Author Archive for
Eric Posner

Linos Book Symposium: Comments by Eric Posner

by Eric Posner

[Eric Posner is Kirkland & Ellis Professor of Law and Aaron Director Research Scholar at the University of Chicago]

I’m going to focus on a narrow issue, one that Katerina takes up in the last chapter of her impressive book, and that is the relationship between policy diffusion (the topic of her book) and international law (which is something of an afterthought), and specifically the debate as to why states comply with international law. I can see a few possibilities.

First, there is no relationship between the argument in her book and international law. Katerina argues that state X may adopt the policies of state Y because voters in X perceive the success of the policy in Y as evidence of its value, but this process of diffusion says nothing about why state X may comply with an agreement with state Y. Suppose, for example, that state X and state Y enter into a mutual defense pact. The fact that X may imitate Y’s domestic policies, or even foreign policies, does not mean that X will comply with the pact.

Second, the book suggests that international law is weaker than generally recognized. Maybe what appears to be compliance with international law because it is law is actually the diffusion of policies. X and Y agree to reduce tariff barriers but X lowers its barriers not because of its treaty but because Y, for independent domestic reasons, lowers its barriers, and X mimics Y. Policy diffusion, not international law, is the causal factor. Thus, if numerous other states raise their trade barriers, we would expect X or Y to raise their trade barriers as well, in violation of the agreement.

Third, states comply with treaties because the treaties themselves become a vehicle for the diffusion of policy. States X and Y enter the WTO and comply with its rulings in order to obtain gains from trade. State Z can more easily imitate X and Y’s policies by observing the WTO’s rulings than by surveying numerous states. If Z is itself a member of the WTO, then policy diffusion here may in some sense cause Z to comply with the WTO, or at least act consistently with it. Note, however, that according to Katerina’s argument, Z would comply with the WTO rulings even if Z were not a WTO member and thus had no legal obligation to do so.

Katerina endorses the third hypothesis, but her evidence does not distinguish it from the other two. This matters when we consider her claim that her thesis and evidence should quiet those who criticize international law because it interferes with democracy by constraining domestic politics. Katerina’s argument that international law generates information that voters can use to discipline their political agents depends on an implicit assumption, never defended, that policy differences across states are mainly due to asymmetric information, and not heterogeneous values and preferences.

There are three problems with this assumption. (more…)

LJIL Symposium Vol 25-2: Fairness in International Environmental Law – Against Pragmatism?

by Eric Posner

[Eric Posner is Kirkland & Ellis Professor of Law and Aaron Director Research Scholar at the University of Chicago]

This post is part of the Leiden Journal of International Law Vol 25-2 symposium. Other posts in this series can be found in the related posts below.

Mario Prost and Alejandra Torres Camprubi’s article begins promisingly, with its criticism of IEL scholars’ “tacit disciplinary mindsets” which see international environmental law against all evidence as a “heroic and transformative project.”  But while one would have expected the authors then to launch a broadside against the idealistic tendencies in the IEL literature that have rendered most of it irrelevant to real-world policymaking, they pivot and criticize the literature for ignoring “fairness”—which is news to me.  The oddness of this approach is epitomized by their choice of target: my book (with David Weisbach), Climate Change Justice.  They are right to argue that we discount fairness in our book, but I do not think anyone would regard our book as representative of conventional IEL scholarship.  If that is their view, it is far more wounding than any of their substantive criticisms.

In any event, let me address these criticisms.  Prost and Camprubi argue first that we present the South “as an opportunistic negotiator” rather than as a “bona fide partner.”  I fear that we might get lost in semantics here, or the clubby rhetoric of diplomacy, but I regard all countries as “opportunistic negotiators,” out to seize the main chance, and willing to use whatever means available.  So if I say or imply that the South is “opportunistic,” I am treating southern countries as equals of the North, and resist the clichés so common among scholars, who take the rhetoric of (often authoritarian) countries at face value, and see developing countries as hapless victims or righteous spokesmen for justice.

(more…)

Closing Thoughts

by Eric Posner

The State Secrets Privilege. I know little about this doctrine and defer to Bobby’s superior expertise. I will just make a simple point that will by now be familiar. The state secrets privilege, like the other rules we have discussed, reflects a tradeoff between liberty (or some other value at stake in a particular case) and security. The privilege allows the executive to maintain secrecy where publicity would aggravate a security threat, but by the same token enables the executive to engage in various forms of abuse without detection and serious review by the courts. It is tempting to say, and it is said often, that whatever other powers the executive should have during an emergency, at least its actions should be transparent, so that the public can evaluate them. If it must detain people without charges, for example, at least make it do so in the sunshine. Unfortunately, this response simply denies the premise that in some cases loss of secrecy can have devastating consequences, a premise that no one denies but everyone tries to minimize in arbitrary ways (typically by admitting only that troop movements might appropriately be secret, as though troop movements were a phenomenological category carved into the structure of the universe). The risk of executive abuse is the necessary cost, just as it is when one sets up a government in the first place. In this respect, I believe that our view is no different from Bobby’s. What I would add is only that while the privilege must surely be necessary during normal times, it ought to be broader during emergencies, for all the reasons that we have been discussing: when the threat to security increases, a higher risk of executive abuse needs to be tolerated. Of course, if the threshold is already extremely low during normal times, it might not be necessary to expand it during emergencies (but then the privilege should probably be more limited during normal times); or it might be that the degree of emergency is implicitly built into the threshold.



Alternatives. Julian’s post correctly notes that most legal academics think that the judiciary should play a significant role to restrain the executive during the emergency. But there is a third view, generally associated with Cass Sunstein, and Rick Pildes and Sam Issacharoff. On this view, courts should be deferential as long as Congress has authorized the executive action in question. The kick here is that congressional authorization that would not immunize executive action from judicial challenge during normal times does so in an emergency. I do not agree with their arguments, but I can see how many people would find them appealing. If we could reproduce something like the war cabinet system that has served Britain well, that would indeed be worth considering. But the U.S. system is nothing like the British system, and I do not think Congress or members of Congress or particular committees could operate as a kind of war cabinet. Still, the Sunstein/Pildes/Issacharoff proposals have a very significant merit: they make clear that the problem of emergency powers is just an institutional problem. It involves thinking about decision costs, error costs, and the relative capacities of the different branches of government. We all might have different ideas about how to weigh these factors, and once we discuss these different ideas, it becomes clear that the debate is empirical and (at a very low level) analytic, not ideological. Worries about tyranny, fascism, deontological principles, and the like, could be put in the same dustbin as the Federalist Papers.



Censorship. I do think that censorship raises the same issues as the other types of executive actions that we discuss, and that the tradeoff and deference theses apply with equal force. It is interesting to speculate about what would happen if the U.S. had the homegrown terrorism problem that currently afflicts Britain. Would U.S. authorities try as hard as the UK government to censor firebrand imams? It’s hard to say. I expect they would if the problem was serious enough, and I expect courts would defer. But, given U.S. traditions, the problem would probably have to be more serious than it currently is in Britain.



A general thought. One other thought, which has been provoked indirectly by a few of the posts and some of the comments, but mainly by other reactions I have seen from time to time: many people seem to think that the question of the proper tradeoff between security and liberty during emergencies, and the proper role of different government institutions, can be resolved by parsing doctrine. This is most definitely not our view. Given certain broad institutional constraints, the problem is mainly normative and empirical. The contributors to this debate who pour over opinions, statutes, and the constitutional text are often very impressive lawyers, but they are going about the problem the wrong way, and, inevitably, they end up supplying answers by smuggling in normative and empirical assumptions that they do not acknowledge and defend.



Kevin’s Questions. On the first, the book not being a brief for the Bush administration, the only question is whether the hypothetical second 9/11 attack sheds new light on the relative institutional capacity of the presidency. It might not; or it might show that the presidency is not strong enough; or it might show that the presidency is too strong. Everything would depend on the reasons for the attack’s success, and whether one thinks a more constrained president would have either prevented the attack or done less harm to civil liberties in the course of failing to prevent it. Suppose that during World War II, the German offensive in the Ardennes had succeeded and allied troops were driven off continental Europe. Would it have been proper for Congress and the courts to assert control over the executive on the grounds that FDR was incompetent? It would probably take something even worse than that to precipitate such a constitutional crisis.



On the second question, I can’t think of any off the top of my head, but that is probably just due to my ignorance. But one can think of hypotheticals. An extreme example I suppose would be a full-scale invasion of Iraq, designed to weed out some suspected al Qaede elements and to convert Iraq into a model Muslim democracy, a beacon for the Muslim-Arab world, one that would help eliminate the roots of the extremist ideology that resulted in the first 9/11. Although judges could do nothing about this hypothetical Iraq invasion, it would probably not deserve deference from Congress.



My thanks again to Opinio Juris, and Roger in particular, for organizing this symposium. I am sorry that I have not been able to respond to the many interesting comments.






The Scope of Deference

by Eric Posner

I agree that the concerns that Bobby Chesney identifies are real and important. There are no answers at the level of theory; the scope and level of deference must be worked out at the level of practical politics. In practice, as we have seen, the president (and presidents generally) press for maximal powers where they think they need them, subject to political constraints. President Bush has not argued that his commander-in-chief power gives him the right to dictate educational policy because such an argument is a loser politically as well as legally. The courts defer with respect to some actions and not others. Presidents often acquiesce when courts refuse to defer, but sometimes they put up varying levels of resistance—appealing up the chain, or jurisdiction-shopping until they get a better result, or exploiting loopholes, or buying for time, or in rare instances (FDR, Lincoln) disobeying or threatening to disobey judicial orders. Public and elite responses to the performance of the relevant actors gradually determines the practical limits on presidential, judicial, and congressional action. I’m afraid we don’t have anything illuminating to say about how boundaries should be determined in practice, or how context-specific deference ought to be.

But we do want to avoid the legalistic impulse to try to determine in advance what the rules should be. (Again, this is the impulse behind Ackerman’s Emergency Constitution.) There are obvious benefits from having rules stated in advance, but the rules/standards literature makes clear that there are costs as well. Emergencies are not like the revenue-generating behaviors that are regulated by the tax code. Because it is hard to anticipate the next emergency, rules determined today will inevitably be poorly suited to the emergency that occurs tomorrow. On balance, the unpredictability of emergencies argue in favor of general standards of conduct rather than rules.

On a somewhat related issue, some of the comments might give readers a misleading impression that we take a dichotomous view: that the choice is between presidential dictatorship or not, and we opt for the former. Bobby Chesney correctly notes that the real debate is about the proper location on a continuum. To pick silly numbers for clarity, suppose 0 is pure executive government, 100 is pure legislative government, and 50 is some mix of deference and congressional/judicial oversight. We do not argue for 0, nor does anyone argue for 100. To pick more silly numbers, suppose that on most issues in normal (non-emergency) times the system is at 50. During emergencies, it typically goes down to (say) 20. Some civil libertarians seem to argue for, say, 40 or even 60 during emergencies. We want to say that 20 seems right—or, more precisely, there is no reason for thinking that 20 is wrong. Civil libertarians make a series of arguments that 20 is too low—the panic argument, etc., as we noted earlier. In trying to refute these arguments, we are not committing ourselves to 0; we are committing ourselves to 20 for the duration of the emergency.

A complicating factor, which I referred to in an earlier post, is the existence of other trends—technological, cultural, geopolitical—that affect the optimal location on the continuum. So it may be that as weapons become cheaper, smaller, and more destructive, we will have to reconcile ourselves to a long-term decline from 50 to, say, 40. On the other hand, if foreign political extremism fades (as it has in the past, and will surely do again), the optimal point could rise from 50 to some higher number.

The President Versus The Presidency

by Eric Posner

The post 9/11 debate on presidential power has, inevitably, been overshadowed by the actual performance of the current president. I say “inevitably” but the confusion between the president and the presidency has greatly limited the value of the academic discussion, which has been unfortunate.

Consider, as an abstract proposition, the claim, which could be made at any time in American history, that “Because President X did Y [something bad], the presidency should be deprived of the power to do Y.” Stated in this bald form, the proposition is obviously false. No one thinks that because President Johnson mismanaged the war in Vietnam, presidents should be deprived of the commander-in-chief power. Nor does anyone think that because President Bush’s subordinates mismanaged the response to the Katrina hurricane, the presidency should be deprived of (statutory) emergency-response powers. Presidents have caused countless diplomatic fiascos, but no one has said that for this reason the power to engage in diplomacy should be lodged in Congress or somewhere else.

Why not? The answer is that the presidency is an institution that is occupied by a succession of persons, and the proper structure of this institution is independent of who happens to occupy it during a particular term (unless you have an extremely short time horizon). Of course, the behavior of the individual in power provides some evidence of how that presidency’s power can be used and abused, but one needs to take account of the evidence of the behavior of earlier presidents as well.

It turns out that nearly all of our presidents have been pretty ordinary people. Very few geniuses (fewer still after the era of mass democracy began), and a lot of mediocrities, at least, if one uses the standards that are regularly applied to presidents by academics and journalists. But I don’t think anyone thinks that the case for presidential power rests on the premise that the occupants of the offices will be extraordinary people. (The popular books about the follies of the Bush administration have countless precedents for all earlier administrations.)

As the founders understood (oops!), power not given to the presidency must be given to some other institution, and so, to stick within the framework of the federal government, the real question is whether we want to give power to the mediocre president, the mediocrities in Congress, the mediocre supreme court justices, or (I suppose) the mediocre heads of agencies. Or we could let the “people” handle the terrorists themselves.

To focus our intuitions, then, let us imagine that all the members of Congress are little Bushes (as people like Kevin Heller imagine him) – ideologues in part, practical politicians in part, but (apparently) not very smart and morally fallible or repulsive or whatever. The point is to avoid loading the dice and imagining that everyone in Congress is a Henry Clay (funny how rarely one hears any mention of who belongs to the current crop of congressional geniuses).

The case for giving emergency power to the president rather than Congress rests on the simple point that a multi-member body cannot act quickly, decisively, and secretly. Once we reject the assumption that the members of Congress are likely to be smarter than the president, I don’t see how any other factor would play a role.

The conventional critique of our views is not that Bush is an idiot, so we must be wrong, but that if presidents are given too much power, they will trample on civil liberties, favor supporters at the expense of others, or become dictators. The Bush-is-an-idiot crew overlook the fact that by the standards of earlier presidents, Bush looks rather good.

With respect to civil liberties, the infringements have been trivial compared to, say, Lincoln and FDR, and either less than, or on par with, the infringements that occurred during the early cold war and the Vietnam war. The worst one can say about Bush is that he has turned the clock back to the 1960s, though ordinary criminal law enforcement remains largely unchanged.

With respect to favoring supporters, there is no doubt that Bush, like most presidents, has tried to favor his supporters, but little of this has translated into war-on-terror policy. The main complaint has been the distribution of war-on-terror related pork, but this is business as usual in any administration.

With respect to becoming a dictator, Bush has, as nearly everyone acknowledges, been rather ineffectual as president. Crucially, unlike many past presidents (including Lincoln (through his generals), of course, but also, say, Johnson and Nixon) Bush has not used his emergency power to harass political opponents and their supporters.

Finally, in terms of overall competence in the execution of the war-on-terror, the Bush administration has been reasonably successful. We know that al Qaeda and its affiliates and epigones remain dangerous, as they execute attacks on the soil of other nations like Britain and Spain. Yet no such attack has occurred in the United States in six years. The real question is whether the Bush administration could have obtained the same result with less aggressive actions. I don’t know the answer to this question but I don’t think anyone knows. One can point to bungled investigations, implausible legal claims, and troublesome prosecutions, but this is just how governments operate, how they have always operated, and not much different from previous administrations – fallible people operating in a fog make mistakes. The incompetence claims are, I think, largely unsupported, no doubt infected by frustration with the Bush administration’s many other failures, most prominent among them that of the initiation and execution of the war in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Congress’s historical record is hardly sterling. Congress, too, has trampled on civil liberties (think of the McCarthy era) and favored supporters of the party in power. True, Congress has not acted in dictatorial fashion (at least, not since the Reconstruction), but then, as I said, a multimember body can rarely be an effective dictator. The beef against Congress is that it is weak, and no one today wants to be led during an emergency by a weak political institution, unless the alternative is extremely horrible. And, finally, Congresses have enacted a great deal of idiotic legislation.

Congress’s particular advantage is generally thought to be that it is a more representative institution, and thus perhaps confers legitimacy on the government in the way that president cannot. This is at best arguable. Arguably also, a many-minds style argument can be made that Congress aggregates information better than the presidency does, though I am skeptical about this. The president has greater control over agencies, and greater access to agencies’ information; agency heads know that their political fates are intertwined with that of the president, not that of Congress or any particular member of Congress.

Whatever the case, these advantages are less important for security issues than for other issues. This being the case, there is little or no public support for rolling back presidential powers (though there is a great deal of public support for having a new president). The president is weak but the presidency is as powerful as ever. What this means is that our next president, be it Obama or Clinton or Giuliani or someone else, will most certainly build, or at least rest, on Bush’s legacy. If a Democrat wins the election, you might expect some meaningless symbolic acts (such as the replacement of Guantanamo Bay with a hidden prison in Afghanistan), but don’t expect any changes in presidential powers. No serious presidential candidate, Taft-like, campaigns on a platform of limited presidential powers because no such candidate could possibly win.

The Founders

by Eric Posner

Let me say a few general words about one of Lou’s points, as endorsed and restated by Marty in his comment: “First, the Framers had seen up close what can happen when too much “emergency” power is concentrated in the executive (short answer: it wasn’t pretty), and therefore established substantial checks (mostly structural, but, esp. in the Bill of Rights and laws of war, also substantive) to prevent that from happening here.”



I’d like to explain why we don’t say much about the founders in our book, which was not inadvertent.



The writings of the founders are interesting for what they say about their times. These writings also identify some of the basic problems, tensions, and tradeoffs of constitutionalism, though these are all commonplaces today. It is understandable that people continue to honor the founders, read their biographies, and (in academia) occasionally read their writings. The founders belong to a very select group of practical politicians who both thought intelligently about long-term issues of governmental structure and could write clearly about their ideas, and, of course, they managed to found a relatively humane (putting aside slavery) and advanced (ditto) constitutional order that lasted more than seventy years, or maybe more than 200 years, depending on how you think about the post-Civil War settlement. About few other politicians can one say something remotely similar. But the claim that their writings can provide useful guidance about presidential power today defies common sense. The founders wanted a stronger executive than had existed under the Articles of Confederation, but not an executive that was too strong, and they all had different ideas about what too strong or too weak meant. As guidance for today, where circumstances are unimaginably different to boot, this is worse than useless.



(Gary Lawson has written a paper called “Ordinary Powers in Extraordinary Times: Common Sense in Times of Crisis,” 87 Boston University Law Review (2007) (forthcoming), which argues that our theory is consistent with the original understanding. I don’t know whether he is right or not, but the more important point for present purposes is that it illustrates the chronic indeterminacy of arguments based on founding-era materials.)



This type of preoccupation with the founders and what they would do today, reminds me of a science fiction book that I read as a child, I think it was The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov. If I remember correctly (and I might not), the premise of this book was that a great statistician had founded a new republic, and, using his statistical skills, had predicted all of the problems it would face for many years into the future, and how these problems could be solved. So whenever the republic’s leaders faced a problem, they needed only to play the video that the founder had stashed away somewhere. (For a reason that escapes me, they couldn’t play the video or portions of it until a crisis was upon them.) I like to think that Asimov was teasing constitutional lawyers, biblical literalists, and others of this ilk (and it is the same ilk, in terms of habits of mind, I think) who believe that they can solve today’s problems by examining an ancient text written by an all-seeing author.



I realize that when one makes constitutional arguments to courts one needs to dress up one’s arguments with citations to the framers (though I find it extremely unlikely that any of these arguments have had any influence on courts in at least the last one hundred years). But I don’t understand why people would think this would be useful for academic debate. If academics on both sides of the issue could agree to debate the presidency, emergency powers, and the constitution without mentioning the framers, this alone would count as progress.


Immunities and the Development of International Law

by Eric Posner

John Bellinger’s latest post raises two interesting questions, the first about the function of immunities and the other about the role of the executive branch (specifically, the State Department) in litigation against foreign interests.

The immunities rules straightforwardly recognize that what we traditionally regard as core features of judicial competence do not extend, at least not fully, to foreigners. We don’t usually want American courts adjudicating disputes between Chinese citizens and the Chinese government, or between American citizens and the Chinese government, even when it is clear that the Chinese government has injured the citizen in question, in a manner that violates American law or international law. There are, of course, exceptions, but the immunity rules remain generous.

Well, why, anyway? The answer is usually put in terms of fear of offending foreign sovereigns, but governments offend foreign governments all the time, and a general concern about offending foreign sovereigns is too broad to explain why there are exceptions to the immunities rules. Another standard answer is that courts should avoid becoming “entangled” in foreign relations, but again courts become entangled in foreign relations, at least potentially, whenever a foreign citizen is involved in litigation, in whatever capacity, and no one thinks that courts should refrain from taking jurisdiction in all cases that involve foreigners, or that could touch on foreign interests—indeed, courts have an obligation to take jurisdiction when foreigners are plaintiffs and they have a valid claim under American law.

The answer, as it so often does in international law, lies in the notion of reciprocity. The United States sees advantages in subjecting foreign governments (officials, instrumentalities, etc.) to American law and American judicial process in many situations, but also prefers that the American government (officials, instrumentalities, etc.) be immune from foreign law and foreign judicial process in many situations. The trick has been to determine areas of overlapping interest, where reciprocal acquiescence in foreign judicial process is in the joint interest of the states in question. Commercial activity turns out to be an obvious such area: commercial norms (these days) are relatively uniform, and foreign corporations would have trouble entering contracts if they were not subject to local judicial process. But in all the areas where governments disagree as a matter of policy, the infliction of judicial process on a foreign leader because he violates domestic norms embodied in domestic law, is conceptually no different from applying economic sanctions, diplomatic pressure, and so forth, against states whose behavior we do not like—subtle and difficult tasks for which the courts, applying general domestic law, are unsuited.

An implication of this is that, to the extent that domestic litigation implicates foreign interests, courts should be highly sensitive to the expressed views of the executive branch, which can take account of—as John notes—the risk to American interests if the foreign state retaliates either in kind, by subjecting Americans to judicial process who would formerly have been immune, or along some other dimension of international cooperation. This is true, regardless of whether the FSIA or some other immunity rule applies, and even regardless of whether there is a foreign defendant. It needs to be acknowledged that this weakens the rule of law. If the executive branch has a large role in litigation that affects foreign interests, outcomes will reflect policy and political considerations to a greater extent then if it does not. But this is the price one needs to pay in order to conduct foreign relations in a sensible manner. Courts have no ability to evaluate whether taking jurisdiction over a foreign sovereign or foreign official in a given case is likely to make Americans more or less vulnerable abroad.

I should note parenthetically that the ways in which the U.S. government and foreign governments, over the years, have intervened in order to control the way that courts take jurisdiction when foreign interests are involved is a clear example of how executive action contributes to the development of international law. So I think Julian Ku’s earlier post is right on the mark. This is, of course, not to deny that if foreign states reject the U.S. executive branch’s assertions (always advanced as “interpretations”) about the proper rules governing immunities, those assertions will not in the end affect international law. This process is no less important when treaties are involved, and so the interesting question is whether over the next years—as China and Russia and other countries struggle with terrorism—foreign states will acquiesce in the current American interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, or reject it. The United States presumably is prepared for future cases where Americans who join al Qaida and other terrorist groups are subjected to Guantanamo Bay-like treatment by foreign states, and will presumably not object when those foreign states say that they are merely adopting the American interpretation of the laws of war. The laws of war will “develop,” as they should, so as to be more appropriate for types of threats and conditions not anticipated by earlier generations (as Ken Anderson notes), and at the hands of governments as well as courts, domestic bodies as well as international bodies.

For an academic argument that judicial deference to the executive branch in foreign relations litigation can be derived from the policies underlying Chevron (written with Cass Sunstein), see here. For a critique of this argument by Derek Jinks and Neal Katyal, see here.

The Bargain Theory of War

by Eric Posner

John’s most recent post raises the question of the nature of the “bargain” theory, as he puts it, of the Geneva Conventions:

In separating lawful and unlawful combatants, the Third Convention creates a basic bargain for those engaged in an international armed conflict. Engage lawfully in combat and, if captured, you will receive the comprehensive treatment protections of the Convention. Ignore the laws of war, and you cannot seek the status given to lawful combatants. POW status is perhaps best seen then as an incentive to follow the rules in armed conflict.


I like this theory, but it is worth pointing out that many people do not like it, as it is in tension with the universalistic aspirations of human rights law, and perhaps of the laws of war themselves. It is worth considering whether the bargain theory is really sustainable.

The implicit premise of the bargain theory is that belligerents (including non-state actors) on both sides of a conflict are worse off if they use the most aggressive tactics and weapons at their disposal, than if they engage in mutual restraint. Consider the tactic of dressing like civilians. A military force, especially a guerilla group, can gain much from engaging in this tactic. The soldiers, by disguising themselves as civilians, might avoid being detected until they have obtained a tactical advantage. They also might induce the other side to kill civilians, which may reduce its support among the local population. Also, of course, an impoverished guerilla group saves the costs of purchasing and maintaining uniforms. I believe that the German army, during the Battle of the Bulge, adopted this tactic in order to penetrate allied lines. But regular armies tend to prefer to wear uniforms for a variety of practical reasons, and so dressing like civilians is mainly a tactic of insurgencies and guerillas.

If soldiers on one side only can use the tactic of disguising soldiers as civilians, then that side gains a militarily advantage. So predictably soldiers on the other side would adopt this or similar tactics in return. The result is that neither side will gain an advantage, while the war will be generally more destructive, with more civilians killed as a result of the confusion about who is a combatant and who is not. The laws of war thus prohibit soldiers from disguising themselves as civilians, an effort to give both sides an incentive to choose less destructive rather than more destructive military tactics. This logic can be extended to many of the other rules in the Geneva and Hague Conventions, as well as the general principles of the laws of war.

But if this is true, it necessarily follows that when one side breaks the rules, the other side must respond in kind. In the current conflict, the United States retaliates against al Qaida, and on John’s theory, the Taliban, for their violations of the laws of war, by depriving captured combatants of POW status—which seems more reasonable and effective than responding in kind by dressing American soldiers in civilian clothes, which in any event is prohibited (as well as pointless). The lack of command structure, if that is the case, is also a key point: if there is no command structure, then American forces cannot expect the enemy to reciprocate America’s own self-restraint, as required by the laws of war. So, again, under the bargain theory, there is no reason for the U.S. to extend POW protections to enemy combatants.

The logic extends farther than the position of the American government, however. The bargain theory, as described by John, gives the victim of law-of-war violations (the United States, here) only one, rather weak tool, for retaliation—elimination of POW status, plus the right to punish war criminals if they are captured. Yet the logic of the bargain theory implies that if this tool is too weak, the United States ought to be allowed to do much more. Put differently, if al Qaida and the Taliban have violated their side of the “bargain,” why should the United States comply with its side of the bargain? Why should the United States feel bound by any of the laws of war in the conflict in Afghanistan, including common Article 3 and, for that matter, the traditional law-of-war principles of proportionality and necessity? If the United States—and other countries, too—made clear that they would retaliate against law-breaking states and non-state entities, by refusing to extend any of the protections of the Geneva Conventions to the law-breakers, wouldn’t this threat in the long run reduce, rather than increase, the costs of war, by more effectively deterring belligerents from breaking the laws of war? This is what the bargain theory implies.

Of course, the Geneva Conventions do not permit such reprisals. They give the bargain theory only limited play by restricting the ways that a belligerent can retaliate for law-breaking on the other side. History, on the other hand, shows that tit-for-tat retaliation for violations of the laws of war has been common. If the bargain theory is accepted, the Geneva Conventions are open to criticism, for excessively restricting reprisals, and the effort to interpret them aggressively as reflecting the bargain theory to a greater extent than they explicitly do, can be defended as bringing them into line with historical practice and the moral logic of the bargain theory.

This is, I think, the source of the uneasiness that many people feel about the bargain theory in general, as well as the type of argument that John has made. It also explains why so many people reject the bargain theory and argue that a belligerent must comply with certain constraints regardless of how the other side acts. This kind of thinking makes no sense from the perspective of the bargain theory because it simply gives the other side a license to do whatever it wants, so that civilians will be worse off in the long run. On the other hand, no government seems willing to explicitly endorse the bargain theory all the way down, suggesting that the bargain theory, at some level, is not politically sustainable.

The reason, then, that some advocate treating all captured belligerents as POWs, and the like, is that they implicitly reject the bargain theory and embrace instead a universalistic interpretation of the laws of war, according to which people have certain basic rights regardless of whether they take the bargain. Ironically, John does not reject this universalistic view: he simply argues that those basic rights are more limited than his critics say they are. But, if this is right, then the argument should be about the scope of the bargain theory, and the location of the floor—those rights that one cannot give up no matter how bad one’s conduct—and John cannot expect his critics to accept the bargain theory without further defense.

Consider again the quotation with which I started. The quotation above sounds reasonable (and I believe it is reasonable) but the choice made by, say, a Taliban soldier is either to obey his commander or not obey his commander, which I suspect is not a choice at all. An ordinary soldier cannot be expected to decide to purchase a uniform and wear it in defiance of the orders of his superior, and while his comrades continue to wear civilian clothes. (And what uniform would he buy, anyway?) So it is the Taliban leadership that decides whether to accept the bargain, while the low-level soldiers bear the consequences of the leadership’s choice. Such is always the case in war, but this is another reason why many readers will reject the bargain theory in the hope that, somehow, the universalistic view can be made to stick.

The State Department and the War on Terror

by Eric Posner

Some of the commenters have been trying to prod John Bellinger to discuss the administration’s internal arguments about the legal approach to the war on terror. Of course, he cannot comment on these matters, but we should not let that stop us from discussing them.

Media reports about the debates about international law within the administration appear to reveal three camps. The OLC took the most extreme pro-executive position, arguing that international law (and domestic law!) placed few or no constraints on the president’s authority. The State Department took the moderate position, arguing that international does constrain the U.S. government, including the Geneva Conventions and related customary international law. The Defense Department, if I remember correctly, seemed mainly concerned about ensuring that the Geneva Conventions apply, but seemed unconcerned about other aspects of international law. But I want to focus on the OLC-State conflict.

The dominant view among academics is that OLC was the villain and the State Department’s “L” was the hero. The OLC misunderstood or unreasonably discounted international law, while the State Department advanced a reasonable interpretation of it, or at least appeared to take it seriously. The OLC was staffed by ideologues or fools, while the State Department was staffed with professionals.

But this seems simple-minded, and it ignores everything we know about how bureaucracies work. Bureaucracies, whatever their virtues and flaws, take their missions seriously, and the personnel of a particular agency tend to internalize these missions. This leads elected officials and political appointees to be suspicious about the bureaucracy’s advice—does it advance the public’s interest or the bureaucracy’s interest?—and to discount the advice of bureaucracies whose mission is in tension with the elected officials’ own political aims. This put the State Department in a weak position for the Bush administration, and it needed to take that into account.

The State Department’s job is to ensure that America’s relations with foreign states remain as harmonious as possible. The State Department always takes dovish positions, urging the president to negotiate rather than fight. It also wants the president to comply with international law because otherwise trouble will ensue—a foreign state will object, international bodies will complain, and State Department diplomats will need to be deployed to smooth ruffled feathers and State Department lawyers to address legal complaints.

The OLC’s job is to protect the president against Congress and the courts—or, if you want, to advance the president’s authority vis-à-vis these institutions. Now this job does not, by itself, imply anything special about what OLC’s position on international law would be. But, in practice, international law tends to be a nuisance for the executive branch, because treaties were entered in the past when conditions were different, and now interfere with current goals. As this problem often arises in domestic litigation, perhaps the OLC has come to see international law as an instrument used by courts to frustrate the executive, and no doubt it blames Congress as well, whose members will, when politically advantageous, pummel the executive for violating international obligations. So one suspects that over time OLC has come to see international law as a device that Congress or the courts use to ensnare the president, and this has generated a skeptical attitude toward international law that is in tension with that of the State Department, which needs to be able to see international law through the eyes of the foreign officials with whom it constantly must deal.

The executive is a “they,” not an “it”; and so the different legal institutions that compose it will have more or less influence on the president’s official legal position at any given time, based on internal bureaucratic politics, the clash of personalities, and other factors that people have to ignore when they are debating the finer points of international law. I wonder whether future historians will reveal that what drove the administration to discount international law after 9/11 was not contempt or indifference for international obligations and foreign countries per se, or even bad legal reasoning, but the assumption that international law is an instrument of Congress and the courts for constraining the executive. This gibes with the view, often attributed to Cheney, that the executive needs to regain power that it lost to Congress and the courts in the 1970s.

To the extent this is right, this institutional agenda would incline the president to heed the OLC rather than the State Department, which would need to work that much harder to make its views felt. To the extent that the narrow interpretations of international obligations adopted by the administration to handle the war on terror turn out to be unwise, the responsibility will lie at least partly with the State Department (its chief, not its lawyers) for having failed to make clear to the president the political costs of being perceived to violate international law, whatever the right interpretation. With respect to the OLC, if its positions had put the president in an untenable position with respect to Congress and the courts, it would have served him poorly, but this does not seem to be the case—so far. Many of the legal positions of the administration have been rejected but others have been sustained, and all in all the administration’s legal approach to the war on terror today is not much different from what it was immediately after 9/11. But if these positions get the U.S. in trouble internationally, that is something for the State Department to have made clear to the president. And what would have gotten the president’s attention was not a treatise on international law but a clear picture of the negative consequences of taking a position on international law that other states did not agree with.

In fact, Colin Powell tried to do this—he argued that American soldiers would be mistreated in future wars if the U.S. violates (that is, “narrowly interprets”) the Geneva Conventions today. But perhaps he did not argue forcefully enough—perhaps he should have threatened to resign. Or perhaps this argument was just not persuasive.

Armed Conflict With Al Qaida: A Reply

by Eric Posner

[Opinio Juris welcomes Professor Eric Posner as a guest respondent. Professor Posner is Kirkland and Ellis Professor of Law at the University of Chicago.]

Thanks to Roger for asking me to write a reply to John Bellinger’s post.

I’m going to ask—even though I suspect that John will decline to answer—what is at stake in this argument. The Bush administration wants maximum flexibility in dealing with al Qaida, and understandably. What are the possible constraints? They are all familiar—the U.S. Constitution, Congress, domestic public opinion, foreign public opinion, foreign governments, and so forth. Everyone understands how these factors constrain and shape the American response to al Qaida. Another such constraint is international law. International law is spongy material, however, and it can be interpreted narrowly or broadly. The critics advance broad interpretations, interpretations that would require the U.S. government to grant rights to members of al Qaida that could interfere with anti-terror operations. The U.S. government, consistent with its goal of maximizing its flexibility, prefers the narrowest possible interpretation. As John takes pains to suggest, this does not mean that the U.S. will necessarily use the most aggressive measures available; but it does mean that those measures will always be an option.

The narrowest possible interpretation is, of course, that international law does not apply at all: the U.S. can do what it wants. Members of the Bush administration apparently considered this possibility at one time but the U.S. government has not officially adopted it. Let’s call this the “null position.” It could, for example, have argued that the international laws of war developed prior to al-Qaida-style international attacks, and cannot be considered applicable to them. We can imagine that if the Bush administration had adopted the null position, this would have provoked outrage and concern around the world. But perhaps this outrage and concern would have been worth incurring, because the advantages of being unconstrained greatly exceeded the costs. The outrage and concern would have died out as they always do, but the security benefits would have remained.

There are various possible broad interpretations. One is that the United States simply cannot treat al Qaida as a belligerent. Another is that members of al Qaida are belligerents but they are entitled to broad protections embodied in the Geneva Conventions and customary international law. Suppose (very counterfactually) that the United States had adopted a broad interpretation. Would the rest of the world have applauded? Would they have been more cooperative (perhaps by joining the invasion of Iraq or refraining from pressuring the United States to join the Kyoto treaty or the ICC)? Are there subtle types of anti-terror operations going on right now that are being hampered because foreign states refuse to cooperate with the United States as much as they would if the United States had adopted (and complied with) a broad interpretation?

The U.S. has adopted a narrow interpretation a hair’s breadth away from the null interpretation. John says, “A state acting in self-defense must comply with the UN Charter and fundamental law of war principles.” On the American position, the U.S. is complying with the UN Charter because that document allows it to go to war, in self-defense, against a non-state entity; so no constraint there. As for these “fundamental” law of war principles, well, what are these anyway? Perhaps rules like the principle of proportionality, but no one thinks that even under the null interpretation the United States would blow up a city in order to kill a handful of al Qaida members. So the narrow interpretation advanced by John is, I suspect, roughly the same (as a practical matter) as the null interpretation.

This, then, brings me to the question. If the U.S. gets all the benefits of the null interpretation, why not candidly adopt it? What is the advantage of adopting the narrow interpretation instead? I see three possibilities:

1. Despite what I said above, the narrow interpretation differs from the null interpretation: it constrains the U.S. a little bit. In return for this self-constraint, the world cooperates with the U.S. more than it would otherwise—but, correlatively, only a little bit.

2. Despite what I said above, the narrow interpretation differs from the null interpretation: it constrains the U.S. a little bit. However, the U.S. gains nothing from this self-constraint, or very little, because the rest of the world does not distinguish the null and narrow interpretations—they are equally bad. In this case, the U.S. has erred and should adopt the null interpretation.

3. The world does not care so much about the substance of U.S. actions but it cares deeply about the U.S. lording it over other states, making them feel less than sovereign. Indeed, perhaps many or most foreign governments want the U.S. to exercise no self-constraint. What good does it do them? The narrow interpretation, then, is like diplomatic protocol: substantively empty but nonetheless important as a way of confirming the formal equality of states.

One concrete question that arises from all this is this: Have foreign states retaliated against the United States because it has adopted the narrow rather than the broad position? Would foreign states have retaliated more against the United States if it had adopted the null position? I do not mean “retaliation” literally but as a stand-in for a decline in cooperation of all sorts, including failure to abide by existing international law that benefits the United States.