The UN, International Law, and Hegemony; Part 1

by Seth Weinberger

Last week, US Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton claimed that the UN was demonstrating its irrelevance by adopting several resolutions calling on Israel to withdraw from the West Bank and the Golan Heights. Bolton argued that the resolutions were undermining the real progress being made in the peace process, and only served to advance one narrow position and to alienate Israel.

For a scholar of IR, this demonstrates the fundamental problem with international law: the bodies charged with interpreting and enforcing the law have little to no ability to enforce it. While the UN is most capable of passing symbolic, non-binding statements and resolutions, when it comes to actually enforcing the dictates of international law, it has few teeth. Rwanda is left to slide into genocide, Sudan continues to allow the janjaweed to rape and pillage while sitting on the UN Human Rights Commission, UN peacekeepers stand by and allow the Serb army to massacre the inhabitants of Srebrenica, and Kosovo is only defended thanks to the good graces of NATO.

However, that is not to say that international law has no purposes or power. It does. But not in the sense that domestic law does. International law much resembles a domestic society with a judiciary and legislature, but no police force. There are bodies that can create law and interpret it, but not to arrest law-breakers and punish them. The power of international law rests mostly in the phenomenon of legitimacy. States that conform to international law develop a characteristic of legitimacy that makes it more likely that other states will cooperate on other issues in the future, which can contribute to the creation of a legalistic international community.

Such a community still needs a police force. Lately, the US has filled this role (although leaving enforcement up to a posse means that the law will be enforced capriciously), but there is a growing movement towards internationalizing the enforcement mechanism, such as in the ICC. But, so long as the international community lacks a communal understanding of justice, fairness, equity, interest, security, and all the other concepts that go into a common identity and legal understanding, it is impossible to imagine states ceding their sovereignty to an international body with enforcement powers. Even the enlightened, post-modern institution that is the EU is running into problems with efforts to enforce its deficit rules on France and Germany, or attempts to cut farm subsidies (which contributed to the rejection of the EU constitution by France).

So, perhaps hegemony is a good thing for international law. While it may be true that the US is so powerful that it can pick and choose which laws to follow and when, it also must be recognized that without US power, there would be even less compliance with international law than there is now. That’s not to argue that US is fair in applying the law, or even always capable of solving every problem (as with N. Korea). But, when the US stays out, as it did in the early days of the Balkans crises or the initial stages of negotiations concerning the Iranian nuclear program, there is little hope for solving the really difficult problems. US hegemony may be the best guarantor of international law there is.

4 Responses

  1. This is an interesting argument and one I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, but in a situation of hegemony which develops into a unipolarity how can the balance of power theory ever be practiced? Doesn’t hegemony therefore pose a threat to international society generally and, without such a society (anarchical and all as it may be) international law has even less chance of being enforced, even through legitimisation/internalisation mechanisms

    The second point is, I suppose, the eternal question relating to police forces: who polices the police? You might say ‘the UN’ or the ‘international community’ but if the police (the US) are the hegemonic power then the UN or international community have no means of ensuring that they act within the bounds of acceptability. This may not have been such a problem in the days when people like Jimmy Carter were advancing the human rights and international agenda in an unprecedented manner but things have changed…maybe we can’t trust the police to police themselves any more and therefore maybe that rebuts your ‘hegemony is good’ argument??

    (PS these are all devil’s advocate thoughts I’ve been having recently. Am v. interested in your reaction and hopeful that other commenters (such as the one who dubbed me Fiona de Socialista here a few months ago) won’t jump on this as Anti-Americanism etc…. etc…)

  2. The answer to the first question posed by fdelondras depends on whether hegemony can be benevolent or not. Standard realist IR theory predicts that unipolarity is unstable as it will producing balancing coalitions to overthrow the hegemon. However, in the last 15 or so years of US hegemony and unipolarity, there have been few attempts to seriously balance the US and overturn unipolarity (for a sophisticated IR discussion of this, see the most recent issue of International Security). if the US uses its power (most of the time) in accordance with international law and in the interests of international order, it may be that other states will not feel threatened by US dominance and will willingly comply with the American order.

    As to the second question, there is no one who can police the US. There is no other actor with sufficient military, economic, or political power to challenge the US, unless the US is willing to restrain itself. One of the consequences of benevolent hegemony is that the hegemon constructs institutions and rules that benefit the unipole. In exchange for other states joining those institutions, the hegemon willingly restrains its own power and agrees to be bound by its own rules (as in the WTO). As long as the other actors see the extant institutions as meeting the needs of their own national interest and see the hegemon restraining itself, the police man can be policed. The danger occurs, of course, when unilateral actions taken by the hegemon cause other states to question whether the unipole still is willing to restrain itself for the good of international order.

  3. Hasn’t that happened though? I mean, haven’t most states now become skeptical of America’s willingness and ability to police itself and don’t most states now tend to doubt America’s benevolence?

    (BTW to what extent might such hegemony be defined as benevolent anyway? If you look at situations in which America has chosen to engage in ‘humanitarian intervention’ since 1989 or thereabouts they are pretty much uniformally situations in which such interventions serve America’s vested interests as opposed to serving broader humanitarian interests??)

  4. I think it’s true that the US has compromised, to some extent, its benevolent hegemony by alienating the international community. This is the problem with the concept in the first place: At some point, national interest will diverge from international interest, and when the hegemon chooses the former over the latter, trouble in the form of balancing can occur.

    However, I don’t the problem is as bad as some believe. As I demonstrate in my Security Studies article, in order to demonstrate their preferences for cooperation, states build a network of institutions. Defection or non-compliance in one sends a signal of potential hostile behavior, but there are other sources of information as well. Since the US cooperates with other states in multiple fora, there are plenty of positive signals that the US is willing to continue restraint that can ameliorate the negative signals from occasional unilateral behavior. Of course, at some point, enough negative signals can undermine the order created. I wouldn’t say the US has completely trashed its image as a benevolent hegemon, but that the potential is certainly there.

    As to your final point, there are few, if any instances, where national interest can be separated from humanitarian interests. When national interest is low, states tend not to act, even in the face of gross humanitarian abuses (Rwanda, Sudan, etc.).

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