Thursday, May 25, 2006

The US as a Revisionist Power (?)

[First, I'm finally done grading, so I should be back to a more regular blogging schedule]

Robert Jervis has an extremely interesting article entitled "The Remaking of a Unipolar World" in the latest issue of The Washington Quarterly. The basic premise is that the United States has become a revisionist hegemonic power that seeks to remake the international system after its own image; that is, the US seeks to undermine the sovereignty of non-democracies in hopes that they will be replaced by pacific democratic regimes. Over at the Exploring International Law blog, Anthony Arend has written an outstanding analysis of the article, so I won't bother rehashing the ground he covers.

I have one main problem with Jervis' piece, as well as Arend's analysis, that centers on the discussion of how the US relates to international law. Jervis writes that:
the US rejection of international law in general and the International Criminal Court (ICC) in particular demonstrates why its stance is not and cannot be conservative. At first glance, one would think the United States would seek to strengthen many legal restraints. Because it is developed by the most powerful actors, international law limits the changes that are likely to accompany shifting power relations, greatly reduces the cost the hegemon has to pay for inducing others to comply, and is thus generally conservative. Yet, whereas a legal system applies the same rules to all actors, a hegemonic system is quite differentiated, with the hegemon having a role distinct from that of other states.

... is unlikely that the hegemon can live by any set of rules that cannot encompass all the unforeseen circumstances in which it may have to act. If the United States is to transform the system, it cannot adopt the egalitarian and collegial model so favored by standard liberal theories of international cooperation.
This is troubling to Jervis, as well as to Arend who "hope[s] that the international legal system is not so damaged by this revolutionary hegemonic impulse that it cannot be restored by a successor Administration. The United States has greatly benefited from the protection of international legal rules in the past and, undoubtedly, can use their protection in the future -- no matter how powerful we may be."

How one views the US in relation to international law depends on how one views international law in the first place, and here is where I disagree with both Jervis and Arend. While I don't want to put words into their mouths, it seems from their writings that both Jervis and Arend believe that international law is a vitally important component of international politics, that should be respected both for its own sake and because it helps the US pursue its interests.

I do not necessarily disagree with the latter point; international law can be very useful in helping the US pursue its interests. That is because international law is most useful when it is functioning less as "law" in the strict sense and more as a norm around which expectations can converge, which helps actors coordinate their actions. International law works best when lots of actors want the same outcome; it then helps them coordinate their actions around sets of previously-agreed upon norms and metrics that helps the actors get what they want. International law works less well in a coercive role; that is when it is trying to force an actor to take a undesirable course of action. Since the US has a lot of friends and allies in the world, and in general, works cooperatively with them, international law has been, is, and will continue to be useful to the US in helping achieve coordinated outcomes.

But if international law doesn't do as well in its coercive role (which, after all, is the main purpose of "law"), then why should it be respected for its own sake? The answer has to do, I think (again, please forgive me if I am mischaracterizing Jervis or Arend), the legitimacy ascribed to international law. IL is generally understood to represent the general will of the international community. Yes, it is most greatly influenced by the powerful states. But, it also has a strong egalitarian component; the main tenet of IL and of its main representative, the UN, is sovereignty after all.

It is that egalitarianism, combined with a lack of enforcement power, that renders IL not particularly legitimate. There are two major sources of legitimacy: the pursuit of ideals and the following of established procedure. In domestic society, we typically preference the latter, as I've blogged about before in reference to international trials, such as those of Hussein and Milosevic. In international politics, following procedure seems to be the strongest source of legitimacy as well; how else can one explain the legitimacy given to the UN, which has time and time again proved itself incapable of upholding its own principles?

I would argue that no state has done more to advance the ideals and principles of international law as the United States, even if it has done so outside of and at the expense of the procedure. I am not claiming, nor do I believe, that the US is a paragon of international law and comity, nor that the US acts out of a sense of legal obligation or duty. However, it is the US that has protected minorities being slaughtered or kicked out of their homes; it was the US that pressed the UN to maintain sanctions on Iraq and was willing to use force to preserve those sanctions; it is the US that is applying the majority of the pressure on dictatorial regimes in hopes of nudging them towards democracy. Again, this is not to say that US always acts to uphold the law. But ask yourself: Where would international law be without the US as hegemon?

Getting back to the question of whether that US is becoming a revisionist state, as I said, the answer depends on how you view the legitimacy of international law. If you look to procedure as the main source of law and legitimacy, then it may be justified to call the US revisionist, as do Jervis and Arend. As I see it, however, the US is acting (perhaps unintentionally) to give international law the teeth it so desperately needs. A world in which the US was bound by the ICC and committed to strict adherence to UN resolutions and process would be a poor world indeed. I do agree with much of Jervis' piece, as well as with lots of Arend's analysis. But I do not fear for the future of international law, nor lament its current state. If anything, I am hopeful that American hegemony will strengthen the norms and values that the international community professes to hold dear.

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