The conference, "American Sovereignty: Issues for the New Administration and the New Decade" attracted an array of scholars last Tuesday and Wednesday, who addressed the challenges that have confronted U.S. policymakers, analysts and activists - as well as the think tanks which subsidize, publish, and promote them - since the end of the Cold War.
Most participants agreed that governments around the world are endorsing the idea of global governance through international organizations such as the International Criminal Court in The Hague. These organizations have regulatory or law enforcement powers that in principle could supersede the domestic laws of individual countries.
While it may seem that this would be a problem primarily for troubled small nations with leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic or political parties such as the Taliban in Afghanistan, in fact it appears to be especially true for the United States, largely because of its worldwide presence and dominant status as the only global superpower - and its worldwide involvement that lays it bare to an international court.
Few at the conference believed the increasingly ambitious organizations pursuing international law would ever succeed at transcending U.S. law. As they debated the collision of national sovereignty with international law in Washington, the clash between the two sets of powers was playing out in China, as the 24 crew members of the EP-3 surveillance plane forced to land in Chinese territory nine days ago were spending their first week being held by the Chinese military. Both sides in the controversy have raised questions about the legality of both the surveillance flight and the detention of the crew and the plane.
Elliott Abrams, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, told UPI that with no violation of air space, there was no rationale for the Chinese to hold the American service people.
"There is no doubt in my mind and in the minds of the scholars we've talked to that this is a violation of international law," said Abrams, a former official in the State Department of Ronald Reagan who was pardoned by President George Bush (the father of the current president) in the Iran-Contra controversy.
Following a keynote address by Stephen Krasner of Stanford University, an audience member asked him about the seeming face-off between the United States and China. Emphasizing that he was not an expert on the region, Krasner expressed support for the Bush administration's cautious response. He also expressed certainty: "We're not going to get the plane back."
In his address, Krasner reiterated one of the themes of his book, "Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy," namely that throughout history, nations' desires to obtain and keep power has always trumped abstract international principles.
For centuries, European rulers such as Napoleon and the Hapsburgs of Austria-Hungary had acquired other territories and had violated the principle of sovereignty - and attempted to protect their own thrones - by attempting to impose the rights of their national minority rights upon regions that had fallen under their control.
Krasner said that many notions of internationalism were old concepts. He cited the example of international criminal courts such as The Hague, which he said, "Sounds like the idealism of the period before World War II." This, he added, could be summed up as "If we just think the right way - and have an international criminal court - everything will be OK."
This did not work back then, he said.
The potential conflict between the U.S. and such international bodies, particularly when it comes to economic regulation, was a constant theme throughout the conference. These organizations include entities such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.
Terry Anderson, the director of the Political Economy Research Center, a think tank devoted to free-market environmentalism, in his paper "Do We Need a World Environmental Organization?" answered his own question: No.
Anderson said that the State Department and the Pentagon have changed their operations and revised their budgets to give environmental issues higher priority. The International Criminal Court, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, he said, all feature environmental goals, which are leading to the modification of trade agreements. Anderson said the United States must insist on recognition of the effectiveness of incentives in maintaining a clean environment.
AEI's Claude Barfield warned that the World Trade Organization faced a slew of challenges, most notably internal constitutional flaws that permit members to pressure each other to create rules that diminish the rights of other WTO members. Barfield called for the United States to devise domestic political mechanisms that provide more accountability from the WTO.
Curtis Bradley of the University of Virginia Law School, a 21-year veteran of international human rights litigation, cautiously supported human rights litigation in American courts that address wrongs committed in other countries against people who then find themselves living in the United States. Some have seen this as a tool that international human rights organizations or international courts can use to undermine the sovereignty of nations.
"Many people think of litigation in American courts as a positive step," he said. However, he warned that the costs must be recognized. These include, he said, risks to the separation of powers between the federal branches of government, as well as interference by an outside organization in the executive branch's control of foreign policy.
"The courts should await specific congressional authorization before allowing expansion of this litigation" to permit the involvement of international courts as well, says Bradley. He acknowledged concerns over issues of sovereignty, but said that international censure of even U.S. lawmakers has been a good thing.
"It is the beginning of the abolition of the concept of sovereign immunity," said journalist Christopher Hitchens, who recently drew attention with his two-part article in Harper's magazine calling for legal action against former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Restricting illegal activity of foreign leaders "will have a very good effect on gangsterism in our own government," he said, citing the Clinton administration's financial ties with members of the Chinese government as an example of such behavior.
John Laughlin of the British Helsinki Human Rights Group cast strong criticism upon the workings of many human rights groups. Laughlin said that human rights activists, like journalists, often fall victim to a pack mentality in which accepted wisdom is quickly digested and repeated, whether or not it is fair, just or appropriate.
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