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US: the new Leviathan?

01 September 2002

<br />American actions in the extended wake of 11 September are increasingly perplexing Europeans, the Administration’s spurning of the International Criminal Court (ICC) being only the latest in a string of disagreements that have beset transatlantic relations over recent months. Indeed, the sight of an American administration threatening not just to withdraw from UN peacekeeping missions but to veto them unless its forces are exempted from the court’s jurisdiction has perplexed even the closest of America’s allies, not least because the US had defined the mission and method of the court. Clearly, the ICC was not the actual cause of Washington’s irritation. Rather, it was the nature of what constitutes legitimate constraint upon a superpower with global responsibilities.
American thinking about international organisations these days goes something like this. The US is the force for good in the world, therefore constraint upon the US is bad. International organisations, by definition, constrain their members. International organisations, therefore, are bad. The power, status and values of Imperial Britain at the end of the nineteenth century suggested to London that Pax Britannica should be served by the ‘Doctrine of the Free Hand’: what was good for Britain was good for the world. History soon consigned such hubris to the dustbin of time where it belonged, partly (and not without a certain irony) as a result of America’s appearance as a world power in the late 1890s.
Britain rejected multilateralism in favour of hegemonic stability because power and opportunity came together in such a way as to convince the British that they were naturally endowed with virtue. Of course, the British simply did not have the power to realise such a vision but could it be that the America of the twenty-first century does? It is a tempting and, from a European perspective at least, a compelling and dangerous prospect for both America and its friends. Make no mistake, the world is a better place for American leadership. What would the world of today look like had Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union won the great systemic struggles of the twentieth century? America is the force for good in the world. However, Lord Acton’s old adage still stands: if power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely, and there have been signs of late that power might just be going to America’s head.
In that context, its rejection of the ICC seems not so much a repudiation of an instrument of international law, but of international law itself. It is as though the United States, dissatisfied with the performance of international organisations, now wants to replace them – America the new Leviathan, benign master of all it surveys, constrained by none, drawing its legitimacy by right of power. It is a dangerous twist of the American dream that Americans must resist, however seductive it might appear. Bending the Wilsonian principle by replacing the court of world opinion with American opinion would deny the inspirational America, to which so much of the world looks, for mighty America, in which effectiveness replaces legitimacy as a basis for American action.
Not surprisingly, Europeans have a few problems with that. How far can we diverge over the method of global security governance before such divergence changes the very ends upon which Europeans and Americans are supposed to agree? The essence of Europe is that no one state can be allowed to lead or to withdraw. It is a place in which the Doctrine of the Free Hand has been replaced by the Doctrine of the Tied Hand (some would say the Doctrine of No Hands). Somewhere between these two extremes must surely lie a more effective model for security governance.
Here is the bottom line. Europeans do not really expect the US to be multilateral, since American power and politics preclude that. Unilateralism is, after all, the deal by which the essentially isolationalist American people permit the American elite to engage with the world. What matters is the nature of unilateralism – broad or narrow. If it is narrow, and calculated solely on a strict interpretation of the American interest American ‘leadership’ in global security governance will be undermined. If it is broad, open to the counsel of others before definitive American action is taken, then effectiveness will be reinforced by legitimacy. Indeed, it is difficult to see how American policy can be effective unless it is also legitimate. That is why America so desperately needs Europe. Europeans live for treaties and institutions, a ‘weakness’ that is also a strength, constraint and restraint being the very fonts of legitimacy. Therefore, if America is seen to listen to Europe from time to time it will also ensure that America itself is heard elsewhere with less prejudice but Europe too must support its counsel with the capacity to act. As Henry Kissinger states, ‘power without legitimacy tempts tests of strength; legitimacy without power tempts empty posturing.’ Thus, the choice comes down to Hobbes or Locke: a Hobbesian Leviathan bound by nothing other than its own sense of purpose or a rational Lockeian ‘Leviathan’ (with apologies to Locke) reflective of the democracy it is duty-bound to protect. It was Churchill who once said that America eventually makes the right choice after all other options have been exhausted. So make that choice, America.