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The United States:

Imperial Rogue State



Burns H. Weston

Bessie Dutton Murray Distinguished Professor of Law Emeritus
Director of the University of Iowa Center for Human Rights

TFF associate

October 4, 2002

Published in World Editorial & International Law (, September 15, 2002

Not since the beginnings of modern-day international law at the Hague peace conferences of 1899 and 1907 has the United States been so contemptuous of the world rule of law as it has in the past 20 months of Bush-Cheney rule, since 9/11 especially.

As befits an imperial presidency unmatched since Richard Nixon, the White House has treated the law, U.S. as well as international, like a fence made to be climbed.

Enthralled by solo superpowerdom, it has substantially turned its back on a half-century's nurturing of multilateralist diplomacy and institution-building; snubbed hard-won consensus on international environmental threats and trade agreements; subverted a decades-old quest for international criminal accountability; made fledgling democracies hostage to regressive oil politics; ignited the militarization of space at the expense of delicate nuclear safeguards; dismissed the law of armed conflict in favor of "unavoidable collateral damage"; given license to horrifying human rights abuse by conflating messianic terrorism with struggles for self-determination; trampled time-honored constitutional liberties in the name of patriotism; and now, while planning an aggressive assault upon Iraq essentially devoid of "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind," undermined no less than the most fundamental principles of the United Nations Charter.

The so-called War Against Terrorism has become a Trojan horse for arrogantly unilateralist "scofflaw" policies, including, it seems, a quest for global empire. How else does one explain Washington's dislodging of Mary Robinson, the otherwise universally esteemed UN High Commissioner for Human Rights? Or its dubiously engineered removal of José Bustani, the much respected Director-General of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons?

At a time when, as 9/11 proved, transnational networks unconnected with a particular state can fundamentally disrupt both domestic and world order, such rogue state behavior puts at least all Americans severely at risk. Yet, seduced by apocalyptic rhetoric and fearful of being called unpatriotic, scarcely anyone protests, not even the international lawyers who know full well that by flouting international law and organization the United States dangerously alienates the very nations upon whose allegiance its global authority depends and simultaneously invites civil unrest by damaging our sense of national self-respect.

With rare exception, both Congress (which seems to have forgotten its constitutional separation-of-powers role) and the mainstream media (which appear to have abandoned their traditional fourth estate role) serve generally as cheering sections for US hubris and bellicosity. It is an appallingly hazardous mix that, I fear, will come back to haunt and tangibly threaten the personal security of each and every one of us, morally as well as physically and with profound implications for both national and international order.

Perhaps I am unduly pessimistic. Our democratic institutions are relatively strong (or so I like to think) and perhaps therefore things will get better come the next election or the next. But I am not confident, and certainly not confident that irretrievable damage will not be done before we come to our senses. Americans remain woefully in the grip of a history of manifest destiny and rugged frontier individualism. It is an ethos that goes very deep, and, unless we change, it could well be our - and the world's - undoing.

As Yeats once cautioned, even the best of us live by candelight.


For information about the UI Center for Human Rights, click on <>. 


© TFF & the author 2002  


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