Sarah Cleveland Defends the “Obama-Clinton” Approach to International Law

by Julian Ku

I had the good fortune of participating in a symposium last week sponsored by the University of Virginia Law School’s John Bassett Moore Society.  Entitled “The Obama Impact”, the symposium explored the impact of the new administration on international law and policy.  I have already shared my views on this subject here and I took the opportunity during my visit to rebut the United Nations’ claim to “indispensability.”  But the main action at the symposium was the keynote address by Sarah Cleveland, Counselor on International Law in the U.S. State Department’s Office of the Legal Adviser.  Cleveland, who is also a Columbia Law School professor, offered one of the most forthright and clear explanations of the new administration’s approach to international law.  A summary can be found here, along with a recording of her address.  But below is a key excerpt:

“I would say that the administration has articulated an Obama-Clinton doctrine, a vision that reflects commitments to four elements,” Cleveland said. “The first is multilateral engagement. This was a consistent theme of the president’s campaign and has been a consistent theme of his first year in office.”

Other elements of the doctrine are universality, or the idea that all men are created equal, and the legitimating force of law, which suggests that law gives strength and legitimacy to government action.

“Finally, these goals are to be achieved through a principled pragmatism and the exercise of smart power: the intelligent use of all means to our disposal, including diplomacy, promotion of democracy, development and human rights,” Cleveland said.

Cleveland’s framework is interesting, but I’ll note simply that few of the things she describes are substantially different from things that Condi Rice and John Bellinger would have said.  The devil is in the details, and so far there is not as much a difference as some of the campaign rhetoric suggested.  (Not that this is a bad thing).
UPDATE: Her boss, Harold Koh, shared a few thoughts with John Bellinger today as well.

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  1. […] conversation ranged across a wide variety of issues, including something that Julian Ku noted over at Opinio Juris blog (where I’m cross-posting) with respect to DOS international law counsellor Sarah Cleveland’s […]