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.
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