Is Internationalism an End in Itself?

Is Internationalism an End in Itself?

I should first thank Prof. Heller for adding his insightful comments to our blog. I hope to return the favor at his blog-home at the Yin Blog. Both he and Peggy have useful comments, although I think both are reading much more into my post than I myself intended (but I suppose that is my own fault).

In particular, I didn’t mean to argue, as Peggy suggested, that “you cannot nonetheless argue ex ante that participation in a particular multilateral regime …. is on balance a good thing for the US . . .” Nor did I mean to argue, as Prof. Heller suggests, that “newspapers like the LAT don’t have an equal right to criticize the U.S. for not doing so.”

Let me try to explain. I am agnostic on whether global warming is a real problem (who to believe, Cato or the NRDC?) and I am also agnostic on whether Kyoto is the right mechanism for solving global warming, if global warming is as serious a problem as many believe. I do think that Peggy makes a far more persuasive case for international regulation of global warming than the LA Times piece, which seems to rely heavily on the notion that the Bush Administration and Republicans are in the pocket of the energy industry. That might be true to some degree, but I doubt it is any more true than the Democratic Party being merely the tools of teacher’s unions and trial lawyers (maybe less).

In any event, my point is that the claim that we should join Kyoto because everyone else is joining it (and we should join the ICC because everyone else is joining it), etc, etc. is simply not very persuasive to me. My empirical claim is that this type of argument is also not very persuasive to those people who make decisions (including many on both sides of the partisan divide) or to those people who vote. Maybe I’m wrong, but I doubt it.

I think Prof. Heller’s point is an interesting one. If you take as a given U.S. intransigience, then U.S. supporters of a particular international regime should actually push foreign countries and international institutions to take a tougher line with the U.S. I agree this is perfectly logical, but I doubt this is the best strategy. There is U.S. public support for certain kinds of international institutions, as Peggy points out in her WTO example. While there are pockets of “nationalists for nationalists’ sake” folks (Prof. Heller’s colleague Peter Spiro might call these people “sovereigntists”), I really believe most folks can be persuaded based on the merits of a particular international regime. Again, this is an empirical claim, but a very plausible one I think.

There is a deeper question lurking here. Why is the U.S. so reluctant to sign on to international regimes and to subject itself to international rules that really hurt? (1) Is it because of an influential and hawkish group of elite intellectuals (sometimes called neo-cons) has managed to achieve an iron grip on U.S. foreign policy? (2) Or is it because the majority of voters disapprove of such internationalist policies and elect officials who will represent that view? (3) Or is it simply the rational choice of U.S. decisionmakers that reflects the current power imbalance between the U.S. and the rest of the world? I have to say that I don’t know what the answer is (except I’m pretty sure the first answer is not correct). But it is something worth exploring.

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Getting a word in before Heller is a rare treat here, so here goes. The question is posited as “[w]hy is the U.S. so reluctant to sign on to international regimes and to subject itself to international rules that really hurt?” with three possible answers. My selection would most include #2, first, #3, second, and #1 nowhere to be seen. I’d add, however a number #4 — that the “American character” really is unique and distinctive, as anyone who’s traveled extensively knows. Our history, development and national experience elevate our view of America in comparison to other countries, and the result is a dramatic reluctance to submit to other countries, especially does who only have soft law in their quiver. This month’s City Journal includes an interesting aricle by Theodore Dalrymple, called
The Specters Haunting Dresden, available here,, which touches on my raising the item of national character above.