The many ways the Bush Administration has damaged America’s standing on international law are all too familiar. Within six months of entering office, President Bush declared that the United States would not join the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, threatened to unilaterally abrogate the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and revoked the US signature on the treaty creating the International Criminal Court. After September 11, the offensive only quickened. Soon there were revelations about the United States’ brutal mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo and the CIA’s operation of secret black sites–in violation of the most venerated international treaties, which the Bush Administration dismissed as quaint and outdated.
These attacks on international law are sometimes dismissed as isolated events, disconnected acts of animus toward specific treaties or institutions. Nothing could be further from the truth. Behind these individual attacks lies a comprehensive vision of the rule of law in world affairs, one that treats international law not as a means of achieving American objectives but as an unnecessary and unjustified limitation on the exercise of American power. Consider the following statement from a 2005 Pentagon National Defense Strategy: “Our strength as a nation state will continue to be challenged by those who employ a strategy of the weak using international fora, judicial processes, and terrorism.” International law in this view is not simply a worthless diversion. It is a real and serious threat to US national interests. Those who hold this extreme view have successfully guided foreign policy to break with the country’s long history of using international law to achieve American values and interests.
As the 2008 election looms, it is time to challenge this dangerous vision and reaffirm and rebuild America’s historical commitment to international law. No longer can critics of the Bush Administration merely show where it has gone wrong. They need to articulate a vision of international law and its place in US foreign policy that is grounded in our common interests and values. In laying out this vision, the point to emphasize is not that a renewed commitment to international law will help us win back the respect of the rest of the world (though it will) or even that the United States, as the most powerful country in the world, has a special responsibility to support international legal institutions (though it does). Rather, the case for international law as a cornerstone of American foreign policy should begin with a more basic message: only through a robust engagement with international law can the United States promote its national interests in the modern, globalized world.
In an interdependent world, international law is frequently the simplest, most effective and least expensive solution to problems big and small. Let us start with the many small ways the law improves our daily lives. It might be possible to fly an airplane from New York to Paris without the benefit of international law. But it would take a lot longer and would be a lot more cumbersome and expensive–requiring carefully chosen routes, long waits for overflight permissions and uncertain reception upon arrival. Likewise, it might be possible to send a letter from one part of the world to another or buy a piece of clothing from another country without the benefit of international law, but it would almost certainly be more difficult and cost a great deal more than it does today. Indeed, much of international law is indispensable for coordinating and regulating commerce, transport, communication and other hallmarks of global interchange. Without these basic ground rules, our dynamic global system would slow to a crawl.