Wednesday, November 10, 2004

American Legitimacy at What Price?

I just finished reading Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson's "The Sources of American Legitimacy," in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs. The authors argue that:

The United States' approval ratings have plunged, especially in Europe -- the cooperation of which Washington needs for a broad array of purposes -- and in the Muslim world, where the United States must win over "hearts and minds" if it is to lessen the appeal of terrorism...

Legitimacy arises from the conviction that state action proceeds within the ambit of law, in two senses: first, that action issues from rightful authority, that is, from the political institution authorized to take it; and second, that it does not violate a legal or moral norm. Ultimately, however, legitimacy is rooted in opinion, and thus actions that are unlawful in either of these senses may, in principle, still be deemed legitimate...

How to restore legitimacy has thus become a central question for U.S. foreign policy, although the difficulty of doing so is manifest. At a minimum, restoring international confidence in the United States will take time...If the United States is going to be successful in recapturing legitimacy, it will have to abandon the doctrines and practices that brought it to this pass.
Despite the legal and moral aspects of legitimacy as they define it, the authors admit that is largely based on the most fickle of things, opinion. This can be driven by the most base side of human nature, interpretation of events, media coverage, and governmental manipulation.

The authors admit that opinion plays a significant role in legitimacy, recognizing that opinion can cause people to overlook the immorality or illegality of an action if they believe it to be the correct decision. The authors fail to recognize that the same is true when it comes to illegitimacy - people can overlook the legal and moral case for action because they believe it to be wrong, not in their interest, or because they are ignorant/manipulated to a certain viewpoint.

This alone makes it exceedingly difficult for the US to recapture legitimacy in the eyes of the world. Does it mean doing what others want, regardless of what the cost is for the US? Does legitimacy trump security? Does international legitimacy trump the opinion of Americans? Does it mean the US must abandon the War on Terror? Is it worth the cost?

The author claim 4 pillars of US legitimacy dating back to the end of WWII:

  1. US committment to international law and belief in the illegality of aggressive war.
  2. A committment to consensual-decision making that stemmed from the nature of US democracy and the creation of international institutions.
  3. An acquired reputation for moderation in policy. This moderation reassured allies around the world that, despite its great power, the US was not a thread.
  4. Washington's success in preserving peace and prosperity within the community of advanced industrialized nations.
Of course, the collapse of US legitimacy is not tied to anything other than the failure of the Bush administration. Certainly, the Bush administration did not help itself with some of its public pronouncements regarding international law. However, the policies of the Bush administration prior to 9/11 differed relatively little to those of the Clinton administration. Post 9/11, it is far easier to accept a change in US policy to focus more on the necessities of wartime rather than the niceities of peacetime.

The author's claim:

A new doctrine of preventive war, misnamed the "strategy of preemption," took the place of the doctrines of containment and deterrence that had preserved the nuclear peace during the long contest with the Soviet Union.
This quote captures the ineptness of the study of post Cold war foreign policy that is prevalent in much of the discussion of these matters today. What use is containment when there is no longer a Soviet Union to contain? How well can containment of a state like Iraq work when your allies in Europe are violating the sanctions regime and spending political capital to undermine the legitimacy of your actions? Is it possible to deter terrorists? The concept of rogue states also raises real questions when it comes to deterrence. These very idea of rogue states undermines the assumption of rationality that deterrence is based upon. Further, the idea of preemptive war had taken root in the D0D during the early 1990s, based on a belief that deterrence did not work so well in the post Cold War world. Clinton considered preemption in North Korea before buying time via the Agreed Framework.

I have considered giving up my subscription for Foreign Affairs because of these types of articles.