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Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Legitimacy of US Foreign Policy

Recent events in Lebanon and Egypt have led some political analysts to credit the war in Iraq with dramatically changing the political landscape in the Middle East. The White House says that "freedom is on the march," and these analysts believe that the Bush administration earns the credit.

More importantly, if a series of democratic dominoes fall, a lot of people are going to assume that the Iraq war will have been legitimized.

Just one year ago (March/April 2004), neoconservative policy analyst Robert Kagan published a piece called "America's Crisis of Legitimacy" in Foreign Affairs. In this article, he elaborated on his thesis that Americans and Europeans are living in different worlds:
it is precisely the question of legitimacy that divides Americans and Europeans today -- not the legitimacy of each other's political institutions, perhaps, but the legitimacy of their respective visions of world order. More to the point, for the first time since World War II, a majority of Europeans has come to doubt the legitimacy of U.S. power and of U.S. global leadership.

The United States cannot ignore this problem. The struggle to define and obtain international legitimacy in this new era may prove to be among the most critical contests of our time. In some ways, it is as significant in determining the future of the U.S. role in the international system as any purely material measure of power and influence.
Kagan argues that America has to solve its legitimacy crisis; otherwise, its material power will be debilitated.
The modern liberal mind is offended by the notion that a single world power may be unfettered except by its own sense of restraint. No matter how diplomatically adept a U.S. president might be, the spirit of liberal democracy recoils at the idea of hegemonic dominance, even when it is exercised benignly.
Oddly, though Kagan says that US policy has been viewed as "unilateralist because no European power had any real influence over it," he asserts that the US can solve its legitimacy crisis merely by exporting democracy:
The United States, in short, must pursue legitimacy in the manner truest to its nature: by promoting the principles of liberal democracy not only as a means to greater security but as an end in itself. Success would bring it a measure of authority in the liberal, democratic world, including among Europeans
Hmmm. Bush's second inaugural address makes this precise argument about the ideal ends of US foreign policy.

While Kagan has perhaps received more attention than anyone else for addressing the legitimacy of American foreign policy, numerous scholars of international relations (IR) have joined the debate. Most of them are making similar points.

Constructivist IR theorists, of course, emphasize the importance of legitimacy. Chris Reus-Smit of Australian National University explained in 2003:
Legitimacy is an inherently social phenomenon: one's actions are not legitimate unless they are recognised as such both other social actors. Legitimacy must be socially ordained; auto-legitimation is impossible as Charles I and Louis XIV found out to their cost. This fact is lost, however, on hardline members of the Bush Administration. It is not that they lack a view of America's legitimacy, it is that they have a decidedly non-social (and hence incoherent) view....The US went on to win a decisive military victory in Iraq, but Washington has struggled unsuccessfully to shake off a persistent aura of illegitimacy...
Reus-Smit points out that the occupation of Iraq has been widely viewed as illegitimate and that America's substantial material power cannot assure successful foreign policy. Legitimacy matters.

Liberal and neoliberal scholars agree that foreign policy legitimacy is important. Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, Foreign Affairs, November/December 2004:
The 18 months since the launching of the second Iraq war have brought home, even to its advocates, that the United States has a serious legitimacy problem.

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. That is why it is an elusive quality. Despite these vagaries, there can be no doubt that legitimacy is a vital thing to have, and illegitimacy a condition devoutly to be avoided.

How to restore legitimacy has thus become a central question for U.S. foreign policy, although the difficulty of doing so is manifest.
Most liberals embrace genuine multilateral decision-making as a means to assure the legitimacy of US foreign policy. They argue that this worked throughout the cold war. Again, this echoes Kagan's argument that the Europeans want a meaningful say over the use(s) of America's power.

Another foreign policy liberal, Charles Kupchan told the BBC in March 2003:
He said America might also find itself increasingly isolated as the world comes to resent its power.

"The real issue that I most fear here is that America will lose its most precious commodity in the world, and that is its international legitimacy."
Kupchan has written and discussed this more extensively, but I cannot find a working link to an academic article.

Even realists agree. Harvard's Stephen M. Walt in the January/February 2005 Boston Review:
American power is most effective when it is seen as legitimate, and when other societies believe it is being used to serve their interests as well as America’s....

Defending the legitimacy of American primacy is not primarily a question of “spin,” or propaganda, or even cultural exchange. If American foreign policy is insensitive to the interests of others, and if it makes global problems worse rather than better, no amount of “public diplomacy” is going to convince the rest of the world that the United States is really acting in the best interests of mankind.
Finally, Dartmouth's Bill Wohlforth in 2003, speaking at Yale, said something Kagan would likely embrace. He embraced the ends, rather than the means, of US policy:
Wohlforth said it's possible to run a neo-imperial foreign policy. "Legitimacy is obtained two ways," he said -- a country can defer to existing rules or create a new reality and make it work well, so that all recognize it.

"The U.S. did it after World War II," he said, noting that officials then said, "'We're going to fix the world, and when we're done, everyone will see that we were right and they'll be back on board.'"
More on this topic later.

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