Is US Diplomatic Practice ‘Legal’? An Analysis of UN Chapter VI and Power Perception

When it comes to envisioning peaceful relations among the peoples, there is no higher source of inspiration than the UN Charter and the global organization it created. The founding fathers of the new world order were very much aware of the misfortunes that characterize international affairs. It can be argued that they were naïve in hoping to have found the solution to war but their trust in the power of diplomacy is a fact. For definition, we are referring to diplomacy as all the necessary peaceful means that aim at achieving cooperation and dialogue among conflictual world actors.

There seem to exist two opposing views on the role of the UN in the settlement of disputes. On the one hand we have the institutionalists who believe in the ability of this organization to act as an independent actor, while on the other we have sceptical realists who see the primacy of the member states over the UN. However, the aim of this paper is not how the UN operates but what it believes in. Also, to observe if powerful states such as the US follow the UN normative prescriptions on diplomacy. I find it relevant to absorb the essence of UN’s view on diplomacy and compare it to the US perspective. The US case is emblematic since it illustrates how the perception of power affects diplomatic practice.

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Source: United Nations Photo @ Flickr

But first we should comprehend UN’s view on diplomacy. This is best expressed by Chapter VI of  the Charter, more specifically Article 33.1 which can be considered as the more peaceful and legitimate alternative to Chapter VII’s forceful intervention provisions. What we get from this article is a legalistic and idealistic way of handling conflictual situations on the global arena. Its provisions have a few elements in common, namely the assumption that there is an international legal order that can deliver justice, that diplomatic practice is the safest way to resolve disputes, equality among states, and that militant unilateralism threatens peace and security. What does the famous Chapter VII stand for? We can shortly affirm that it enforces peace, while Chapter VI maintains it. The numbering of the articles is relevant since it gives precedence to diplomacy over interventionism. It can be argued that the constant invocation of Article VII shows the failure of diplomacy in world affairs but this does not cancel the UN’s great hope in the antique practice of ‘communication and representation’.

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It might tempting to associate the UN’s approach to diplomacy with the rationalist/liberal internationalist school of IR but I will stay away from the IR debate. So how do great powers relate to this vision? I would argue that it all depends on power perception, meaning what constitutes power in the eyes of leaders. To best notice this I will delve into Obama’s foreign policy while touching upon the neoconservative narrative of the role of diplomacy as a counterexample.

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Source: US Department of Defense Current Photos @ Flickr

Obama’s ‘engagement’ with the world and most vitally with the ‘enemies’ appears a foreign policy in itself. The US president and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton translated this into summitry participation, increased investment in the US ‘civilian power’ abroad to catch up with the high military spending, and the pursuit of stable partnerships with the other leading countries or international organizations. What lies under this policy? It is the respect for the interests of counterparts, for international law and the order it creates, the doubtless reliance on the effectiveness of communication and negotiation (backed in this particular case by big sticks) but also much pragmatism.

In international politics, pragmatism is the natural sign that reality differs from aspirations. Obama’s administration cleverly understands the times and US’s true position in the world. First, self-reliance and unilateral behaviour is not sustainable anymore. Second, and this is key, the source for American leadership (power) is according to Obama its constant interaction with international institutions and norms. Furthermore, US security depends on alliances as ‘force multipliers’. Finally, the Security Strategy of the US underlines the need for the UN to be capable of ‘fulfilling its founding purpose’. To sum up, we have a clear case of diplomacy as instrument of smart power. We can therefore say that Obama’s understanding of diplomacy is in tune with international law. The opposite can be argued as well but I would say Obama’s intentions in this sense are a success if we consider some relevant opinions that explain how in fact America is not that good in diplomacy for reasons that range from distrust in this practice, to the privilege given to hard power over soft power, to instrumental diplomatic isolation of adversaries and so on.

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Even more helpful in making sense of Obama’s diplomatic legality is to remember the previous Bush administration and the neo-conservative ideology that stood behind its foreign policy. The first related aspect that strikes at first sight is the election of Colin Powell as head of US diplomacy in 2001, a public figure that can be called in Wiseman’s terms an ‘anti-diplomat’, meaning an official with a military and intelligence background. This nomination can be conceptualized as the triumph of militarism over diplomacy in foreign policy.

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Source: DonkeyHotey @ Flick

We could argue following the logic used in Obama’s case that the foreign policy of George W. Bush did not conceive of diplomacy as the UN under Chapter VI of its Charter does. If we give legal authority to this later document we can conclude that in principle, Bush’s diplomatic practice was illegal or at least not legal. Why did this particular American administration disregard diplomacy? I would again argue for the role of power perception. Robert Kagan, a representative of neo-conservatism, the ideology behind Bush’s foreign policy, talks of the American ‘strategic culture’ characterized by good and evil distinctions, ‘less patience’ when it comes to diplomatic practice, favour for coercion and finally unilateralism. Making a comparison to the EU, he suggests that the power balance between Europe and America has changed and that today the US is powerful and therefore it only acts as powerful states do. Moreover, an essential element in grasping this ideology is American exceptionalism, namely that the world’s interests coincide with America’s.

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In conclusion, the legal and idealistic prescriptions on diplomacy are fixed by the UN Charter. Not the same can be said about the diplomatic practice of the US. Based on its perception of power, diplomacy can be a goal in itself or an obstacle. In short, international law in reality succumbs to state interest but not without consequences. Even Condoleeza Rice’s search for legitimacy in the UN and Obama’s smart power strategy prove that the power of a state can be threatened by a decrease in legitimacy.

Bibliography

  1. Carlsnaes W, Risse T., Simmons B. (2002), Diplomacy, Bargaining and Negotiation, in Handbook of International Relations, pp. 212-235, SAGE Publications Ltd;
  2. Charter of the United Nations (1945). Website: https://treaties.un.org/doc/publication/ctc/uncharter.pdf;
  3. Colin Powell biography. Website: http://www.defense.gov/specials/AfricanAm2003/powell.html;
  4. Kagan R. (2004), Of Paradise and Power. America and Europe in the New World Order, Vintage Books;
  5. Kerr P., Wiseman G. (2013), Diplomacy in a globalizing world. Theories and Practices, Oxford University Press;
  6. National Security Strategy (2010), The White House;
  7. Nye J. Jr. (2011), The Future of Power, Public Affairs;
  8. Ratner S. (1995), Image and Reality in the UN’s Peaceful Settlement of Disputes, EJIL, pp. 426-444;
  9. Usgovernmentspending.com. Website: http://www.usgovernmentspending.com/year_spending_2014USbn_15bs2n_3031#usgs302;
  10. Wiseman G. (2011), Distinctive Characteristics of American Diplomacy, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy 6, pp.235-259, Marinus Nijhoff Publishers.
Claudiu Sonda
Passionate student of IR and European politics with an interest in developing a high-level expertise in International Security and geopolitics.