Courtesy Reuters

The Flip Side of the Record

Robert Kagan ("A Matter of Record," January/February 2005) accuses us of contradicting our own previous writings in our essay "The Sources of American Legitimacy" (November/December 2004). Kagan claims that we intentionally distorted the historical record by asserting, among other things, that the United States pledged itself to international law in the aftermath of World War II. We reject these charges.


There appear to be three main issues in the dispute: first, how to construe a U.S. diplomatic record in which a commitment to consensual decision-making existed alongside a proclivity for unilateralism; second, how to characterize a Cold War stance in which the United States accorded the UN Security Council a marginal role while claiming fidelity to "the principles of the UN Charter"; and third, how to reconcile the United States' professed commitment to the rule of law with its occasional departures from legal principles.

In "The Sources of American Legitimacy," we wrote that a pillar of U.S. legitimacy was Washington's commitment to consensual decision-making, especially within the Western alliance. Kagan insists that we emphasized unilateralism previously and were right the first time. But Kagan himself has argued in these pages ("America's Crisis of Legitimacy," March/April 2004) that "during the Cold War, even a dominant United States was compelled to listen to Europe, if only because U.S. policy at the time sought above all else to protect and strengthen Europe. Today, Europe has lost much of that influence." Apparently, then, we are in good company in finding a difference between the Washington that once listened to allies and the one that listens no longer. We appear also to be in good company in holding that U.S. legitimacy does have something to do with the principle of consensual decision-making, for Kagan himself advises that a greater sensitivity to allied concerns could help renew legitimacy.

The second issue concerns our treatment of the role of the United Nations in U.S. foreign policy. Kagan adduces quotations from

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