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The Ties That Bind

Robert Tucker's excellent Foreign Affairs article contains a good quote that helps frame the fundamental theoretical divide between neoconservative foreign policy and my own views:

Seen against the backdrop of these factors, the startling loss of legitimacy that has occurred in the administration of President George W. Bush is not so mysterious. Even before the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration revealed a deep suspicion of international law. Its undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, John Bolton, had noted in the late 1990s that "it is a big mistake for us to grant any validity to international law even when it may seem in our short-term interest to do so-because, over the long term, the goal of those who think that international law really means anything are those who want to constrict the United States." This augured a fundamentally contemptuous attitude toward the principles that had previously sustained U.S. legitimacy. But what were straws in the wind before September 11 soon became a virtual tornado as the Bush response to the attacks became clear.
This relates to everything from the invasion of Iraq to Abu Ghraib to Doug Feith's contrarian take on the Geneva Conventions. It probably isn't what you should base your vote on, since real presidents don't adopt ideal-type theories of international relations and it makes more sense to pay attention to ground-level implementation and consequences, but it's an important point about the future of American grand strategy broadly construed.

October 26, 2004 | Permalink


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Our legitimacy is sustained by a respect for international law???? That's an interesting notion, considering that our government actually predates most of what passes for international law today.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Oct 26, 2004 1:53:03 PM

Well, I will grant there is an argument here. In 1955, we were in a world of clear American hegemony, or a bipolar world in which we competed with the Soviets. Our power was both soft and hard, in other words, to a great extent America determined international law.

The future world is more likely than not to be one in which America is no longer as economically or politically dominant, and our interests and those of the rest of the world may not coincide.
Including an interest in international law we can no longer control.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | Oct 26, 2004 2:04:37 PM

If you wanted to call it our "reputation in the international community", rather than "legitimacy", I might concede that there's a point to be made. But the legitimacy of our government derives from domestic sources, not international law. Indeed, international law itself has legitimacy only insofar as it derives from the actions of governments which have some domestic claim to legitimacy, so the idea that out government loses legitimacy by failing to abide by international agreements which it often hasn't even agreed to enter into, stands the situation right on it's head.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Oct 26, 2004 2:14:11 PM

In fact, Bob, the problem is that now America is even more dominant than before, and so the incentive to disregard the rules is much greater. In this context,the population of other countries won't see the USA as a legitimate hegemonic power unless it is seen as respecting some basic rules of fairness. Without a URSS to be scared of, what other reason could they have? If in the future, the USA becomes less dominant than it was during the Cold War era (let's say China becomes the dominant world superpower) you will find that even conservatives will become fans of international law and the UN.

Posted by: Carlos | Oct 26, 2004 2:20:34 PM

Clearly, "U.S. legitimacy" here must mean the legitimacy of U.S. actions undertaken abroad not the legitimacy of the US government. Context makes that pretty clear, so the people trying to argue against what it clearly is not saying should probably stop.

Posted by: cmdicely | Oct 26, 2004 2:40:45 PM

John Bolton is right. The Kyoto treaty was an example of this. It restricted nations like the United States while allowing third world nations the right to continue polluting.
The entire effort seemed like a stealth attempt to restrict American and other prominant nations allowing poorer third world nations the chance to 'catch up'.
Worse yet is the fact it actually compells corporations to bypass the treaty by merely moving all their production facilities overseas to those nations not forced to comply with the stricter standards of the treaty.


Posted by: MYOB | Oct 26, 2004 2:49:45 PM

Actually Matt you agreee with Neo-Con foreign policy because you said you agree with Michael Ledeen regarding Iran. It's the people of Iran you disagree with.

Posted by: Modern Crusader | Oct 26, 2004 2:51:26 PM

I think the context makes it clear that he's trying to pull off a bit of equivocation, implying one form of illegitimacy by adducing (supposed) evidence of another.

After all, he doesn't say that the Bush administration's actions are illegitimate, he says the administration is illegitimate. THAT language is fairly clear. The implication is that the government, in order to itself be legitimate, must act legitimately. An implication I wouldn't really argue with, were it to be applied to actions which have more direct relation to the sources of our government's claim to legitimacy, elections and constitutional law.

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Oct 26, 2004 2:53:07 PM

The neoconservative contingent would ordinarily just be a sideshow curiosity, but when mixed with the vacuous leadership in this WH it becomes a deadly mixture of pipedreams and ineptitude.

Paranoia about International Law is healthy in small doses, but these guys take it to a new level and then use it as cover for their US hegemonistic pet projects. What is most telling is that they appear to have no clue about why our legitimacy is suspect all over the world, now more than ever, and the fact that at some point they are going to have to come right back to same institutions and start the same process all over again.

Posted by: Harold Babar | Oct 26, 2004 2:54:50 PM

Hey, didn't you guys get the memo? Everybody knows that under a president Kerry the legitimacy of the US would be subject to review by the Assemblée Nationale.

Posted by: novakant | Oct 26, 2004 3:02:03 PM

He says "U.S. legitimacy." I think this is fairly read in context as shorthand for the legitimacy of American power in the international arena, in the postwar period when that power first truly flourished. He is making a basic and (what should be) uncontroversial point: traditionally, "U.S. legitimacy" rested on the pillars of 1) a commitment to international law (which, as bob mcmanus alludes to, after WWII was designed to accomodate the American normative world view), 2) promotion of consensus-based decision-making (also seen to afford an advantage to the US in the postwar period) in contrast with the totalitarian/authoritarian command stance we ascribed to the USSR; 3) positioning as moderator between competing interests, rather than partisan advocate (a position made possible by our postwar situation, see #1); and 4) the global perception of America as guarantors of peace rather than aggressors (again, we were able to pull this off by winning WWII).

All Tucker is getting at is that the Bush administration has turned away from this traditional structure. A resonable criticism might be grounded in an argument that changes in geopolitics over the course of the Cold War made this traditional system of legitimizing US power obsolete (note that this has nothing to do with 9/11 per se; the changing world from the 40s to the 90s could have been enough to undermine the system). However, what Tucker is saying in this article is all very basic traditional liberal internationalism, some form of which has been the basis of US foreign policy for pretty much the entire modern era until now.

Posted by: Handle | Oct 26, 2004 3:17:10 PM

If you are the hegemon and reason that your day in t esun won't last very long, th egoo dstrategy is to lock in as much of your viewpoint as possible while the going is good. This was exactly what Roosevelt did in 1944-45 (Bretton Woods and the UN). There was an even shorter window of opportunity in the 1990s. Bush seemed to get it in Gulf War 1, Clinton coasted, Bush is throwing it away. Even if Bush is reelected, the giant's feet of clay are becoming very visible: military overstretch and failure, a debt-ridden economy, domestic class warfare. When the creditors show up, you will do what they say, like Argentina.

Posted by: JamesW | Oct 28, 2004 8:38:08 AM

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