Wednesday, August 22, 2007

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Exploring the wiggle room

John Quiggin asks some valid questions about my rephrasing of Glenn Greenwald's take of how foreign policy analysts think about the use of force ("The number one rule of the bi-partisan foreign policy community is that America can invade and attack other countries when vital American interests are threatened. Paying homage to that orthodoxy is a non-negotiable pre-requisite to maintaining good standing within the foreign policy community.")

Unless “vital national interest” is construed so narrowly as to be equivalent to “self-defence”, this is a direct repudiation of the central founding principle of international law, prohibiting aggressive war as a crime against peace, indeed, the supreme international crime. It’s more extreme than the avowed position of any recent US Administration – even the invasion of Iraq was purportedly justified on the basis of UN resolutions, rather than US self-interest. Yet, reading this and other debates, it seems pretty clear that Drezner’s position is not only generally held in the Foreign Policy Community but is regarded, as he says, as a precondition for serious participation in foreign policy debates in the US.

A couple of questions arise. First, is this rule supposed to apply only to the US? Second, can the elastic phrase “vital national interest” be spelt out? To take an obvious example, does unfettered access to natural resources like oil count as a “vital national interest”? If so, it seems pretty clear that vital national interests of different countries will regularly come into conflict, and (unless this is a US-only rule) that both parties in such a situation are justified in going to war.

Quiggin is overinterpreting what I wrote, but that's partly my fault -- remember, this was my attempt to rephrase Greenwald's definition with less incendiary language. It's not how I would have phrased it starting from scratch.

To repeat, there's significant wiggle room in the definition. As Quiggin notes, what constitutes a "vital national interest" is far from a settled debate. More importantly, however, is the word "can" as opposed to "should" in my definition. As I said before, there is a big difference between not taking force off the table as a policy option and advocating its use in a particular situation. As Quiggin observes, force is a really messy option and carries horrendous costs. And there's clearly been a shift among foreign policy analysts in recent years about the costs of military statecraft. Still, for any state, the greatest utility of military force comes not from its use but from the possibility of its use. For that reason, it would be unwise for any foreign policy leader to categorically reject the use of force or other forms of coercion for a class of crises. [UPDATE: here's an interesting counterfactual question: would the 1999 Kosovo war have ended more quickly, with less loss of life, if Bill Clinton had not initially ruled out the use of ground troops?]

This relates to one of Quiggin's other questions -- yes, I would say that foreign policy experts in the United States expect that foreign policy experts in other countries make this exact calculation about the use of military force. China will not take force off the table in thinking about Taiwan. Russia is clearly not taking force off the table in thinking about the Arctic region. Again, this is different from saying that experts and advisors in either country wants to use force or think that it's the best policy option. It's just not ruled out.

Quiggin is clearly bothered by the idea that this conception of the use of force is a violation of international law -- nay, "the supreme international crime." Without making a normative comment one way or the other, most positive analyses of world politics would conclude that there hasn't been a whole lot of adherence to that tenet of international law. As James Joyner observes:

The UN Charter’s outlawing of war has, from its outset, been observed only in the breach. It has stopped the United States from declaring war but not from going to war.
This applies to every other state in the international system as well. Quiggin wants international law to be a powerfully binding constraint on state action. That's nice, but what Quiggin wants and what actually happens are two very different animals. [The netroots will label this as "cynical"!!--ed. I'd label it as an accurate reading of recent and long-standing international history.]

Furthermore, there is nothing in what I wrote that says the United States should not seek approval from the UN Security Council or other international bodies when it uses force. The overwhelming majority of U.S. deployments of force in the post-Cold War era received the blessing of the United Nations. Indeed, even the Bush administration, for all its unilateral proclivities, actively sought Security Council approval of its actions against Iraq both before and after the 2003 invasion. So another element of the U.S. foreign policy community's consensus would be to seek as much international support as possible if force is being considered.

It's just that gaining that support is not viewed as a necessary condition for the use of force. It never has been in the United States -- or for any great power.

posted by Dan on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM



At least we're getting closer to the key issue dividing you from Greenwald et al:

"Without making a normative comment one way or the other..."

That is PRECISELY the point. Much of his complaint comes down the argument that the foreign policy community will not accept someone who believes the US should be constrained by normative factors: international law, American values (not to mention Constitutional provisions on war-making power), human decency, whatever you want to call it. By suggesting that normative issues have no place in this discussion and sarcastically dismissing them ("that's nice"), you're reinforcing his very point.

I would also submit that you're wrong about the FPC accepting the right of other nations to be equally cavalier with international law and the use of force to take what they want. Among academic realists, yes, but among the DC policy wonks, pundits, officials, etc, there's a very strong strain of American exceptionalism.

posted by: anIRprof on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

Fine. I think after hundreds of comments and much spirited dialogue we've all come to the conclusion that Greenwald is talking about foreign policy as he wants it to be, and Drezner and others are talking about the way things have been, are now, and will be for the foreseeable future. Two very different things.

The next question is: which way should we want things to be? For example, Greenwaldites, why we should advocate switching to a policy that arguably wouldn't have kept us out of Iraq, but would keep us out of Darfur?

posted by: Chris on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

I'm with anIRprof wholeheartedly. Nonetheless, I wanted to add that I don't think you're understanding of international law is cynical so much as it is a misunderstanding of law. Much is made of the difference between international law and national law. It is said that national law is vertical and international law is horizontal; that there is no strong enforcement mechanism for international law; and therefore international law is extremely weak.

But here's the thing: the vast majority of crimes in this country and in every country go unpunished, and yet we are said to have the rule of law. While "the rule of law" is susceptible to a multitude of interpretations ranging from simply law and order all the way to constitutional democracy, we are said to have the rule of law because people in the United States respect the law, i.e. most of us take the law into consideration in determining our courses of action. It is a factor in our cost/benefit calculations.

In other words, most of use follow the law because we believe in it. If we wanted, we could get away with defying the law, but we choose not too because we believe it is wrong to kill people, or to steal their property, or to assault them, etc. In part we follow the law because it expresses a greater wisdom about interpersonal relationships that has been assented to by both our ancestors and ourselves. This is all a short way of saying that people refuse to break the law because doing so would be illegal not simply because they believe they would be punished.

Now when it comes to international law all those same conditions also obtain: we believe in human rights, we believe in self-determination of peoples, we believe that war should never be aggressive. And we and those who came before us have assented to international law.

So, what justifies refusing to follow it? As a principle, international law should carry the same moral weight as national law when states go about determining their courses of action just as our local laws factor into our personal calculations when we determine our individual courses of action. The fact that there is no international police and no international judicial system and no jail for states does not mean that we are somehow released from complying with the law.

Chris, for my own view, I waffle on Darfur. On the one hand, I just don't believe that it is the United States' job to get into or attempt to solve every single conflict in the world. On the other hand, an international and multilateral peace keeping force could be justified under international law as I understand it.

posted by: Reece on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

The international community has been waffling with Reece on Darfur for almost five years, finally arriving at a resolution providing nominal authorization for an international and multilateral peace keeping force. So the legal principle has been respected, and at least on paper upheld. Too bad about the people.

As I argued toward the beginning of this discussion, though, what most of those engaged are really talking about isn't international law in general, or America's role in the world in general or the right of nations to resort to force in general. What they're really talking about is Iraq.

Glen Greenwald may believe sincerely that the only American response to an acute breakdown in civil order -- such has happened in Bosnia or is happening now in Darfur -- that does not put us in the hateful role of an imperial power, is the LTD response: Let Them Die. He may also think that maintaining the American presence in Japan and South Korea and any number of other places is unacceptably imperial, because other countries can maintain the peace on their own, and if they can't or won't it isn't our problem anyway. And if he does think these things then he really is on the extreme fringe of thinking about American foreign policy.

The Iraq debacle will change some things about America's national security policy, and it will change some things about the way Americans think about it. So did the experience in Indochina, but that didn't lead to anything like a revolution and this won't either. I appreciate the value of skepticism toward real and alleged experts who championed the Iraq war at the outset, but there isn't much value in trading their counsel for that of people who may have been right about Iraq but are wrong about everything else.

posted by: Zathras on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

Fight that strawman people, fight it!

posted by: Asteele on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

Zathras and Chris,
Here is one of the key problems with your thinking on Darfur: You can send 50,000, maybe 100,000 troops to Darfur and it will not solve the problem there (and will be very expensive). It might temporarily halt a large part of the violence, but it will not solve any of the fundamental issues. And that you both refer to Darfur as having concrete military solution is evidence of your deep biases against other types of solutions. Let's be frank about these things, in the last 100 years or so, there has only been one Rwanda, with such a spontaneous explosion of grassroots violence. Even Rwanda, as is consistently shown, had very obvious root causes that could have been dealt with before hand through other means than a foreign military force coming in to impose a "solution". This is even true on it's face with Rwanda as shown by the fact that there was a fairly large peace keeping force there before the genocide (why would it have been there f there wasn't a recognized problem? and it was largely removed just before the genocide)... Rwanda is the extreme case. But to reference your case, take Darfur and put in a peace keeping force there and what do you get? At best, a slowing of some forms of the violence that has been occurring. But is that a solution? what happens when the peace keepers leave? The Sudanese government might be aggravating the fighting to some degree, but they are not the only factor. But you two talk like troops are an end-all/be-all. And by doing so you are exposing the things about your ideology that I(we?) find repulsive. In Darfur, do you think troops are going to make the economy sustainable for the Fur people? Do you think that troops will provide them with sustainable sources of water and food? do you think troops will stop the erosion of agricultural land that is largely the root of the current conflict? Do you even know that the vast majority of those who have died in Darfur did not die as the direct result of violence (government sponsored or otherwise)? This expresses the overall point, the problem is that people like you two resort to a military solution FIRST and foremost, and only when it goes wrong for the USA do you start asking questions about it(for example, no questions are being asked about the American invasion of Somalia a few months ago even though has been a total disaster, though the "black hawk down" case was a top story for years).

So that said, Zathras, I generally agree with you that this particular discussion began because of Iraq, but you don't seem to recognize that Iraq was a symptom of the problem (rather than an isolated incident). In this respect, I agree with Reece and anlRprof. Clearly, the difference between the two sides of this discussion is the automatic acceptance of the use of force to "solve" problems. This acceptance includes a disrespect for international law and a strong sense of American exceptionalism/imperialism. These things are problematic in and of themselves theoretically, but also practically as international law fundamentally protects everyone (even the most powerful) or that American hypocrisy/empire builds anger and hatred in other people around the world (as well as simply being offensive to anyone who cares). If you, for example, have an ideology of black and white (with good guys and bad guys) then you probably can't understand how this is a problem. But if you recognize that there are causes to situations, that there are factors that can mitigate and accentuate problems, and that morality is often flexible and often dependent on where you stand within a particular situation, then you will understand why this debate is important.

posted by: Joe M. on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

We're officially talking in circles. I might be wrong, but on the chance I'm not I'll keep this short so we can have a small circle as opposed to a large one.

First, I have no preference for military solutions, but I believe that periodically situations arise that are intolerable and force, or the threat of force, should be used *even if there is not direct threat to US interests* because it can bring an end to an intolerable situation more quickly.

Darfur is as good an example as any. A military intervention in-and-of-itself will not improve the Sudanese economy, give food or water to Sudan's people, or forever end violence in the region. But it may well bring about the conditions that will allow these things to happen more quickly, and possibly at all (with the official disclaimer that we must learn from our past mistakes).

We've had other excursions besides Iraq, and not all have been so unsuccessful. In any event, in my view the alternatives in situations like this are simply unacceptable.

Incidentally, this isn't "exceptionalism," as I understand that term. This is Socrates ("I'm neither an Athenian or a Greek...) If the question is the defeatist "why should we think we can help," the answers (our vast military and prior experience) are facts, not statements of how God views our endeavors.

posted by: Chris on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

So chris, when you say a military intervention in Darfur "may well bring about the conditions that will allow these things [necessities for peace] to happen more quickly, and possibly at all...", do you think that other things should be tried first (or even at the same time)? Maybe massive economic aid first? Other possible alternatives include an infusion of resources, knowledge, building and sustaining hospitals and universities in the areas where there is violence, helping to all the people there the ability to be self-sustainable in the longer-term? Why bring up military intervention as the first point, when almost everyone agrees that the crisis in Darfur is not fundamentally a military conflict? And especially when it costs so much to use the military (resources that could be used otherwise). Now, i recognize that there is some limited fighting in Darfur, but don't you think that the fighting would be decreased if there were incentives not to fight, like losing aid or putting your whole population at risk of starvation...? right now, for the most part, there is fighting for resources because neither side can survive without them. even with a military force there to stop the fighting, people are still going to be starving for lack of resources and driven to fight by that... And again, the problem (for my money) is that military calculus is always first. it always goes: problem -> send troops! even when troops make the problem worse or when they can't possibly solve the problem. When all you have is hammer to solve problems, the first thing you do is go out looking for nails.

One last thing on Dan's distinction between not taking force off the table and aggressively supporting the use of force. When you make an argument that you are not advocating force but simply not taking force off the table, it is only convincing if you have an alternative means of solving the problem that does not include force. You can say that you don't plan to use force until you are blue in the face, but it doesn't mean anything unless you have alternative means to solve the problem that are concrete and practical (which usually include compromise). This is a huge part of the equation. Jimmy Carter talks about "Just War Theory" all the time. Implicit in his position is that there are "just" wars when the use of force is necessary, meaning that by definition he has not taken the use of force off the table. But the difference between Carter taking this position and the Very Serious people we all know that Carter would make the use of force the last option. If Jimmy Carter were president today, rest assured he would be under an unimaginable attack for "appeasement" of Iran or Iraq or any other place the Very Serious people want to bomb. We also know that Carter is much more likely to strike a genuine deal with Iran on their nuclear program (just as he did with Camp David). But in Dan's case, for example, the only reason (that i can think of) you are against a war with Iran is because the USA would lose. This is the same reason you are now against the current war with Iraq. And it is the only reason the Very Serious people ever come out against a war. So, when you say that you want to keep the use of force on the table, you are really saying that you want to be able to threaten and destabilize other countries, without having to accept the costs associated with a full blown war. Basically, if i understand you correctly, your position is that war would be justifiable as a primary option if it would be successful by American standards. And that, in my opinion, is not fundamentally very different than being an open advocate of a specific war.

posted by: Joe M. on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

On the issue of international law and morality, reflecting a bit on this debate it strikes me that one of the reasons I think normative issues are important is because of the DOMESTIC consequences of adopting a hard-nosed, dismissive attitude towards them.

I fully understand that the international system is largely a self-help world, international laws on the use of force are rarely followed, etc, etc. No question another Kellog-Briand pact would be silly. No question the use of force is sometimes necessary. But if you lose perspective on that situation being tragic and unwanted and instead see it is morally neutral or even full of desirable opportunities -- might makes right isn't so bad for the mighty -- that attitude can corrosively spill into domestic politics.

If you're used to thinking of international law as mere paper, the UN as a useless talking shop, self-determination as something to allow when convenient, legitimacy stemming from one's own self-righteousness, and history being made at night, that it becomes pretty easy to become contemptuous of domestic laws, of the US Congress, of the public, and of the fact that rule of law is core American value every bit as valuble as plenty of other "vital intersts". I actually like Buchannan's "Republic, not an Empire" phrase not only (or even mostly) because of what it means for how we treat others, but because I don't think a imperial-like American government can be the sort of American government I want to live under.

One of the concerns Greenwald and other netroots types have, I suspect, is that they fear exactly this "contagion": elites who enthusiastically support, or at least see as morally neutral extra-legal, hegemonic behavior internationally will want to behave similarly with respect to domestic laws and institutions. I think that applies in the case of Cheney his ilk around Bush, and in general the FPC can sound down on democracy at times. I think grassroots critics' fears are exaggeraged -- relatively few people at CFR actually want to hand the country over to a shadow government. The fact that so many reject taking a normative stance (even if reality tragically prevents allow living up to it) makes it easy to have that suspicion, though.

posted by: anIRprof on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

Just a rude interjection if I may....

There is no 'international Law'. It is a term of art, a convention.

One need only look to the 'International Criminal Court' or Kyoto to see this. We didn't join the club therefore it doesn't apply to us.

These are less Laws than membership rules.

Ad hoc participation/jurisdiction is not part of anything I recognize as Law so why use the term?

My guess is that it is doublespeak designed to give the authority of national Law to the agreements nations make among themselves so that extralegal bodies might have a means of controlling the domestic policies of others.

Elected by no one. Answerable to no plebiscite. The epitome of back room politics. That's your international law.

Let's instead talk of more rational subjects such as the primacy of treaties vs the US Constitution.

Or why people use normative, gag what a ghastly word, instead of standard.

posted by: wlpeak on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

Quiggin wants international law to be a powerfully binding constraint on state action.

Drezner replies: That's nice, but what Quiggin wants and what actually happens are two very different animals.

I believe the proper blogospheric phrasing of this reply is: AND A PONY!

posted by: A.S. on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

To wlpeak:

Care to define "law" for us so that we can all share in your insight?

You say, "[t]hese are less laws than membership rules."

The fact that there are specific rules for when the laws apply does not make them something less than a law. There are substantive provisions in the Kyoto protocol and the international criminal court.

You must be operating on a special definition of law.

posted by: Reece on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

Among academic realists, yes, but among the DC policy wonks, pundits, officials, etc, there's a very strong strain of American exceptionalism.

But American exceptionalism is a fact. By that I don't mean what people usually mean when they say that -- i.e., moral exceptionalism. I mean what people usually mean when they say "America is the world's sole superpower." If military action is ever desirable, by Greenwald's lights or by any other, it has to be America, because nobody else can do it. Oh, the British and French can do a little, but only a little. There are no UN forces of any value. No regional forces of any value. No other countries can project force more than a short distance outside their borders.

Reece: law is something one is required to obey -- not something (such as Kyoto) that one can opt into if one chooses -- and that one can be forced into obeying, not something with no enforcement mechanism.

posted by: David Nieporent on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

A question, as I'm getting a little lost in this 'should be'/'is' distinction: To take a concrete example: was it fair/moral to convict Admiral Tojo of the crime of waging aggressive war on the US, the UK, and the Dutch, given that he clearly felt he was acting in the vital interests of the Empire of Japan (as regards access to economically vital raw materials)? If so, how did this part of his actions (leaving the atrocities of the IJA to one side) differ from the orthodoxy expounded in Prof Drezner's post? Was it just because he lost? Should we really be basing our foreign policy morality to any extent on that of the 1930's Empire of Japan?

posted by: Athlon on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

Hi -

I do say that wlpeak has hit upon a right and proper point here, one that I want to expand upon.

Any system of law doesn't spring into existence, but is, of course, part of civilization as we know it: you can civilizations with differing types of law, but without law civilizations is Hobbesian at best and Mad Max at worst, as has been seen in Somalia.

Now, in the US at least, you have division of powers and responsibilities, all of whom revolve around one thing (besides power): the rule of law. The executive decides what the law is; the judicial decides how the law applies (and tells the executive, for instance, that even he can't violate the constitution); the legislative figures out what should be law and sends it on to the President, who can decide whether he wants that or not; the legislative can veto and decision by the President, but only by a very solid majority, so on and so forth. The common denominator is that he who gets to make the laws is also the one who decides what people are allowed and not allowed to do.

Now, looking at "international law", who's in charge? Who is deciding what the law is, who is checking and balancing that, who is making the law, who is interpreting it, who is taking responsibility?

The real answer is that international law doesn't work like "regular" law: there is no world government as such, and hence international law is "simply" out there, with no controls, no balances, nothing outside of the consensus of international lawyers as to what is international law and what isn't.

The US, if I remember correctly, ratifies treaties and makes them into the equivalent of US law, but does not subscribe to the surrender of sovereign powers - power over one's own destiny as actor on the international playing field - to any multinational or international organization.

Hence what wlpeak says is correct: international law, as it seems to be interpreted by many, is an illusion, since in and of itself international law has no power, as it is not recognized by the sovereign, in this case the national governments of all the different countries, each of which has its own way of dealing with international treaties.

But unless you do have the consensual hallucination that international law matters and that it does not need to be enforced, only obeyed, then international law is meaningless at best and an active waste of time better spent on real things at worst.

Everytime someone brings up the International Court, I always ask where I can vote on the judges, and if I don't like a law, who can I go to for redress? Hmmm?

Getting countries to sign up on international treaties is one thing; it is quite another to get them to actually do what they say they should do. Take a look at Kyoto: lots of promises, little actually achieved, and if, say, Spain exceeds its targets, there are no penalties. Besides having people be rude at a cocktail party at the UN, I mean.

If that's international law, then it's a waste of time.

posted by: John F. Opie on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

American interventionists seem to me to have a lamentable inability to imagine what it would be like were the tables turned. Here's a thought experiment. Suppose the EU were to develop sufficient military capability to invade the US, or at least inflict damaging air strikes. The EU decides to do so in order to force the US to stop capital punishment, viewed as a gross abuse of human rights. Intervention advocates would seem to have no principled way to object. Is that the world they'll really want to live in, in a more realistic future in which, say, China really is the most powerful nation?

posted by: Steve LaBonne on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

Steve: that is the world we live in, whether we "want to" or not.

posted by: David Nieporent on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

this argument is pretty absurd. Just to make another analogy about law, how about immigration law in the USA? is it enforced? does that mean it is not law? should it be respected even if it is not enforced? what if it is sporadically enforced? maybe the lack of enforcement of immigration law calls into question the entire legal system of the USA?

or, how about, maybe bush breaking the constitution leaves all the moral and legal force of the constitution null and void?

I mean, seriously, this is a ridiculous discussion. enforcement is a part of the law, but it is not the only part. is the right wing really this dumb? and so you people know, the american government have authority BY the people of the USA. and it's decisions are given authority because Americans have delegated representatives the right to make decisions on their behalf. Those decisions are binding on the people of the USA regardless of how stupid or unenforceable they are. And that includes international law. International law is not binding because there is a supreme international force that will make sure everyone follows the letter of international law, but because it was entered into it voluntarily via a system that was chosen to represent the people.

is this a high school civics class? do they even teach civics anymore?

posted by: Joe M. on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

"Steve: that is the world we live in, whether we "want to" or not." Only because people with your attitude in the US government and foreign policy "elite" have seen to that. Well, I hope you all will enjoy being on the receiving end, in the not all that distant future.

posted by: Steve LaBonne on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

The US, even when it was a relative pipsqueak among nations, has never accepted normative limitations on its sovereign rights of self defense. Even Jefferson, of all non-interventionists, dispatched forces to overthrow the government of Tripoli when Americans got tired of paying tribute and having their people kidnapped and enslaved.

Jefferson's expedition failed, but the US never gave up, and eventually Stephen Decatur and his task force eliminated the threat of the Barbary pirates permanently. This in the face of long-standing European accomodations with the pirates, and their tacit encouragement of pirates to attack American shipping.

The aggressive attiitude shown by the fledgling republic puts the lie to the idea that discretionary interventions abroad are inimical to the rule of law at home. To the contrary, loyalty to the domestic polity and its laws is enhanced by the government's ability to protect its citizens abroad.

And if the "Don't Tread on Me" flag was popular when the US was small and weak, it is foolish to expect the public to cede its unilateral rights to intervene now, when the US contributes an overwhelming percentage of all the resources used to maintain international order. If anything, the Administration was excessively solicitous of the international fig-leaf bodies as it proceeded in Iraq in 2002 and 2003.

posted by: srp on 08.22.07 at 09:10 AM [permalink]

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