Political Science 101 and International Law

by Roger Alford

I would hazard that most undergraduate students have very little introduction to international law and if they do, it likely will come in a political science class. Of course a political science major likely will be exposed to international law in some upper-level classes, but the overwhelming majority of students do not venture beyond PoliSci 101.

If these assumptions are accurate, then it is particularly important that introductory PoliSci textbooks provide the proper introduction to the role of international law in foreign relations. But when I perused the American foreign relations chapter in one of the leading PoliSci 101 textbooks (We The People: An Introduction to American Politics (5th ed. 2005)) I was sorely disappointed. Consider what conclusions undergrad students will draw about international law in the following excerpt (from page 769) about the Iraq War. In particular, note the total absence of international law as a constraining force in the discussion about multilateralism versus unilateralism and the use of force:

After the sudden end of the Cold War, everyone knew international relations would never be the same, but no one could guess how they would be different. The first intimation came on August 2, 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait and occupied a substantial amount of Kuwaiti territory. President George H.W. Bush used diplomatic means behind the scenes to create a multinational alliance of twenty-nine nations against Iraq.

Ten years later, President George W. Bush’s foreign policy behavior was quickly defined as that of a classic go-it-alone cowboy president. Disregarding ten Bush presidential predecessors over fifty-two years, he mostly acted unilaterally. He denounced arms control, rejected the Kyoto protocol on global warming, and was opposed to treaties or international agreements in principle. He and his advisers saw multilateralism not as a beneficial alliance, but as a “straightjacket.”

But a revolution in American foreign policy came about immediately after September 11. Pakistan, Russia, and other nations cooperated when it was clear that the United States was ready to go to war against world terrorism. Although President Bush sounded quite unilateral when he warned that those nations who weren’t with us were against us, most of his actions were multilateral. Russian president Putin dropped all Russian objections to the deployment of American NATO counterterrorism forces in the former Soviet republic key states on the long border between Russia and the Middle East. The possibility was even emerging that Russia would seek and might gain admission to NATO. President Bush also reversed other facets of his earlier unilateralism, including paying all back dues to the United Nations and making Secretary of State Colin Powell, who earlier had been losing out to the go-it-alone phalanx of the administration, a prominent player in building this alliance.

But there’s a price for multilateralism. One lesson to be learned from the 1991 Gulf War alliance is that a genuine alliance is a restraint on the “hegemon.” In 1991, the influence of many of the twenty-nine nation Desert Storm members shaped the decision to interrupt the advance to Baghdad and the eradication of the entire Saddam Hussein regime. Our termination of the war at that point was treated as a grievous error even by a number of high-ranking American military officers. And it was a lesson taken seriously by the advisers around President George W. Bush ten years later.

In October 2002, Bush went to the United Nations with a different attitude from his unilateral position and agreed to abide by a stern U.N. Security Council resolution that Iraq disarm and subject itself to unconditional weapons inspection, with serious consequences if it did not cooperate within one month’s time. But Bush balked at the provision for a second U.N. Security Council resolution if Iraq did not cooperate and asserted his conviction that the United States would proceed if there was not satisfaction that complete disarmament was taking place. While the UN resolution had put the United States on course to form another multilateral alliance, the Bush administration reserved the option of going it alone if necessary. Officially, the war was conducted by a “coalition of the willing,” but that was in reality a euphemism for a unilateral American offensive. The British contribution was fairly substantial, but not enough to characterize the war as a “bilateral” effort. The Iraq War of 2003 was American, and the war went quickly. But the occupation, the reconstruction of the economy, the development of a government, and the achievement of democracy were all going to take vastly more time and lives than had been anticipated by the American strategic planners. As the Iraq War of 2003 persisted into 2004, more multilateralism was introduced, with the formal turnover of the government to the Iraqis on June 28, 2004, and with signs of NATO willingness at least to help train an Iraqi army and security force to slowly replace the U.S. troops and those of the other members of the “coalition of the willing.” As the American presidential election approached, however, Iraq was still considered an American problem.

For Critical Analysis
1. Given American experience in Iraq in 2002-04, is it necessary to conclude that unilateralism is always the worst choice and multilateralism always the best? Is a multilateral alliance genuine only when supported by a UN resolution?
2. Is bilateralism a genuine midpoint between the two extremes of unilateralism and multilateralism? When and under what conditions would bilateralism be the best choice?


15 Responses

  1. I would argue that there is a marked difference between foreign policy and american politics. The issue of the piece does not seem to be based on foreign policy, but offers more of a historical narrative of the current conflict in Iraq from an American perspective. Furthermore, I would point out that the text referes to “Our termination” of the first Gulf War and would greet such identifiers signal a moderately biased account with an American perspective. Any conversation on foreign policy or international law should look beyond nationalism. Instead of arguing studetns are not exposed to international law in an American Politics class, it would be more worthwhile to suggest students are exposed to more of a world view of events.

  2. Daniel,

    While I don’t disagree with you about undergrad students learning about world events from a global perspective, the point of the introductory textbook is to analyze American politics. Most of the book is about the American political process in the domestic context, and the one chapter on foreign policy naturally takes an American perspective, given the nature of the subject.

    But you are certainly correct that the textbook comes off as very Amero-centric. There is a section in the foreign policy chapter on the “Instruments of American Foreign Policy” in which the United Nations is introduced as a vehicle to advance American interests. It begins with the sentence (p. 760) “The utility of the United Nations to the United States as an instrument of foreign policy can be too easily underestimated, because the United Nations is a very large and unwieldy institution with few powers and no armed forces to implement its rules and resolutions.” Then in the final sentences in the UN segment it reads (p. 762) “These recent UN interventions [withholding UN Security Council authorization to use force in Iraq in 2003] shows the promise and the limits of the United Nations in the post-Cold War era. Although the United States can no longer control UN decisions, as it could in the United Nations’ early days, the UN continues to function as a useful instrument of American foreign policy.” Not exactly your typical introduction to the United Nations.

    Roger Alford

  3. Roger,

    RE: UN. Dear heavens. This is seriously a leading text book? That’s horrid to the point of being blasphemous.

  4. What are you suggesting intro Poli Sci should teach about IL? Do you mean actual treaties, UN resolutions, or what?

  5. Jvarisco,

    At a minimum I would suggest that a discussion of uniltaralism versus multilateralism in the context of the Persian Gulf War and the Iraq War discuss the basics of the UN Charter on use of force, i.e., self-defense under Article 51 and Security Council authorization under Article 42.

    Roger Alford

  6. Well, wait a second – and with all due respect – if you’re going to open pandora’s box of international law, then you’d have almost take that on independently, it would seem. Any treaty obligations discussed in the context of warfare would have to include NATO Article 5 charges, Kosovo, 9/11, the first Gulf War, any number of UNSC resolution … US v. Iran … Reagan and Libya … Somalia etc etc IMHO, it would seem that it actually is good that the 101 text does not include a basic discussion of international law. Either that, or it needs to precede any narrative regarding the US conduct in the world after WWII

  7. Do not forget the underlying legitimacy”” of International law when those overseeing it are themselves profiteers of scams. The Iraq war WAS about about international lawfare but now it is about political gain or lack therof. International law lost it’s legal standing while I watched millions die under it’s watch. But to let Millions die while under watch while fully funded and then pocket money from the poorest, UN forgivible. To watch them try to make this war an issue is petty. To publish a book and make children read it is criminal. History has no respect? Toss this book out along with the tossers who wrote it.

  8. Roger: The textbook you cite is for an American Politics introductory course. It’s still shameful, but international law gets much better treatment in most of the texts for International Relations classes. True, students studying US politics should know a little about IL, but it’s really more relevant in the IR courses.

  9. Seth,

    I was hoping someone who teaches undergrads would respond. In your experience do most undergrads just take one political science class, which I assume would be an introduction to American politics? Isn’t it accurate to say that an upper-level IR class will not reach most undergrads?


  10. Roger: No, I wouldn’t say it’s accurate to say most undergrads only take Intro to US Politics. Here at UPS we offer three sections of Intro to International Relations, which is at the same level as Intro to US (US is 101, IR is 103), each semester, and they are always oversubscribed. It’s not hard to interest students in international politics, especially in the current environment. Everyone wants to understand terrorism, Iraq, etc. Even my US Foreign Policy class, which is geared more as a policy course rather than an IR theory course, draws a wide range of students across disciplines. Some students will take Intro to US and never take another political science class, but just as many will take Intro to IR.

  11. As someone who teaches an introductory course in American Government, as well as an upper-division course in International Law for political science majors, permit me the following observations:

    Most American Government texts give only a cursory treatment to foreign policy “issues”, if any at all. In texts that include a chapter on foreign policy, the focus tends to be more on the foreign policy decisionmaking process, and its “invitation to struggle” between the Executive &Legislative branches.

    Realistically, this may be a chapter that receives little classroom attention from instructors since it appears toward the end of most texts and, correspondingly, the end of the semester. This would suggest that most students are left with what they read in the text as their sole exposure to foreign policy during their undergraduate experience. And this only at institutions which require a course in American Government as part of their general education curriculum.

    Whatever the treatment given to foreign policy matters in American Government texts, one would hope that misleading statements are scrupulously avoided. I refer in particular to the following impression that the cited text communicates about the ending of the 1991 Gulf War: In 1991, the influence of many of the twenty-nine nation Desert Storm members shaped the decision to interrupt the advance to Baghdad and the eradication of the entire Saddam Hussein regime (emphasis added). This is an option which I’m sure drafters of UN Resolution 678 would find surprising!

    It is certainly true that the vast majority of undergraduates will never be exposed to an upper level IR course, much less a lower division course in IR in which I Law would be covered in a more satisfactory manner.

    As troubling as it may be to those of us who teach I Law at whatever level to accept, the sparse treatment given it throughout the undergraduate educational experience (even for political science majors) is a reflection of I Law’s acceptance in our political establishment. This has always puzzled me. Why as a polity committed, at least in theory, to the rule of law domestically, do we tend more often that not to dismiss its relevance in our relations with the wider world?

    I think we all know the answer to that question, regrettably!

  12. Is this a true statement – “rejected the Kyoto protocol on global warming”

    I thought that the Senate rejected Kyoto. How does this statement belong?

  13. It’s accurate to say that Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol, although it doesn’t quite convey the spirit of what happened. Clinton signed Kyoto, but never submitted it to the Senate for ratification. Furthermore, in 1997 the Senate voted 95-0 to pass a resolution which the United States should not be a signatory to any protocol that did not include binding targets and timetables for developing as well as industrialized nations or “would result in serious harm to the economy of the United States”. This effectively killed the Kyoto Protocol in the US. However, Clinton did not “unsign” the Protocol; it was Bush that formally rejected the treaty.

  14. Roger,

    With all due respect, your argument seems to beg the question. Some scholars think international law is law and binds — what was written yesterday is what is law tomorrow until formally changed. Others — scholars, politicians, and certainly most counsels for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — realize that international law is what nations do. What a majority of nations do sets the precedent — and instantaneously changes it — regardless of what is written on paper. So you assume that international law is binding like domestic law and then chide a scholar for writing an analysis without that assumption. But why would a scholar necessarily have that assumption?

  15. I haven’t read the book but, what was striking to me was that a text book injected personal opinion. Why not just state facts and leave the the cowboy labeling out?

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