In "The Sources of American Legitimacy" (November/December 2004), Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson respond heatedly to my essay "America's Crisis of Legitimacy" (March/April 2004). The heat is disproportionate to our disagreement. They argue that the United States has "a serious legitimacy problem" and needs international legitimacy to conduct a successful foreign policy. In my article, which they selectively quote, I made the same point at great length, noting that "for the first time since World War II, a majority of Europeans has come to doubt the legitimacy of U.S. power and U.S. global leadership" and that "the United States cannot ignore this problem."


What seems to have upset Tucker and Hendrickson is my discussion of the sources of legitimacy during the Cold War. I argued that the legitimacy the United States enjoyed then had little to do with fidelity to the rule of international law or obeisance to the UN Charter or the Security Council. Rather, U.S. legitimacy derived primarily from the role the United States played as "leader of the free world," providing security to allies and defending democracy against communist tyranny. It also derived from the bipolar structure of the Cold War: allied nations did not worry that the United States was too powerful because it was checked by the Soviet Union.

Tucker and Hendrickson disagree and insist that U.S. legitimacy did rest on Washington's adherence to the rule of law. The "country's leaders," they claim, "pledge[d] the use of U.S. power to international law" and "commit[ted] their country to the rule of law." The "architects of the post-World War II order," they assert, "emphasized the protection of the democratic community through rules constraining the use of force." The United States did not always "scrupulously adhere" to the rules of the UN Charter, they admit, but "U.S. leaders generally made every effort to square their actions with international law." Despite "some transgressions," the "overall fidelity of the United States to internationalist norms contributed strongly to the legitimacy of U.S. power."

This is a very misleading account of U.S. Cold War and post-Cold War foreign policy. It is fairly easy to justify most U.S. actions during the Cold War on moral and strategic grounds. But the notion that Washington tried hard to abide by the UN Charter and "pledged" its power "to international law" is ahistorical, even fanciful. From the overthrow and attempted overthrow of governments in Iran, Guatemala, and Cuba, to the Vietnam War and the intervention in the Dominican Republic, the list of U.S. actions in defiance or neglect of international laws and institutions during the Cold War and in the decade that followed is impressive. To say that the United States did not "scrupulously adhere" to international law is an understatement.


Such arguments are especially surprising coming from these two noted "realist" commentators. If one looks at their voluminous writings on these subjects prior to the George W. Bush administration, one finds not merely a different perspective on the history of U.S. foreign policy, but very nearly the opposite perspective.

Tucker and Hendrickson now claim that throughout the Cold War, U.S. leaders "pledge[d] the use of U.S. power to international law." But in The Imperial Temptation, written in 1992 to condemn the Persian Gulf War as, among other things, unjustified under international law, they wrote that when "the United States finally committed its great power to the task of international order following World War II, it did not do so on behalf of the system of collective security that succeeded the League of Nations." That system was "stillborn." The UN "played a negligible role in the nation's foreign policy." U.S. governments used the UN only "when expedient," as in Korea in 1950 and in the Gulf War in 1991. And in "Alone or With Others" in these pages (November/December 1999), Tucker claimed that in the intervening decades, "the United Nations played no more than a marginal role, if indeed that, in the making of American foreign policy. In determining where, when, and how to employ force, the organization was usually simply ignored."

In 1992, Tucker and Hendrickson argued that the Truman Doctrine, although it "did not quite signal the abandonment of American efforts to work through the UN," nevertheless clearly showed "that the United States was ready to pursue its major foreign policy objectives by other means if necessary, including unilateral means." They also noted that during the years of the Reagan administration, the relationship between the American government and the world organization reached its lowest point. The Reagan Doctrine in its various articulations reflected a thinly disguised contempt for the UN. The unilateralism that plainly characterized the doctrine was an all but formal rejection of an organization then seen as increasingly dominated by states hostile to American interests and purposes.

Although Tucker and Hendrickson now claim that U.S. leaders during the Cold War "commit[ted] their country to the rule of law" and "emphasized the protection of the democratic community through rules constraining the use of force," a decade ago they claimed just the opposite. "The necessities of the Cold War," they wrote, "real or alleged ... not only led to the expansion of the concept of aggression well beyond its core meaning but even to its partial abandonment." The strategy of containment "did not and could not create and maintain an order by the methods and restraints of the UN Charter," but instead did so "by the traditional methods of countering hostile and expansionist power with power."

Particularly in the western hemisphere, they argued, traditional norms regarding aggression and intervention "cannot be said to have ever been taken very seriously, as the several interventions from the 1950s through the 1980s attest." The Reagan Doctrine was, again, a particularly egregious departure from such norms, for it "subordinated the traditional bases of international order to a particular version of legitimacy by proclaiming a right of intervention against nondemocratic governments. ... In doing so, it went well beyond the grounds for intervention sanctioned by the traditions and practice of states."

Even in 1989, when "Cold War necessities could no longer plausibly be invoked," President George H.W. Bush "intervened militarily in Panama, though his stated reasons for doing so ... were generally seen as little more than a pro forma justification for removing a dictator who had defied Washington once too often." His administration had acted "unilaterally and for reasons that would not have been sanctioned either by the UN or by the Organization of American States." One could add to this list the Vietnam War, the Bay of Pigs invasion, the overthrow of regimes in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, and other events--which is why Tucker and Hendrickson described U.S. foreign policy from the Truman administration to the first Bush presidency as a consistent "record of departure from the first and foremost principle of world order."

Today, Tucker and Hendrickson claim that NATO would never have gained support on either side of the Atlantic had it not been "justified ... in terms of its conformity with the principles of the UN Charter and its rule forbidding aggression." But back in 1982, in a lengthy essay on the transatlantic alliance published in the neoconservative organ Commentary, Tucker did not once mention those principles as having any bearing on the alliance. He described the "original compact" between the United States and its European allies exclusively in terms of security and self-interest and warned, correctly, that when perceptions of security and interests changed, the strength of the alliance would diminish. "Global unilateralism," Tucker wrote in 1982, had "deep roots in the American past." And although Tucker and Hendrickson now sing of the multilateralism of U.S. policy prior to the present administration, in 1999 Tucker noted in Foreign Affairs that throughout "the Cold War a commitment to multilateralism generally masked the substance of unilateralism." Even during the Cold War, U.S. "acceptance of multilateralism" was, Tucker and Hendrickson stated in The Imperial Temptation, "conditioned by our ability, bordering on a right, to act unilaterally."


In 1999, Tucker gently criticized those who were then, in the Clinton years, writing about "the specter of unilateralism" and expressing "anxiety and dread" in response to "the arrogance and assertiveness" of U.S. foreign policy. Although he acknowledged some truth in the charges, he also noted that they rested on "a comparison with an imagined past when the United States ... accepted the constraints of a nascent internationalism."

Have Tucker and Hendrickson, in their fury at the administration of George W. Bush, now themselves succumbed to the myth of this "imagined past"? This common error has been made by many recent commentators, who have been unwilling to see the continuities in U.S. foreign policy and instead prefer to imagine a past in which the United States bound itself to the strictures of international law. Many who make this error do not know any better. These two influential pundits do.

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