placing its own national interest before a putative "collective" interest when the two conflict; it just does it with less hypocrisy and greater success. And if as a result of this new tone in foreign policy some of the weaker, less workable elements of international law are revealed for what they are and discarded, the institution of international law as a whole will likely be strengthened.

Broad labels such as unilateralist or imperialist have little application to the way the United States and other modern nations actually behave. The contrasting notion that nations act--or should act--to advance interests of other nations is no more useful. …

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