The Future of American Global Security Policy And International Law

Brief History of American Security Policy and International Law

The United States has always been a major player in the modern project of international law being a founding member of both the League of Nations and the United Nations. A number of governments in the United States such as the Clinton administration, the Carter administration and the Roosevelt administration had embraced the notion of common security in the international system which posits that where there is an outbreak of violence and disorder, or anarchy in the globe, the interests of all nations are served when countries with the capability to quell the violence and disorder do so.  The theory goes that where the security of one region of the world is threatened, so is the security of each state in the international system.  However, it increasingly appears that the United States is dissatisfied with its perceived role as the global policeman and provider of common security for the international system which it acquired through quasi self-appointment after WWII.  International Relations scholars referred to the system of international security in the cold war environment as one of bipolarity, with the two poles of geopolitical power being the United States and the USSR.

During the years after September 11, 2001 under the Bush administration, the neoconservative philosophy of American politics asserted itself.  Under this regime, America was, is and needs to continue to be the dominant nation in the world in military, economic and perhaps cultural terms.  America sought to crush threats to its national security and economic power in the middle east by invading Afghanistan and Iraq.  However, the struggling American economy, global financial crisis, immense cost of the wars and government debt all conspired against the United States to make this endeavour unsustainable and a more limited approach, motivated by a different philosophy has been active since the beginning of the Obama administration.  Also, the approach of the Bush administration in one sense has been a cataclysmic failure because instead of eliminating the threats from terrorism, the policy of the Bush administration failed to specifically target Al Qaeda and radicalised many moderate elements in middle eastern society therefore reducing America’s security.

At this time, America also made a major departure from its tradition of championing international law.  Unlike the situation in the first Gulf War, it proceeded with the invasion of Iraq without the blessing of the United Nations General Assembly or Security Council.  The Bush administration proposed the notion of a ‘pre-emptive strike’ against countries harbouring nuclear weapons intentions like North Korea and Iran which is antithetical to the principles of the use of armed force for self-defence established in the Treaty of Westphalia and the United Nations Charter.  Furthermore the weapons of mass destruction that were supposed to justify the invasion were never found and the evidence with was used by the government to present its case for war to the United Nations was subsequently found to be wholly unreliable.

During the Obama administration, the recognised philosophy has been one of ‘realism’ meaning that the United States will not shy away from exercising military power in its own self-defence but that it will also use such power sparingly to avoid inflaming a conflict beyond its original scope.  This policy change has been expressed through the killing of Osama Bin Laden, the withdrawal from Iraq, the resistance to ‘boots on the ground’ intervention in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt and reductions in military spending across the board.  Congress has allowed the sequester of defence spending to go through resulting in large cuts to military spending.  It appears that the American public has adopted a limited form of isolationism which was seen after World War I and Vietnam.  Also during this time American defence policy thinkers have adopted a rationale of the reduction of ‘full spectrum’ capability which is very expensive, in favour of the development of forces which are high tech, stand at a distance and cheap in comparison to large forces.  This echoes what occurred during the Eisenhower administration when the doctrine of deterrence through massive retaliation using nuclear weapons was adopted in the hope that no aggressor would dare risk the consequences of attacking the United States.

The time of the Obama administration has seen greater acceptance from the United States of the institutions, norms and customs of international law with particular respect to the international laws concerning the use of torture in interrogation (which was authorised by the Bush administration but later rejected by the Obama administration), the human rights of prisoners of war in American detainment camps and the use of force without sanction from the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council.  The Administration has also indicated more receptivity to the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, although it has not been able to give any indication that congress will agree to this step towards greater international environmental legal protection.

Contemporary Security Policy Transitions

The contemporary world is in a transition phase with numerous alternatives, some would say rivals, for role of the United States at the pole of geopolitical power.  China is poised to become the largest economy in the world within the next year or so (it may already be the largest) and maintains the largest standing army in the world an increasingly sophisticated array of technologically advanced and capable weapons systems as well as nuclear weapons capability.  Its regional rival, India, has joined the nuclear club, grown its population in excess of 1 billion people,  grown its economy and is in the process of acquiring modern weapons systems on a scale that rivals the Chinese expansion.

Academics had hoped in the past that American politicians would learn from the history of Vietnam and be able to foresee the problems with massive boots on the ground invasions and would therefore favour the types of operations that the military was being designed for.  Recent history appears to show that this hope was unrealistic.  It seems that because of the recent history of defence planning, the United States will still be able to stop and armed aggressor from threatening its own borders and it will be able to strike in a highly targeted way at any point on the globe in order to protect its security directly.  However, it will begin to lose its ability to create wide spread political stability and security in the international system.  This role, therefore, will need to be fulfilled either by a new superpower or autonomously organised regional groups.    

In this rapidly evolving global security context, it seems likely that the United States will continue in its present posture of acceptance of the basic elements of international law given its pursuit of moderate form of realism in international relations.  However, it is impossible to predict what may occur if a new President is elected.  The current areas of tension on the border between North and South Korea, at the Nuclear reactors being developed for ‘peaceful’ purposes in Iran and in the Taiwan straits where both China and the United States conduct military exercises will ultimately be the only indication of what the likely outcome will be in the coming years.

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