In 1941, prior to Pearl Harbour, the United States broke with a generation typified by "isolationism" from world affairs. Recognising the threat to world stability German and Japanese expansion posed, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt committed their nations to a novel thesis - international cooperation was the foundation for solutions to a variety of problems. The foundation, while recognising military needs, was laid to avoid war. The Atlantic Charter endeavoured to resolve problems in anticipation of conflict. Philippe Sands traces the steps through which international law was conceived and implemented for six decades. Only now, at the beginning of the 21st Century, and by the actions of two national leaders, is that cooperative foundation being seriously eroded.
This important and penetrating study, authored by a man involved in international law at many levels, outlines the path taken in building cooperation among nations. He demonstrates how the often halting and innovative steps have produced results. The Pinochet case, involving Britain, Spain and Chile, show how effective and precedent-setting some of these actions have been. Although there are pre-WWII occurrences of international cooperation resolving individual issues, the grander themes of human rights, environmental concerns and economic liberalisation have come about in the years after the Atlantic Charter. Advances such as the Law of the Sea, the Convention Against Torture, the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol demonstrate the possibilities for extending justice and protecting the environment. One nation, the United States, has either avoided commitment to these instruments, or shelved their provisions when it deemed its own interests were paramount. To Sands, this is a disturbing and dangerous new form of isolationism. Sands sees American "exceptionalism" as leading to global instability. As he points out clearly, its devious methods and clumsy application have proven ineffective wherever it's been applied. Global resentment is clearly manifest today.
The "exceptionalist" theme was forcefully brought into view by the younger Bush's administration. Coming to office with ambitions to control governments in the oil-rich Middle East, the second Bush had targetted the Iraq regime of Saddam Hussein from the outset. A nation crippled by UN sanctions after the first "Gulf War", Iraq was vulnerable to outside pressures, Hussein's blustering notwithstanding. Sands outlines the steps taken by George Walker Bush to bring Iraq under US domination. Along the way, he recruited British Prime Minister Tony Blair to his cause. Sands is unable to define why Blair found the new arrangement desirable, but once the Labour Party leader had taken it up, he was "in for a penny, in for a pound". Wherever Bush led, Blair would follow - even using the same deceptive methods employed by the US administration. This included arranging for "intelligence" to be moulded to the committed path. "Legal" justification for the Iraq invasion was ignored in the US and ineptly contrived in Britain.
Sands notes a different application of "exceptionalism" of the United States in one area - its role in international trade. After examples set by the formation of the European Union, from small beginnings in cooperation to a fully-fledged economic bloc, the US engaged in its own form of "cooperation" with the establishment of NAFTA - the North American Free Trade Association. This was recently expanded to cover the Western Hemisphere. Based on a string of secretly formulated arrangements launched after WWII, these structures led to the US-dominated World Trade Organisation and International Monetary Fund. These organisations, reflecting the aim of Western domination of the developing world's economies, have guided aims in many nations with an eye to controlling resources and labour while increasing markets and eschewing environmental issues.
The author concludes with the most glaring and unacceptable aspect of the "exceptionalist" policy - torture of prisoners. Although a party to the Convention Against Torture, the US record in Afghanistan, Guantanamo and Iraq shows that the Earth's most powerful nation has not only flagrantly violated its provisions, but has sought justification for its acts among its resident legal advisors. Having declared a "war on terror", the Bush administration promptly exempted people captured from the Geneva Convention. Guantanamo thus became a "legal black hole" in Sands' terms. Unable to determine to what lengths the CIA has engaged in while dealing with prisoners, the author excerpts the opinions tendered by senior officials of the Pentagon and the Attorney General's office. The use of torture was not only acceptable but the memos lined out what levels of pain might be inflicted! Note that none of these prisoners have been charged. Their only "crime" was to have been captured in a nation invaded by the United States. It is worth noting that some "prisoners" were in advanced age - hardly combatants and unlikely threats.
Sands' book is a well-written and impeccably researched charge list against the proponents of "exceptionalism" and military adventurism. As an advocate of the rule of law and with experience in international litigation, he supports cooperative effort using instruments agreed upon by many nations. International law, he argues, is the sole foundation for addressing global issues. The UN need not be the sole authority in determining which issues are addressed and how dealt with. That body, however, provides the best administrative methods and the broadest venue for dealing with them. This is a "must-read" book that provides a single, comprehensive overview of how the Bush administration has overturned a half-century of effort to improve multilateral cooperation. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]