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International law or American order?

Print edition : Jun 22, 2002 T+T-

By rejecting the rule of international law and by drawing up a grand strategy to strengthen its offensive forces and defence systems, the U.S. intensifies its efforts to build a modern empire.

IN his book Pirates and Emperors, Noam Chomsky tells a story that he attributes to St. Augustine. A captured pirate was brought before Alexander the Great. "How dare you molest the sea?" asked Alexander. "How dare you molest the whole world?" the pirate replied, and continued: "Because I do it with a little ship only, I am called a thief; you, doing it with a great navy, are called an emperor."

In a number of ways, as Chomsky notes, the story of the pirate and emperor can serve as a powerful analogy for some of the major contests of the past 50 years for international power and privilege. For understanding questions of compliance with laws and norms of conduct, it offers a framework that is particularly significant because it puts the "pirate" and the "emperor" in the same frame. The more common practice has been to take for granted the idea of a "pirate" who has somehow to be disciplined by a lawful authority whose own role and conduct, by definition, are effectively beyond scrutiny or judgment. The tale does this by revealing a key similarity between the pirate and the emperor: their shared recourse to force in pursuit of self-interest, albeit on very different scales. If one keeps this firmly in mind, there will be little difference between the professed motives of pirates and emperors and both can be judged.

In today's world, there is little doubt about who the emperor is. The United States has had a dominant position in international relations for many decades. This position has become even more powerful with the end of the Cold War. The U.S. now dominates the global economy; it has a pervasive cultural presence; it has a conventional military capability far greater than that of any other state; it has a stockpile of over 10,000 nuclear warheads; it has an almost overwhelming presence in international institutions.

The all-too-common U.S. protestations of good intention and its claim to guard universal freedoms also fit into a very familiar pattern. The U.S. is just another example of what E.H. Carr famously identified as the presumption of a harmony of interests, "an ingenious moral device invoked, in perfect sincerity, by privileged groups in order to justify and maintain their dominant position". But, every so often the mask slips. The New York Times recently explained that the Bush administration would support international treaties only "when they carve American interests in stone". No mention here of the common good. And, to belabour the point, the notion of an American interest is but an all-too-weary euphemism for the interests of the dominant classes in its society.

There are some who insist the U.S. is a "hegemonic" power and not an "empire". The distinction in its own way is an admission of the fact that the idea of empire still remains a touch unsavoury. But while it is true that the U.S. is not an old-fashioned empire, that is, one with colonies, it certainly fits the no-nonsense definition offered by Michael Doyle in Empires, his major scholarly study of empires from Athens and Rome through the Ottoman, Spanish and British empires to those of the present day. Doyle observes: "Empire... is a relationship, formal or informal, in which one state controls the effective political sovereignty of another political society. It can be achieved by force, by political collaboration, by economic, social or cultural dependence. Imperialism is simply the process or policy of establishing or maintaining empires."

In recent years the rejection of multilateral agreements and the rule of international law by the U.S. has become routine. (This is systematically documented in Rule of Power or Rule of Law?, a recent report by the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research and the Lawyer's Committee on Nuclear Policy. It is available on the Internet at and also at Examples include the U.S.' refusal to sign the treaty banning anti-personnel mines, the refusal to be bound by the International Criminal Court, terminating the process established to create an international agreement to strengthen the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC), and the dismissal of the binding obligations of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change. This has outraged the traditional and most loyal of U.S. allies in western Europe.

The U.S. has also failed to live up to obligations undertaken in treaties that it has signed and ratified. One example is the case of the BWC, which prohibits the U.S., as a signatory, from manufacturing biological weapons. However, as The New York Times reporters Judith Miller, Stephen Engelberg and William Broad revealed in Germs: Biological Weapons and America's Secret War, during the late 1990s, the U.S. undertook a secret programme to construct a model bio-bomb, build a bio-weapons laboratory, and replicate a super-strain of anthrax.

Where the U.S. does not violate, undermine or simply ignore treaty obligations and international norms, it has chosen to hijack the institutions responsible for international agreements. The most dramatic evidence has come in recent weeks with the U.S. successfully removing Brazilian diplomat Jose Bustani as the head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and, following lobbying by the oil giant Exxon-Mobil, the U.S. getting rid of Robert Watson as the Chairman of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change.

The Bush Administration's 2002 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) is the most recent evidence of what may be the worst part of this growing U.S. challenge to international law and collective security. The high points have been the U.S. Senate's rejection of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) - despite the pleas of the United Kingdom, France and Germany - and the U.S.' withdrawal from the Anti Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The rejection of the CTBT demolishes an almost 60-year effort to end nuclear testing, which makes possible the nuclear arms race. To add insult to injury, the Bush administration has ordered an increase in readiness at the Nevada nuclear weapons test site. The withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, which will occur formally in June, will mark the first time any state has ever abandoned an arms control treaty.

The most egregious failure is, of course, over the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). More than 30 years after the U.S. promised to negotiate the elimination of nuclear weapons under this treaty, it currently possesses more than 10,600 nuclear warheads, almost 8,000 of which are active or operational. There is no sign that the promise is about to be honoured - the NPR foresees the U.S. retaining nuclear weapons for at least the next 50 years.

While the NPR envisions reducing the stockpile to 1,700-2,200 deployed strategic nuclear warheads over the next decade or so, nearly 15,000 weapons are to be retained at varying degrees of readiness (spares, inactive reserves, stored pits). This nuclear strike capability is to be merged with new conventional forces to create the offensive leg of what has been dubbed the "New Strategic Triad".

The second leg of the New Strategic Triad includes "active and passive defences". Of these, the National Missile Defence system is just the most prominent. There is also a diverse array of Theatre Missile Defence Systems to protect U.S. expeditionary forces and allied countries.

The third leg of the triad is the military-industrial complex, that is, the capacity for research, development, and production to develop, build and maintain these offensive forces and defensive systems. Underpinning all this is an enormous infrastructure for intelligence and communications that is increasingly space-based.

There is little surprise in the NPR about the targets for all this military might. The administration reportedly has ordered the Pentagon to draft plans for the use of nuclear weapons against at least seven countries: Russia, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, China, Libya and Syria. But buried in the NPR is a more enduring, more universal principle for picking nuclear targets. There is an explicit requirement for a nuclear strike capability to deal with "sudden regime change by which an existing nuclear arsenal comes into the hands of a new, hostile leadership group". Those in nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, who seek strategic alliance with the U.S., be warned: Empires have interests, not friends or allies.

Zia Mian and M.V. Ramana are members of the research staff at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University.