Archive for the ‘International Relations’ Category

St Peter's SquareAn unbecoming dodge that sovereign human rights violators attempt in trying to evade responsibility for their actions was recently attempted, by of all parties, the Vatican. It is a dodge that was similarly attempted by the Bush administration in front of the Supreme Court of the United States, and was picked apart for the irresponsible maneuver that it is.

First, some background. Periodically parties to the major human rights conventions face review before a committee of experts, one committee for each treaty. The Convention on the Rights of the Child has a matching Committee on the Rights of the Child. These committees receive reports from states, discuss the reports with an official delegation from the reporting state, make observations on the reports, and make general recommendations to all states on how to interpret the treaty. Earlier this month the Holy See delegation presented their report before the Committee Against Torture (stewards of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment).

The crux of the dodge is that the convention applies here and not there. How a sovereign makes their pitch: You, the human rights analyst, must keep your gaze fixed upon this certain zone here – a zone I, the sovereign, have conveniently identified for you. Do not shift your gaze to that zone over there; I haven’t pointed out that zone over there as worthy of your scrutiny. Focus exclusively on my conduct in the zone I have outlined for you. Over in that zone there I can conduct myself in whatever way I please, without consequence or criticism from you. Why? Well, because that zone is over there and you should be focusing on this zone here.

Anyone interested in upholding human rights is bound to ask, well what exactly is going on over in that zone there? What precisely are you, the sovereign, attempting to hide in that zone there? Slicing the world into zones in this manner, what’s more allowing the sovereign under scrutiny to do so, can only lead to serious trouble for upholding human rights.

With the Bush administration, the claim went that federal courts do not have jurisdiction over Guantanamo Bay; thus the executive can conduct itself as it pleases without scrutiny from the federal courts. Rasul and Boumediene saw that argument off, criticizing the view advanced by the Bush administration as meaning “the political branches may switch the Constitution on or off at will”. Just as that interpretation would spell trouble for constitutional rights, that interpretation vitiates obligations undertaken by states when they accede to the human rights conventions.

The Vatican recently attempted to make a case that rhymed with these accountability evading Bush administration claims. The Holy See urged, look at the city-state, not the global institution over which we preside. Rightly, the Committee Against Torture took a dim view of this argument. One expert, Felice Gaer, said (Guardian),

show us that, as a party to the convention, you have a system in place to prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment when it is acquiesced to by anyone under the effective control of the officials of the Holy See and the institutions that operate in the Vatican City state

The international human rights regime is about applying exacting scrutiny to sovereigns’ behavior, and Gaer applies the correct standard. Sovereigns don’t get to wriggle out of responsibility in this manner. The public, civil society, human rights experts, and other parties to the convention are correct in demanding more than excuses unworthy of a toddler, let alone a sovereign.

(A contrary view at the WSJ, Using a ‘Torture’ Claim Against the Catholic Church)


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"Russian President Vladimir Putin (back) addresses the Federal Assembly, including State Duma deputies, members of the Federation Council, regional governors and civil society representatives, at the Kremlin in Moscow" (Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin)

“Russian President Vladimir Putin (back) addresses the Federal Assembly, including State Duma deputies, members of the Federation Council, regional governors and civil society representatives, at the Kremlin in Moscow”
(Reuters/Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin)

“You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pretext,” declared John Kerry on March 2 as Russia began its conquest of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. Though he didn’t intend it, the U.S. Secretary of State was summing up the difference between the current leaders of the West who inhabit a fantasy world of international rules and the hard men of the Kremlin who understand the language of power. The 19th-century men are winning.

In a forceful challenge to the liberal internationalist strategic vision, the Wall Street Journal editorial board claims indeed the strongmen are winning. Welcome to the 19th Century presents a challenge to liberal internationalism that must occur to anyone following recent events in Crimea. In the face of a state wielding power at the end of a gun, what shield is international law or international institutions like the OSCE and UN? What good is the liberal internationalist vision of US foreign policy if it can’t get Russia out of Crimea posthaste?

In the past weeks, the diplomatic watchword on the US and EU’s part has been de-escalation. Convene the parties to the Budapest Memorandum, form a Ukraine-Russia and others contact group, dispatch OSCE or UN envoys to Crimea, have the Secretary-General of the UN use his good offices – the diplomatic routes out of this course towards conflict abounded. Should we blame liberal internationalism for Russia’s failure to take one of these face-saving offramps to further conflict?

No. It is true that Russia has chosen to create difficult to dislodge facts on the ground in Crimea, and done so in place of offers of mediation and diplomacy. But the structures of the international system have helped to clarify the decision Russia has made; the fact that the stated Russian objectives, protect Russian-speakers in Ukraine, could have been addressed using legitimate routes is clear to international system participants. This point is most evident in Russia’s demonstrated isolation on the United Nations Security Council; Russia alone voted against the March 15 UN Security Council draft resolution.

And further, the liberal internationalist institutions have put into sharp relief the conflict between Russia’s recent actions and Russia’s prior commitments. The liberal international order has demonstrated its utility in sharply highlighting how Russia has strayed from the legitimate pathways in pursuing its stated objectives, the well-being of the Russian-speaking population in Crimea. Thus far, no one else has bought the case Russia has been peddling of resurgent, threatening Ukrainian neo-Nazis, Russian-speaker refugee flows out of Ukraine, and the imminent danger to Russian-speakers remaining in Ukraine.

What would winning would look like for Russia? One of Russia’s long-term aims is a successful Eurasian Union with Russia as the central node. A force multiplying international institution serving to give Russia even greater heft on the world stage – paralleling the way that Germany, France, and the UK derive benefit from the European Union. After this intervention in Crimea, what are the prospects for a successful Eurasian Union, for broad, deep, cooperative, integration of prospective members akin to that of the European Union? Post-Crimea, what are the prospects of states clamoring to get into the Russian-led Eurasian Union the way that some states have ardently desired (sometimes for decades) to enter the European Union? I’d say slim and dim.

Current possession of Crimea is a tactical victory for the moment, Black Sea Fleet secure, warm water port access guaranteed, definite benefits to Russia. But notably, these are assets Russia possessed before the intervention. And in terms of strategic victory, securing the Eurasian Union’s future? These military maneuvers have eroded its prospects as an actor on the world stage. What good is a union of states that have been bullied into joining? No more long-term good than the USSR, I’d argue. And supposing one day Russia hoped to have the Baltic states, or Poland tempted away from Western Europe and towards its orbit. What prospect for wielding soft power having exercised hard power in this manner?

The fact that the wheels of liberal internationalism sometimes turn slowly indicates only that diplomacy is hard. Foreign policy coordination, by consensus, among the 28 European Union members is fraught with difficulty in a way that foreign policy coordination in the US never is. There are countries geographically nearer to or further away from Russia; there are countries with deeper economic relationships with Russia and countries fairly independent from Russia as an energy supplier. But given the challenges the European Union has faced over time, the institution will at least muddle through, towards sanctioning Russia for recent behavior.

We already have evidence of the EU’s reaching towards a viable consensus. On March 10 in his oral report to the House of Commons on the European heads of government meeting over Crimea, David Cameron outlined a three phase approach to Russia (Hansard),

first, some immediate steps to respond to what Russia has done; secondly, urgent work on a set of measures that will follow if Russia refuses to enter dialogue with the Ukrainian Government; and thirdly, a set of further, far-reaching consequences should Russia take further steps to destabilise the situation in Ukraine.

Various initial phase punishments are already underway. The prospect of the G-8 turning into the G-7, freezing prospective Russian membership in the OECD, and also stopping negotiations on freeing trade and reducing visa restrictions.

And what of Russia’s ambitions to become less economically dependent on extractive industries? The Russian Silicon Valley, the Russian innovation society, the Russian 21st century enterprise zones? At a White House press briefing Jay Carney posed a version of this question worth considering, what multi-national corporation CEO can look to Russia as a site for investment? These types of decisions are not made with the fanfare of speeches in the Kremlin’s Saint George Hall, or the frisson of flag waving in Red Square. Quietly, deliberately, and with little attention, much like some diplomatic avenues, Russia will be ruled out.

These legitimacy and economic angles underinform from the WSJ editorial’s analysis of liberal internationalism in the face of Russia’s behavior towards Crimea. They are certainly missing from the WSJ’s stark claim “what defines international order is the cold logic of political will and military power”.

Lastly, US liberal internationalists must look beyond the crises of the present day. It is important to remember international law scholar Louis Henkin’s observation, “Almost all nations observe almost all principles of international law and almost all of their obligations almost all the time”. Now those “almost” qualifiers are a very big deal; some of the most horrifying behavior by states (e.g. North Korea) and intractable conflicts in the international system lay within those almosts. Moreover, for Russia, for Ukraine, for the near-term prospects for security in Europe those almosts seem insurmountable obstacles to a stable international system. But for the long-term prospects of peace and the US place in the world, a rule-governed international order remain essential.

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Beijing Tokyo BrusselsTufts University political science professor and long-time policy blogger Daniel Drezner pooh-poohs China’s recent, mild efforts to influence US domestic politics over the debt ceiling. Drezner highlights a senior Chinese Treasury official’s fairly anodyne statement, “the Chinese side feels the US needs to take realistic and resolute steps to ensure against default on the national debt”. Drezner finds the attempt “at best futile and at worst counterproductive.” Overall Drezner concludes there isn’t foreign pressure that could help resolve the conflict, given that some GOP members believe a default wouldn’t be a catastrophic crisis. (Drezner adds China probably isn’t the best country to deliver the message as it has been a bogeyman in recent American politics.)

There are two points I’d make in response. First, a point that I suspect Drezner wouldn’t disagree with: foreign leaders have reason to be highly interested in a prospective default. China holding in excess of $1 trillion in US treasuries certainly gives them an interest in expressing concerns about potential default. Beyond China, no one relishes the knock-on consequences for the global economy of a US default.

My second point challenges Drezner’s answer to the question “Is there any kind of foreign pressure [from friends or rivals] that would help [break the deadlock]?”

There is a policy option available to foreign leaders that will focus the minds of Tea Party members of Congress and their sympathizers.

China, Japan, and the European Union should ever so gently leak a draft, of a draft, of a green paper, on a communiqué on US debt default. After stating the obvious, wrecking the global economy by way of default is unwise, the draft Beijing-Tokyo-Brussels Communiqué would say: in the event of a US default we would impose tariffs targeted at those states (and districts) of the GOP’s Suicide Tea Party Caucus. Trade sanctions targeting the key products from states like Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Texas, and Kentucky. Ryan Lizza has already provided a handy map. Three of America’s largest trading partners could cover quite a few industries those states, their businesses, and thus their representatives care deeply about. Pressure from abroad to exert pressure from below on the Tea Party Caucus.

Tariffs targeting key American states is not an unheard of political tool. In its trade dispute with the US over steel tariffs, the EU threatened tariffs aimed at products from specific states due to steel links as well as those states’ electoral significance in the then-upcoming 2004 presidential elections (Guardian). Altogether, it becomes a lot more difficult to say, “Crisis, what crisis?” when confronted with the prospect of home district businesses and jobs being put at risk.

As for drawbacks, there’s the usual reticence on getting involved in the domestic politics of other countries. To quote LBJ, “Never tell a man to go to hell unless you’re sure you can send him there.” There is an ocean of things China, Japan, and the EU want from the US Congress – looser trade restrictions for China, increased US-Japan defense cooperation, and the prospective US-EU trade agreement immediately come to mind. It is ill-advised to reach short-term goals if putting long-term goals in serious jeopardy. Lastly, stabilizing the global economic system by threatening a trade war is pretty counterintuitive. Tariffs and the resultant retaliatory measures likely hurt everyone involved (see, Smoot-Hawley).

My reply to the counterarguments is therein lay the reason for “a draft, of a draft, of a potential green paper”, loads of distance between possibilities and actions. And yet reason for the business communities in these states to sit up and take notice. Since solid Tea Party Caucus members dismiss the prospects of a global-US default crisis as hyperbole, raising the prospects of an alternative default-linked trade crisis aimed squarely at their constituencies would be well worth the effort. Interviewed by the French press on targeting tariffs at specific states, then-EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy remarked “At the end of the day the US president takes a political decision, and you have to be able to play the same game.” (CS Monitor). In this instance, Obama has limited leverage over members of Congress in safe seats with stridently conservative voters. Foreign leaders do have both a significant interest at stake as well as a policy option available beyond standing idly by or (ineffectually) voicing concern. If Tea Party intransigence continues unabated, yes, mess with Texas (among other states). Not least for shaving valuable tenths of a percentage point off US and global growth (Guardian), as well as for inflicting Ted Cruz and his ilk on us all.

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WhiteHouseSouthFacadeWhat exactly is the delay in formulating a comprehensive strategy to transition the Assad regime out of power in Syria? However reluctant President Obama is to get further involved in another Middle East conflict, the clear threats to US national interests are already upon us. Which is why the US and allies have already been on the diplomatic track with Syria for quite some time. Nudging, cajoling, counseling, back channel signaling, and finally threatening to get to some sort of satisfactory agreement that doesn’t allow the Syria conflict to fester.

Keep in mind we are already two UN-Arab League envoys into this conflict, with the current envoy paving the way for stepping down in the coming months (FP). This month marks one year from the first, failed, Geneva conference peace attempt. We’re nine Human Rights Council resolutions and four Commission of Inquiry reports into the conflict. We’ve had one UN General Assembly resolution on the conflict. Altogether, months of diplomacy, reams of resolutions, communiqués, and reports. The diplomatic language has gotten as severe as diplomatic language can get. We have already had the denouncing, deploring, objecting, and condemning. We have even had a red line.

Bashar al-Assad must be transitioned out of power. That has been the US policy. From Obama in August 2011, “For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” (WashPo). There can be no doubt that US national interests are implicated. Syria is in a region of longstanding strategic significance to the US. Syria borders one NATO ally, Turkey, and two major non-NATO allies, to use the official designation for Jordan and Israel. Syria possesses significant stockpiles of chemical weapons. And finally, the Assad regime is backed by Iran, a key US strategic challenger in the region. (All the liberals dabbling in realism and lecturing about how foolish the George W. Bush administration was to remove key Iranian challengers, Hussein’s Iraq and the Taliban’s Afghanistan, they should be jumping at the opportunity to remove Assad from power, a key Iranian partner.)

If the geostrategic case isn’t strong enough, there is the fact that Syria is a man-made humanitarian catastrophe with no signs of diffusing without international community intervention. The UN estimates 10 million Syrians will need assistance by years end; that is half the population (BBC). The gross human rights violations have prompted the UN Human Rights Council to pass nine resolutions focusing mainly against Syrian regime misconduct. Misconduct catalogued in detail in reports that should “shock the conscience of mankind”.

And here we come to the paramount test that should dispel all doubt as to whether the US needs to dramatically step up the diplomatic and military pressure against the Assad regime: conduct that shocks the conscience of mankind. Yes, sovereignty is an important aspect of the international system. But we should remember sovereignty was established to solve a particular set of political problems stemming from the European wars of religion. The peace of Westphalia, whose realm, his religion (cuius regio, eius religio), and the principles associated with it must also accommodate the many changes in the world since 1648. One would expect, especially for people who believe in a living Constitution, to not have fixed our notions about statehood and its privileges in the 17th century.

Unfortunately for the people of Syria, the Assad regime has given voluminous evidence that it should no longer benefit from the international community’s normally deferential stance in light of sovereignty. Take for instance a fairly straightforward injunction from customary international humanitarian law Rule 74: “The use of chemical weapons is prohibited.” Sarin use clearly falls into the “not permitted” category.

What leadership looks like. (AP Photo)

What leadership looks like. (AP Photo)

The Obama administration has already waited far too long to demonstrate forceful leadership in implementing an aim expressed in 2011. The Deputy National Security Adviser should not be the one doing the briefing, outlining, and explaining while the president is occupied with other events (as the NYT reports). As with Qom and Iran, where Obama stood with the President of France and the Prime Minister of the UK, Obama should have stood with allies and outlined the next phases in seeing through the removal of Assad from power.

I’ll close with my questions to the non-interventionists and everyone counseling the US and international community to wait and see. Wait and see for what? Wait for more challenges to the stability of the region and the security of Israel, Turkey, and Jordan (let alone Lebanon and Iraq)? Wait for millions more refugees and internally displaced? Wait for more extensive use of chemical weapons? Wait for a Syrian Halabja?

Why wait for even more systematic, widespread, and gross violations of human rights?

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Palais des Nations, United Nations Office at Geneva (via Wikipedia)

Palais des Nations, United Nations Office at Geneva (via Wikipedia)

Let no one say the US has not tried the diplomatic track with Syria.

We’re nearly two UN-Arab League envoys into the conflict, with Lakhdar Brahimi paving the way for stepping down in the coming months (Kofi Annan having resigned in August last year). The US also clearly warned the Assad regime against the use of chemical weapons late last year with Obama’s remarks: “red line”, “That would change my calculus”, “That would change my equation.” (NYT). At the time, it seemed successful. But now, the UK, France, and Israel claim Syria has used chemical weapons. The US too claims that Syria has used chemical weapons, though couching its view in the most hesitant of language, writing to Senators, “Our intelligence community does assess with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin.” (HuffPo).

Likely a retreading of territory already covered in a prior diplomatic effort last June (Geneva Communiqué, 6/30/2012, pdf), the coming Geneva conference on Syria should be the end of the line for diplomacy with the Assad regime. There should not be yet another ineffectual Geneva Communiqué, several thousand more deaths, several thousand more refugees, and yet another meeting in Geneva a year hence to resurrect a political transition in Syria. Each delay has seen both deterioration in the conditions in Syria and escalation in the brutality. Gross violations of human rights and the laws of war have piled atop one another culminating in the recent allegations of chemical weapons use. (Let alone the fact that Syria borders three strategic allies of the US.)

Even prior to claims by the US and allies on chemical weapons use, assessments of the situation in Syria have been grave. Briefing the UN Security Council in April, senior UN officials offered grim assessments (pdf). Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Valerie Amos, “The situation in Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe…”. UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, “Re-reading what I said in my last intervention [before the Security Council], in February, I am almost tempted to limit my present statement to just 10 seconds. Everything that I said last time is still true, but it has all got much worse. If nothing politically dramatic happens, things will go on getting worse for the months to come.” The Special Representatives of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for Children and Armed Conflict (Leila Zerrougui) and the SRSG on Sexual Violence in Conflict (Zainab Bangura) offered similarly sober assessments. None of these senior UN officials can offer anything but sober assessments with 1 million refugees and 2.5 million internally displaced (pdf).

"A U.S. F-117 Nighthawk taxis to the runway before taking off from Aviano Air Base, Italy, on March 24, 1999" (via Wikipedia)

“A U.S. F-117 Nighthawk taxis to the runway before taking off from Aviano Air Base, Italy, on March 24, 1999” (via Wikipedia)

For more evidence, if any is needed, read through the Human Rights Council reports on Syria. I wouldn’t really encourage it though; reading those reports is to browse through a catalogue of cruelty and depravity: torture of children, summary execution, military attacks on civilians, the list of violations goes on and on. Altogether, Syrian government misconduct meets the “shock the conscience of mankind” test. To their credit, both the UN Human Rights Council and UN General Assembly have passed resolutions on Syria. To its discredit, particularly the shameful stances of China and Russia, the UN Security Council has failed to pass sufficiently strong resolutions against Syria.

Notwithstanding the positions of China and Russia, it is time for the final warning to the Assad regime, much like the stance taken against Slobodan Milošević in 1999. If it continues to yield humanitarian catastrophe by way of failure to protect civilians, the diplomatic track must end in the last argument of kings.

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“For the peace and brotherhood of men”

So reads the inscription on the reverse of the Nobel Peace Prize. What has the European Union done for the peace and brotherhood of humankind? Or as Alex Massie writes in Foreign Policy, a piece entitled “Worst. Prize. Ever.”, has the Nobel Peace Prize descended into “parody” and “pastiche”? Or alternatively put by Catherine Mayer on Dateline London,

I have decided the Nobel Committee is actually a collective of avant-garde performance artists and that they do this every year just to see how far they can go.

I concede that six decades of relative peace and stability in Europe is not entirely attributable to the European project. NATO and the Pax Americana certainly helped the region. Nonetheless, comparing the levels of positive peace in Europe to positive peace in other regions that similarly benefited from the US security umbrella we find significant value added from the European Union and its forebears (ECSC, EEC, and EC).

For instance compare the France-Germany relationship to the South Korea-Japan relationship. The European project routinizes cooperation such that French and German education ministries launched a Franco-German history textbook in 2006 (BBC). That kind of collaboration, in part driven by the heads of state/government, indicates high levels of positive peace between the countries. Turning towards the South Korea-Japan relationship we do not find similar levels of such deep and comprehensive reconciliation. Resolve to cooperate does not seep into the standard operating procedure in the exhibited in Europe. Take for disputes between South Korean and Japan over islands (WSJ),

[August 26, 2012] Tensions between Japan and South Korea show no immediate signs of ebbing, with Japan’s prime minister criticizing Seoul for “illegally” occupying a set of disputed islands as officials from both countries traded protests over which side was misbehaving.

“There is no firm evidence to their claims. South Korea began its illegal occupation by use of force,” Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said in a televised news conference Friday.

The rare address by Mr. Noda to the nation over territorial issues follows the Japanese parliament’s passage earlier in the day of a resolution denouncing South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s visit this month to the Liancourt Rocks, which are known as Dokdo by South Korea and Takeshima by Japan.

Seoul immediately protested Mr. Noda’s claims to the disputed islets and urged him to retract them. It also demanded the resolution be withdrawn.

Earlier Friday, officials continued to bicker over a letter sent to Mr. Lee by Mr. Noda that was sent back, with the Japanese government then refusing to accept it through diplomatic channels. It was finally delivered to the foreign ministry by the post office.

Now it is particularly important to understand the contours of my claim. My claim is not that Japan and South Korea can be expected to go to war imminently over these islands, but that the European Union adds a level of cooperation such that a great deal of preventative measures have been taken in advance to reduce conflict and regularize diplomacy. The EU doesn’t represent a mechanism to eliminate conflict, but to manage conflict, channeling disputes into predefined tracks and ensuring that relations between members don’t fly off the rails.

European flag proposed by Rem Koolhaas

The second bit of value added that deserves highlighting is the acquis communautaire and Big Bang enlargement. With the end of the Cold War the European project was at a crossroads. It could elect to be a wealthy European project or an inclusive European project. In terms of determining whether to be a club for wealthy countries, recent enlargements have meant adding net recipient nations (Wiki). Simply put, one route meant deciding to exclude the post-Soviet states the other route meant including the fledgling democracies, and what’s more, underwriting their participation in the project. Essentially the existing members had to agree to redistribute wealth from the pre-Big Bang enlargement members to the new member states. Also, it was not a foregone conclusion that the post-Soviet space would yield successful, consolidated democracies. Indeed, several non-EU member, post-Soviet states have experienced backslides into less human rights observant regimes. Enlargement and the incorporation of European Union law helped put human rights on a firmer footing in post-Soviet states.

Imagine if the countries currently experiencing the Arab Spring had a European Union equivalent to help usher them into being successful, stable democracies. What’s more, a club willing to help underwrite the transition with a body of human rights affirming laws as a rubric. Would that be an insignificant, laughable, or inconsequential contribution to the peace and brotherhood of men?

Would that other regional bodies successfully dedicated themselves to institutions as important to peace as the European Union.


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“Rule, Britannia!”


When Britain first, at Heaven’s command
Arose from out the azure main;
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”

The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”

Still more majestic shalt thou rise,
More dreadful, from each foreign stroke;
As the loud blast that tears the skies,
Serves but to root thy native oak.
“Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:
“Britons never will be slaves.”

It is mighty difficult to think of the topic of American grand strategy without accusations of imperialism flying about. If we’re to argue about the posture of the United States in the world we’re bound to encounter the disproportionate advantages that have redounded to the benefit of the country: benign neighbors, no major rivals in the Americas, two oceans worth of safety, a rich natural resource and human capital endowment, and an ascendant post-Cold War moment built upon an earlier post-World War II ascendant moment of even more ascendance.

With all these raw materials of outsize power floating about accusations of imperialism are bound to follow any American grand strategy (save isolationism). But just how accurate are these accusations of imperialism, particularly when aimed at the liberal internationalists? (Some critics, i.e. John J. Mearsheimer, go so far as to fold the slur into the name, hence “liberal imperialists” [1].)

Four Flavors of US Grand Strategy

As Colin Dueck eloquently puts it, there are probably as many American grand strategies as there are grand strategists [2], nonetheless four clusters stand out. So begins my ten cent tour of the four corners of American grand strategies. I’ll hasten to add the proviso that there’re thousands more words to be written about these schools: how they conceptualize international politics, who’re identified as the key units of analysis, the force structure that corresponds to each school, and so on. Alas, this tour will be worth scarcely more than the price of admission [3].

America First Committee logo

In one corner we have the “Why don’t we mind our business?” camp, also known as the isolationists, neo-isolationists, or strategic disengagement proponents. Narrowly drawn lines of US national interest limit the geographic scope of areas defined as strategically significant. Limiting the use of force to self-defense (narrowly construed) yields a limited force posture and a wide margin for neutrality and abstention from an array of conflicts.

In corner number two we have Machiavelli’s Princes, more formally the balance of power realists (Mearsheimer’s fits here) or selective engagement proponents. Here we find a broader definition of US national interests than the isolationists, but with an emphasis on states and geography. Clearly defined regions represent the core of US national interests (Europe, northeast Asia, and the Persian Gulf), or alternatively, maintenance of a particular regional alignment of powers such that each regional aspirant has an adversary.

In corner number three we have the “make the world safe for democracy” camp, more formally the liberal internationalists or cooperative security proponents. Here the US national interest includes far more room for values especially democracy and human rights. Viewed as an interdependent state system, the internal dynamics of states link to behavior on the international scene and conflicts have destabilizing spillover effects for the international community as a whole. International institutions serve as the key mechanisms for managing conflict, but the US plays an integral role in using force when necessary.

One Ring to rule them all

In corner number four we have the “one Ring to rule them all” camp, formally the primacy, global dominance, or global hegemony proponents. Primacy aims for ongoing American hegemony deterring aspirants from even attempting to challenge US power. Primacy also exhibits a commitment to liberal principles like international law, human rights, democracy, free markets. But in contrast to the liberal internationalists, continued American power serves as keystone in promoting these ends. Overall, primacy remains suspicious of using international institutions to achieve those ends.

Altogether if the loose definition of imperialism is elastic enough to fit the liberal internationalist domain of thinking on American grand strategy, the charge imperialism fits realism equally well. Balancing, when married to the resources of the United States, also represents empire by another name when the words imperialism and empire are made into such capacious categories.

An imperial project? (an adapting of Modern Day Kiplings?)

There is a further reason why “liberal imperialist” is such a galling slur. It connects an era of reprehensible and heinous crimes to a vision of American grand strategy whose moorings are elsewhere entirely. Locating the tenets of liberal interventionism in imperialism is wrong. (Liberal internationalism, liberal interventionism, and the responsibility to protect don’t necessarily map onto one another one to one, but there are strong linkages across the three perspectives.)

The slur is about as accurate as calling a present-day anthropologist a phrenologist, or dubbing a present-day social worker a eugenicist. There was a point in time when an imperialist meta-narrative intersected with nearly every field of knowledge in the West. But as for anthropology, social work, and the responsibility to protect (R2P) today, the concepts doing the heavy lifting have moved well on from Kipling and the white man’s burden. Movement so far as to be a repudiation of their predecessors.

That is to say, it is true that at one point in time anthropology, social work, and R2P’s antecedents were intertwined with a meta-narrative reaffirming the white, Christian, male, West’s superiority to the Other; these linkages with white supremacy, patriarchy, and knowledge were also present for biology (e.g. Social Darwinism), geology and archaeology (e.g. the Piltdown Man hoax). Whole ways of understanding the world did double duty: explain the world and justify empire. Imperialism linked with phrenology, eugenics, and pseudo-sciences in general as a means of knowing the world that reinforced this meta-narrative of racial superiority. Thus imperial power justified its dominance with both pseudo-scientific and religious (bring Christianity to the heathens) underpinnings. A whole body of knowledge needed deploying in order to declare a great deal of the world no man’s land, terra nullius. Thus these “empty” spaces were ripe for capture, conquest, and “civilizing”.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a word cloud (via Opinio Juris)

What distinguishes R2P from an imperial project?

Far from nullifying common humanity, R2P draws upon texts with the express purpose of identifying a space for human dignity in international affairs. The individual human is brought up; up from subjection to the sovereign to an object of international law in their own right by virtue of common humanity.

R2P forcefully says to states, “This far and no further.” Under R2P states have a great deal of latitude in organizing intra-state affairs. For all states sovereignty is modified in an important way. Sovereignty may not be used to shield atrocities from the gaze of the international human rights regime. Those exercising power are charged with combating gross human rights violations.

This duty is a result of an overlapping consensus derived from international law, international institutions, and the international human rights regime. Examining the history of the human rights regime (and the shorter history of R2P proper) we find participatory legitimacy by way of global contributions and procedural legitimacy by way of international institutions in the key phases: (1) the generative phase where the elements that would form the overlapping consensus on human rights developed; (2) the codification phase, the negotiations that yielded the key texts of the international human rights regime (the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and subsequent human rights conventions); (3) the interpretation phase, the institutions and processes that have repeatedly reaffirmed the key human rights texts (the UN General Assembly and treaty-monitoring bodies).

Imperial projects cannot claim similar global participation and procedural legitimacy. In the sense that empire included global participation, that participation hewed to a rigid hierarchy, a hierarchy that has no analog in the formulation and execution of the international human rights regime and R2P. Empire distinguishes between metropole and periphery, with the imperial metropoles of old (Britain, France, Spain, etc.) managing the affairs of entire continents with limited representation of the periphery (if any at all). Drawing borders, determining trade policy, extracting resources, and denying self-governance all reflected the ideas and interests of the metropole first and foremost. The periphery is exactly that, peripheral to the core concerns of the imperialist. Lastly, the imperialist is engaged in another enterprise entirely, the walling off of the owned and subjugated from the owned and subjugated of other empires. And where possible acquiring the owned and subjugated of other empires.

In terms of procedural legitimacy, what was once the periphery is now well represented in the corridors of power in international political institutions. The Western European and Others Group does not dictate to the UN General Assembly, in the UN System it is one regional group amongst the five.

What’s the matter with realism?

Sir Humphrey: Minister, Britain has had the same foreign policy objective for at least the last five hundred years: to create a disunited Europe. In that cause we have fought with the Dutch against the Spanish, with the Germans against the French, with the French and Italians against the Germans, and with the French against the Germans and Italians. Divide and rule, you see. Why should we change now, when it’s worked so well?

Hacker: That’s all ancient history, surely?

Sir Humphrey: Yes, and current policy. We ‘had’ to break the whole thing [the EEC] up, so we had to get inside. We tried to break it up from the outside, but that wouldn’t work. Now that we’re inside we can make a complete pig’s breakfast of the whole thing: set the Germans against the French, the French against the Italians, the Italians against the Dutch. The Foreign Office is terribly pleased; it’s just like old times.

Hacker: But surely we’re all committed to the European ideal?

Sir Humphrey: [chuckles] Really, Minister.

Hacker: If not, why are we pushing for an increase in the membership?

Sir Humphrey: Well, for the same reason. It’s just like the United Nations, in fact; the more members it has, the more arguments it can stir up, the more futile and impotent it becomes.
Hacker: What appalling cynicism.

Sir Humphrey: Yes… We call it diplomacy, Minister.


Realism has trouble answering three key questions. How to account for ungoverned spaces, that is weak and failing states can’t be balanced – when the object of analysis, states, can’t be counted on to behave in strictly defined realism conceptualized fashion, what then? Second and relatedly, what to make of non-state actor foes? Third, how sustainable is a policy with a persistent values deficit?

On which, perhaps more later.

[1] Mearsheimer, John J. Imperial by Designthe National Interest, Jan/Feb 2011, p. 16-34 – via ProQuest

[2] Dueck, Colin Ideas and Alternatives in American Grand Strategy, 2000-2004 Review of International Studies, Vol. 30, No. 4 (Oct., 2004), pp. 511-535 – via JSTOR

[3] Posen, Barry and Ross, Andrew Competing Visions for U.S. Grand Strategy International Security, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Winter, 1996-1997), pp. 5-53 – via JSTOR

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