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Foreign Affairs From The Anthology: From the Archives: International Institutions
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Fiddling in Rome: America and the International Criminal Court

The recent, brutal civil wars in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and the Congo make plain the need to prosecute amoral leaders who show no care for civilian lives. At least, this seemed the American position over the last four years as Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright touted the creation of the International Criminal Court as a key aim of American foreign policy. And yet in July 1998, when the draft treaty to create the ICC was approved in Rome, the United States found itself in a nasty minority, siding with Libya, Iraq, Yemen, and Qatar against the court. (The final vote was 120 in favor, 7 opposed, and 21 abstentions.)

Some of Washington's concerns were serious and legitimate. American troops are deployed across the globe, and should not face the added danger of politically motivated prosecutions. But the administration failed to think through or effectively articulate its position on the court. Throughout the negotiations, wary of a skeptical Congress, the White House dithered. Though international meetings on the icc began in 1994, the United States failed to set its bottom line -- Would it back the court or not? Under what terms? -- until the president's return from China in early July. Only then, four weeks into the five-week U.N. final conference in Rome, were cabinet debates resolved and instructions issued to the American negotiating team. But by then it was too late for American diplomats to convince frustrated friends and allies to accommodate new U.S. demands -- a case study in how not to conduct multilateral diplomacy. A historic opportunity to shape the court in America's image was lost. Thanks to administration ambivalence and the failure of the United States to make its case to the world, what we got instead was a court America cannot agree to -- at least not until the court's good faith has been tested over time.


The timing of the Rome conference was inauspicious for the United States. Flush from their triumph at

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