Sunday, November 05, 2006

The United Nations, Europe and the USA

By Otto Spijkers

In 2003, Jürgen Habermas said: “the crucial issue of dissent [between Europe and the USA] is whether justification through international law can and should be replaced by the unilateral, world-ordering politics of a self-appointed hegemon.” Keeping this remark in mind, I will look at the international law vs. politics debate, related to the United Nations and the "war on terror".

UN Charter as the World's Constitution or as Framework for International Political Cooperation

With some exceptions (one of which is Thomas Franck of New York University School of Law), you will not find American supporters for the essentially European (Kantian) idea of a constitutional world order, with the United Nations at the heart of it, functioning somewhat like a world government. To see the UN Charter as the world’s constitution is essentially a European idea. The American approach is explained by the current US Ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton. He said:

[T]here is no United Nations. There is an international community that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that's the United States, when it suits our interest, and when we can get others to go along, and I think it would be a real mistake to count on the United Nations as if it’s some disembodied entity out there that can function on its own. When the United States leads, the United Nations will follow. When it suits our interest to do so, we will lead. When it does not suit our interest to do so, we will not, and I think that is the most important thing to carry away tonight. (John Bolton, speech delivered at the Global Structures Convocation, on the 3rd of February, 1994, in New York.)
Of course, there is much provocation in these words, but they do seem to represent the view of many Americans.

"War on Terror": Legal or Political Language?

One of the best examples of the international law vs. politics debate is perhaps the meaning of the phrase “war on terror”. Recently, the most senior legal adviser of the US State Department, John Bellinger, toured Europe, to clear up some “misunderstandings”. One of them is the use of the term "war on terror". Americans use it as a political term, while Europeans immediately think of its legal importance. Bellinger clarifies:
I know that the phrase that we have used, the "war on terror," is one that is troubling and is controversial in Europe, and let me distinguish between the political sense of the term and legal sense of the term. Our policymakers use the "war on terror" in its political sense, to mean that all countries need to be against terror, the idea of killing civilians in order to terrorize populations. That's exactly what the leaders at the UN in the UN Outcome Document said last year: We condemn terrorism in all of its forms. When our policymakers say that there is a war on terror, it means that all of our countries need to be against terror everywhere in the world. It doesn't mean, as a legal matter, that we are in a legal state of war with every terrorist everywhere in the world and that we can therefore go shoot people or arrest people on the streets from every terrorist group everywhere. It depends on the circumstances.
The war on terror has laid bare a fundamental difference between American and European values, and the choice of framework (international law or politics) used to fight for them. I don't say that the United States violates international law in the "war on terror" (that could be a topic for another post on this blog), but the USA uses a political, not a legal framework for decisionmaking. “Dialogue” is seen by both parties as the way to solve these differences. Not in order to convince the other, but in order to better understand the other (this is after all, what conversations are all about). In the words of the Dutch Foreign Minister: “The day there is no transatlantic debate is the day I will get really worried. It would mean we are no longer interested in each other’s affairs.”

The first picture is of the International Court of Justice, located in The Hague, Netherlands. The second picture is of John B. Bellinger III, Legal Adviser to the U.S. Department of State.