‘International law, the American exception and British centre-left foreign policies before and after the Iraq War’ is the third project in my American exception series. It will run from 1st September 2011 to 31 August 2012 and it is funded by a British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship.
What should the UK do when the US either challenges or violates international norms? This question lay behind the controversy surrounding New Labour’s support for the US war against Iraq and it is likely to challenge future UK policymakers. Blair argued that the moral case for regime change made support for the US ‘obvious’ from a centre-left perspective. This research programme examines whether this is the case. It uses an interpretivist qualitative method to analyse foreign policy discourse on the centre-left of British politics after the Cold War. The hypothesis is that Blair was wrong to describe regime change as an ‘obvious’ policy preference, but that he was a ‘norm entrepreneur’ within centre left politics. The programme also draws on normative IR theory to address two questions: should a perceived moral imperative to support US military action override the UK’s need for a legal mandate when the Security Council opposes that action? And should the UK abandon its commitment to be bound by the strongest legal argument if opposing the US harms the national interest?
In March 2002 Tony Blair wrote that the case for war to overthrow Saddam Hussein was ‘obvious’ from a centre-left perspective. This was because the centre -left is ‘a political philosophy that does care about other nations – Kosovo, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone – and is prepared to change regimes on the merits, [it] should be gung-ho on Saddam.’ This memo, which was made available by the Iraq Inquiry, is remarkable because it illustrates Blair’s support for the US before a legal mandate had been secured at the UN. Furthermore, it ignores contradictory positions that can also be described as ‘obvious’ from a centre-left perspective. These include a suspicion of US power, particularly in the hands of conservatives, and an insistence that military action be consistent with international law and international opinion. These alternative views informed opposition to the war in 2003 and they persist to this day, as evidenced by David Miliband’s rejection of his brother’s admission that the war was a mistake. Indeed, with the pro-UN Liberal Democrats joining the traditionally ‘Atlanticist’ Conservative party in government, centre-left thinking has clearly entered a period of reflection. To inform that debate, this research programme asks two questions: what exactly is the ‘obvious’ centre-left position on the use of force? What should the UK do when the US engages in conduct that either challenges or violates international norms?
The programme of research is divided into two projects. The first examines how this policy divergence evolved by focusing on post-Cold War attitudes. Humanitarian crises clearly influenced Blair and others on the centre-left. The question to answer is how the moral imperative to act related to the legal imperative to engage in, and respect the outcome of, international public deliberation or multilateralism. This is important because it tests Blair’s assumption that the case for war was ‘obvious’ from a centre-left perspective. Using an interpretivist qualitative method, I am analysing discourse within the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, centre-left think -tanks such as the Fabian Society and the Foreign Policy Centre, and the centreleft press, such as New Statesman, Guardian, and Independent. These views are also being mapped on to elite opinion within the legal community. This is important because it helps explain how divisions within centre-left politics found expression in what is still seen as an arcane debate on the Iraq War’s legality. The hypothesis is that Blair was wrong to describe regime change by military force as an ‘obvious’ policy preference, but that he was a ‘norm entrepreneur’ within centre-left politics.
The second project draws on normative IR theory to develop a framework that can guide the UK’s American policy. It addresses two questions: firstly, should a perceived moral imperative to support military action by the US override the UK’s need for a legal mandate when the Security Council refuses to support such action? Blair’s insistence that he ‘did the right thing’ by removing Saddam, and that the French threat to veto military action was ‘unreasonable’, suggests that it does. The project is exploring the implications of this for the constitution of international society and it is aiming to identify substantive and procedural criteria that can properly define when a permanent member’s veto is unreasonable. Secondly, should the UK abandon its commitment to be bound by the strongest international legal argument if opposing the US harms the national interest? The concept of ‘good international citizenship’ insists that a state must respect international law except where that policy threatens ‘vital’ national interests. Preserving ‘the special relationship’ is often portrayed in these terms and this can easily lead to servile Atlanticism and an unwarranted rejection of international law. The project asks how alternative conceptions of ‘the special relationship’ might provide the UK with greater scope to square its commitment to international law and its national interests. It does this by recalling that the republican ideas of public deliberation and the rule of law are at the heart of the Jeffersonian and Wilsonian traditions (see Dan Deudney’s 2008 book Bounding Power); and that a UK defence of international law that appeals to these values, in these terms, is less likely to suffer costs that are harmful to the national interest.