Issue #3, Winter 2007

Going Legit

International legitimacy isn’t a restraint on American power, but a precondition for its effective use.

It’s a truism today that America’s position as the world’s superpower is shakier than it used to be. The nation’s military is overstretched and unable to take on new commitments. Interest payments on the national debt topped $400 billion in the 2006 fiscal year, threatening to crowd out needed expenditures to sustain economic competitiveness. And Washington has made little progress on urgent foreign policy objectives, including stabilizing Iraq, curbing Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs, expanding global trade, and ending anti-American extremism in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

The Iraq war has directly caused much of this damage. Financially, it has been a huge drain: The Congressional Budget Office reported in mid-2006 that costs topped $432 billion. Militarily, it has been punishing: The Pentagon admits that the conflict has badly stretched the Armed Forces, with 70 percent of troops scheduled to return to Iraq next year set to serve their third tours. In human terms, the price has been high: nearly 3,000 American troops have died to date.

The war’s dearest casualty, however, has been to America’s international standing, specifically its legitimacy abroad. The Iraq intervention has eroded the esteem, respect, and trust that the United States once commanded on every continent, hampering a host of current policy objectives and putting ambitious and important new goals out of reach. Rehabilitating America’s legitimacy, therefore, will be essential to ensuring that the Iraq war does not exact a permanent toll on American global influence.

International legitimacy is a measure of the acceptability and justifiability of a state’s actions in the eyes of other states and their citizens. Legitimacy, a kind of moral capital, reflects a collective judgment that the assertion of power, through a policy or an action, is valid even if it is unpopular. After all, leadership requires taking the occasional unpopular stand; but whereas popularity is inherently ephemeral, contingent on personalities and temporary alignments of interest, legitimacy is more enduring. It provides a foundation for respect and understanding that can transcend short-term, conflicting goals. Practically, when America’s purposes are well-founded, openly articulated, and broadly consistent with its professed values, the use of power toward those ends is generally judged legitimate. But when the United States misleads others about its motives, acts on inadequate or selective evidence, flouts its own principles, or unilaterally exempts itself from broadly agreed standards of conduct, its legitimacy suffers.

The current administration has put little weight on legitimacy as a criteria for policy-making. The Iraq war, for instance, wasn’t waged without regard for international legitimacy; on the contrary, eschewing legitimacy was part of the plan. From the start, Bush Administration officials derided the idea that American power should answer to international norms. Vice President Dick Cheney resisted calls by Secretary of State Colin Powell to bring Washington’s case against Iraq to the UN, judging such diplomatic machinations a waste of time. The Administration even sometimes seemed to suggest, perversely, that if leading European nations or the UN were involved, results would be slower and less effective.

Undoing this damage is a precondition for setting U.S. foreign policy back on course. International legitimacy, viewed by the Bush Administration as constraining American power, must now be recognized as an indispensable tool for fortifying and extending it. As we look to a post-Bush foreign policy, progressives need to recognize that a concerted effort to reconstitute America’s legitimacy is the best way to safeguard American superpowerdom in the long term.

The History of Legitimacy

The increasing importance of international legitimacy and the rise of the United States as a global power go hand-in-hand. During the colonial era of great power politics, military prowess and territorial control ruled the day; countries with resources and armies did not worry much about the court of international opinion. But after World War II, as leading nations grappled with how to administer war-ravaged Europe and Japan and how to prevent future world wars, legitimacy moved to the forefront. International law was expounded through treaty-based organizations like the UN, NATO, and the Bretton Woods institutions. The dismantling of far-flung colonial empires and the emergence of the principle of self-determination helped fulfill the widening belief that power needed to be made accountable to peoples affected by it.

The United States enjoyed a great deal of legitimacy in the postwar period. The conservative scholar Robert Kagan argued in Foreign Affairs that U.S. legitimacy derived mainly from the Cold War itself: Among Western European governments and publics American actions were seen as justified to face down a totalitarian menace. While violent proxy wars in Latin America and Asia had some corrupting effects on America’s image, they did not outweigh the perception of credibility in the Cold War’s primary battleground of Europe. In contrast, political scientists Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson contend that America’s legitimacy derived not from its struggle against communism per se, but rather from the respect President Harry Truman and his successors showed for international law and norms.

The end of the Cold War scrambled the situation. On the one hand, it left the United States as the world’s sole remaining superpower. With liberal democracy ascendant, American values–including the market capitalism that much of the world once saw as synonymous with imperialist exploitation–now enjoyed wide acceptance in Eastern Europe, Asia, and elsewhere. With the Soviet Union gone, what Kagan identified as the “legitimizing effect” of the Cold War struggle evaporated. At the same time, America’s legitimacy also came under closer scrutiny. This imbalance led to concern over the unparalleled degree of U.S. influence over the world economy, decision-making at the UN, and oil supplies in the Middle East. Skeptics impugned American motives and methods by pointing to examples of Washington’s hypocritical support for oil-rich oligarchies in the Middle East, uneven commitment to global free trade, and insufficiently aggressive efforts to halt greenhouse gas emissions.

The Clinton Administration handled these concerns through balanced policies and a degree of self-regulation. It showed enough respect for the views of allies and for the UN to get away with circumventing international rules from time to time–as when it failed for many years (due to congressional resistance) to pay its dues to the UN or failed to ratify the International Criminal Court (ICC) . During the Clinton era, conservatives sharpened their longstanding critique of the idea that American foreign policy needed to enjoy international legitimacy. Many of these thinkers and politicians had, during the Cold War, seen international institutions like the UN as Soviet-influenced impediments to American interests. Now they argued that America must not be constricted by external norms of legitimacy, particularly if legitimacy might be arbitrated by international institutions like the UN that, despite the Soviet Union’s collapse, still counted dictatorships and tyrannies among their ranks.

Such an argument was implicit in Kagan and William Kristol’s 1996 call for a foreign policy based on “benevolent hegemony”–a concept that continued to animate neoconservatives through the 2003 Iraq invasion. Rooted in the Cold War experience in which Eastern European peoples drew inspiration from Western liberal ideals, benevolent hegemony held that if the United States acted from passionate conviction, its moral rectitude would be recognized and followed, if not immediately then in the long run. The concept of benevolent hegemony guided the Bush Administration’s foreign policy even before September 11–evident, for example, in its decision in late 2001 to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. The Administration knew the action would initially be derided, but it believed that the world would come to recognize that the creation of a North American missile shield would ultimately enhance not just American security, but also “the interests for peace in the world.”

After September 11, Bush’s decision to frame the battle against terrorism as one of good versus evil also drew on assumptions of benevolent hegemony. Bush expected that the self-evidently moral basis of the fight against al Qaeda would insulate the United States from any potential questions about the legitimacy of its actions, much as the battle against Soviet totalitarianism had once done in many quarters. For a short time after September 11, that logic seemed to prevail broadly, uniting the world in swift approval for the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and other aggressive steps to clamp down on global terrorism. But while the 2001 terrorist attacks temporarily legitimized an aggressive American foreign policy, they also emboldened the conservative critique of legitimacy itself. Conservatives–such as Attorney General John Ashcroft and his Deputy John Yoo–crafted arguments on the premise that to be constrained by internationally accepted legal constructs after the attacks would be to short-change U.S. security and abdicate America’s natural right to defend itself as it saw fit. Bush and his supporters summoned the visceral patriotism of a wounded nation to argue that the United States must unshackle itself from the constraints of international rules that could tie its hands. The embrace of the doctrine of preemptive war in the 2002 National Security Strategy was a deliberate signal to the world that the United States no longer saw itself constrained by norms of legitimacy, arrogating for itself a unilateral right with no articulated justification as to why it alone was authorized to preempt threats with force.

Thus the Administration approached the Iraq conflict with broad confidence in the world’s belief in America’s benevolent hegemony and a dismissive attitude toward the constraints of legitimacy. Although Powell managed to convince the Administration to make a pitstop at the UN Security Council to seek approval for its planned invasion, the UN membership (and much of the American public) correctly suspected the decision had already been made. And indeed, when the Security Council balked at Bush’s case, the Administration moved forward anyway, constrained by neither the holes in its case for intervention nor by the world’s resistance. Washington was convinced that its rightness, even if not ratified in advance, would be revealed after the fact.

But instead the opposite happened. As Francis Fukuyama describes in America at the Crossroads, it became apparent soon after the invasion that benevolence would not come to America’s rescue. Instead of welcoming American soldiers with sweets and flowers, Iraqi society exploded into a complex civil war. U.S. forces failed to find weapons of mass destruction, debasing the war’s central aim in both domestic and foreign eyes. And high-profile cases of prisoner abuse and war crimes against civilians made a mockery of Bush’s lofty vision of bringing liberty and democracy to the Middle East. Both at home and abroad, even those who initially believed the invasion was well-intended–not just conservatives, but also many Democrats in Congress–came to feel duped.

The Case for Legitimacy

While the United States remains preeminent in its military and economic strength, the most potent global challenges it faces–nuclear proliferation, terrorism, failed states, and the scramble for energy–are not amenable to resolution through money or firepower. They depend on America’s ability to forge agreements, build consensus, and persuade others, all of which in turn are contingent on whether Washington enjoys international legitimacy.

A drive to restore America’s legitimacy, then, must rest on a clear understanding of what legitimacy is, how it is attained, and why it is useful. Bush has caricatured legitimacy as a straitjacket, a “permission slip” from the world. But legitimacy has two rather more respectable sources: rules and rectitude. The first involves authorization by a formal body or written set of laws, such as an international agreement or treaty. Acts that meet the criterion include measures taken in self-defense against an imminent threat under the UN Charter, policies on detention that match the Geneva Conventions, and extradition agreements consistent with the Rome Statute of the ICC.

The second source of international legitimacy, rectitude, cannot be granted or taken away through any formal process; it must be earned. It revolves around the perception that a policy or action is justified and is not as easy to come by as following a set of prescribed rules. Indeed, codified international law is too ill-defined, incomplete, and unevenly applied to be the only test of international legitimacy. For example, when the United States has employed the technique of targeted assassinations against al Qaeda leaders, international outcry has been muted despite the fact that such extralegal killings violate international law. Judgments of the rectitude of particular actions take account of individual circumstances: whether an action is provoked, what alternatives were available, and whether appropriate methods were used. In the case of targeted terrorist assassinations–where the provocation is clear, the prospects for capturing an elusive and well-protected terrorist alive are low, and the harm to innocents is nil–the weight of legitimacy may be on the side of the assassin.

International legitimacy–whether derived from rules, rectitude, or both–can be affirmed and judged in three different forums. First, standing multilateral institutions–principally the UN Security Council, but also international courts or regional entities like NATO and the African Union–can formally ratify actions such as military interventions. Second, states can individually express their support or acquiescence with the actions of other states. For example, when the United States, Europe, and others indicated in the spring of 2006 that they would reduce funding to the elected Hamas-led government in the Palestinian territories because Hamas was a terrorist organization, they helped legitimize Israel’s decision not to turn over collected tax monies to Hamas.

Third, legitimacy gets arbitrated by the public at large in newspapers, cafés, web sites, and street protests. Particularly in this last form, legitimacy can sound slippery and hard to define. But the concept’s elusiveness does not diminish its importance. Liberal advocates of legitimacy need to embrace alternative sources of legitimacy when, for example, the UN Security Council is paralyzed in the face of a threat. The United States can–and should–act alone if it must. While the withholding of international support will suggest that others doubt the legitimacy of an action, such misgivings do not–in themselves–render the act illegitimate. While not prohibiting action, broad international reservations should occasion a hard look at why support is not forthcoming and whether reasonable measures–for example, further attempts at resolution short of the use of force–are warranted. A certain measure of legitimacy will derive from the very willingness to engage and debate where the boundaries of legitimacy lie, rather than standing aloof and claiming that such questions don’t matter to Washington.

Issue #3, Winter 2007

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