OJ’s esteemed commenter Martin Holterman asks in the comments to my earlier post about the Arms Treaty negotiation underway in New York what the point of negotiating a treaty is, if you assert in advance (and indeed attach to the treaty) that there cannot be any circumstances in which you might violate it. He asks this with reference to a letter sent Monday from Congressional lawmakers (some 130 of them) to the Obama administration. The short answer is that if those are your objections, then you really ought to stay out of the process, which is certainly my view. (We should add that this has been a fairly standard procedure for the US in certain kinds of treaty negotiations where it is clear that Constitutional standards are implicated.) But this raises some general issues regarding the nature of consensus negotiations, which I take up in this post, using the arms treaty negotiations as a backdrop and drawing on Chapter 2 of my new book, Living With the UN.
The Bush administration, as Duncan’s earlier post observed, opposed the treaty negotiation process and instead favored strengthening national export regimes. I thought it was a better way to deal with the issues of arms trade as such; I always thought it a mistake for the Obama administration in 2009 to agree to engage in the process at all. One reason the Obama administration decided to join treaty negotiations, however, is owed to the early Obama administration’s overall desire to engage multilaterally, especially through the UN and international organizations. It’s part of this administration’s general patten of multilateral engagement – with the Human Rights Council, most controversially, but lots of other exercises in “values” processes at the UN as well. I’m not alone in detecting a tension inside the (first two years anyway) Obama administration between its liberal internationalists, who took multilateral engagement seriously as its own value, on the one hand, and what I’ve sometimes called its “New Liberal Realists,” on the other.
The liberal internationalists of the administration’s first two years or so thought the “values” exercises meant something for their own sake and so should be undertaken. The New Liberal Realists, by contrast, seemed to have taken the view that if the US could gain points by engaging in values processes, fine, because it didn’t finally matter. Being mere ideological exercises in words, they didn’t actually mean anything in tough realist terms. Talk is cheap and you can always walk away or come up with some covering interpretation. In a (yes, provocatively titled) chapter in my book, “Disengage and Obstruct,” however, I argue that these exercises in supposedly cost-free multilateral engagement around values issues are rarely cost-free for a hegemonic player. Talk might be cheap but it’s not without a price, because it’s an accumulating, even if imperfect and weak, proxy for whether the hegemon means other things it says.
The New Liberal Realist claim amounts to saying that no one takes the “values” talk seriously or as a proxy for “realist” matters of security, hard core economic issues, etc. I would respond that this misunderstands the peculiar nature of hegemony, and the way in which it transcends realism by using “values” issues to transform raw power into authority and finally hegemonic legitimacy. (Beyond that, I won’t try to define hegemony here.) Realists, we can say in passing, are often not conceptually equipped to understand legitimacy save as on a narrow, transactional, marginal basis – blinders which makes it hard to understand the persistence of hegemony, which depends upon a particular relationship between interests and values, power and authority, and finally legitimacy. (more…)