Hegemony and International Law

Hegemony and International Law

Professor Geoff Manne of Lewis and Clark has written an interesting response to my previous post. The text of my post and his comment can be found here.

He begins by stating:
…hegemony IS internationalism, and thank god we’re the hegemon. I don’t say that out of some banal, jingoistic patriotism. I say that because in a (relatively) anarchical world, it ain’t “international law” calling the shots, it’s the guy with the big stick.

Professor Manne is correct in stating that hegemony is a form of internationalism. However, it sits on a continuity of many forms of internationalism ranging from empire, through multilateralism, and all the way to some sort of supranationalism where sovereignty is all but stripped away. Assuming for the sake of argument that globalization means that the U.S. needs some form of internationalist policy as opposed to isolationism, this leads to two questions: (a) is hegemony the form of internationalism that best suits our interests, and (b) if so, are we practicing hegemony in a manner that best suits our interests.

As I see it, (a) is academic because, for the time being, we are the hegemon: the U.S. sets the tone for international institutions and norms through its statements, its funding priorities, and through other state practice. So I want to go directly to (b): are we doing this in a strategically sound manner. And here, I would say that the answer as of late would be “No.” And my answer here relates to my caveat in (a), that we are the hegemon, for the time being.

Hegemony fades. Ask Venice; ask Spain; ask the United Kingdom. The overweening power that the U.S. has today will not last forever, and probably not for our lifetimes. This is not to relegate the future U.S. to minor power status or to claim that the U.S. is in absolute decline, but it recognizes that other powers—the E.U. and China and, to a lesser extent, Brazil, Iran, and Japan—will increasingly be rule makers as opposed to rule takers due to their increasing economic, political, and military strength relative to the U.S. And I deliberately put the strengths in that order, because in day to day affairs, it isn’t military strength that’s key, but economic power and political persuasion. We’re not going to bomb India into stopping software piracy or fire off some cruise missiles to open the EU to U.S. agricultural products.

So, if hegemony inevitably wanes, we should use our power now to define a system that will protect our interests in the long run. This is the difference between wise hegemony and predatory hegemony. Or, as Robert Keohane would ask, what type of institutions are we setting up for the period “After Hegemony?”

This is where many conservatives get it wrong. Due to knee-jerk anti-multilateralism, they miss the opportunities that we have in building institutions that ensconce our values in the international system. This was the genius of Dean Acheson and the other “wise men” architects of the UN and this is why Feith’s do-it-yourself attitude is poor strategic thinking. Wise hegemony uses multilateralism (and international institutions in particular) to secure the hegemon’s interests for the period after hegemony.

Professor Manne continues by stating that my

…argument rests on the assumption that the UN actually enforces, and that all other states follow, international law. It is the dream. But it isn’t reality. States do whatever they want whenever they can.

Here, he not only misconstrues my argument, but the logic of multilateralism as a whole. I argue for the wisdom of using international institutions precisely because “states do whatever they want whenever they can.” Multilateralism, properly constructed, winnows the leeway of states doing “whatever they want.” If we build the institutions in a manner that reflects our values and interests, then we constrain states from doing things we don’t like (proliferate nuclear weapons, stifle trade) and promote behavior that we value.

Some conservatives like to use the UN and the use of force as the example proving that multilateralism doesn’t work. This is a straw man argument and it is more than a bit tiresome. The UN is comprised of dozens of departments and agencies covering as many issue areas. Moreover, there is a wide variety of other international institutions, global and regional, covering a multitude of issues. Oft-times conservatives (and liberals) complain about these institutions—the IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO come to mind—being too powerful, not too weak.

But let’s get back to this “states do whatever they want” argument. The WTO, for example, is clearly effective in its enforcement and states generally follow its rules (we sure do). So the issue isn’t multilateralism per se, but institutional design.

But this focus on enforcement measures misses the greater power of international institutions—the ability to frame the terms of debate. Let’s take the hard case: matters of national security. At first blush one may say that compliance with the UN Charter on issues of non-aggression is low, but it is by no means nonexistent. Rather, the Charter sets terms of debate, the expectations of what is or is not acceptable, and plays a role in the shaming of states that don’t follow its rules. The norms of the UN were effectively used by the previous Bush Administration in 1991 to rally a large coalition to push Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. If the UN really was irrelevant, then why did the current President spend so much time with Security Council debates? Note that in circumventing the UN process we now have a war that is perceived by much of the world as illegitimate and unnecessary (where are those WMDs?) and we are largely going it alone, spilling our blood and spending our treasure because our actions are viewed as being outside of acceptable norms.

Multilateralism matters. We can use it to our advantage or we can ignore it at our own risk. We can build or reform institutions that help us but we cannot simply act as if we can go it alone. As Dr. Thomas Barnett had put it, Dirty Harry has to come clean, set aside vigilatism, and build lasting institutions if he wants a sustainable peace. (See also here and here.)

Professor Manne’s closing point is instructive about how some conservatives miss the point:

But we need not fully despair for lost liberalism. As Robert Kagan points out, liberalism has two, sometimes competing elements: 1) a reliance on rules and 2) the promulgation of liberalism (which is to say, intolerance for illiberalism). … the US, liberal stalwart hegemon that it is, is actively engaging in the latter…

And if the liberals would just realize that number 1 is impossible, but 1 out of 2 ain’t bad — we’d all be on the same page.

Liberalism (in the classic sense that Prof. Manne uses it here) is inherently rule-based. It is meaningless to say we have liberalism without some reliance on rules. How else would we have fair trade or a respect for sovereignty or the protection of individual rights (to property, to life, to political freedoms) if you did not rely on mutually agreed upon rules? The U.S. can’t enforce these norms everywhere or even in enough places that would make the world a secure place, even if only secure enough for our own national interest.

If liberalism matters, then rules matter. You can’t get (2) in any long-term sense without building up a respect for the rules in (1). And if conservatives would just realize that (2) is impossible in the long run without (1), then we’d all be on the same page.

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