Deciphering the Present and Future Impact of the U.S. National Security Strategy

by Joanna Erdman

How does one decide ante-facto whether something is revolutionary? Do we know manifestos upon first appearance? Can historic documents be known as such before history unfolds? Such philosophical inquiries informed a roundtable discussion concerning the new U.S. National Security Strategy at the University of Toronto Faculty of Law on Oct. 22, 2002.

L-R against window: Profs. Alder, Brunée, Knop, Morgan, Stein and OrwinLaw professors Jutta Brunnée and Ed Morgan, Munk Centre for International Studies Prof. Janice Stein, and political science professors Emanuel Adler and Clifford Orwin deliberated the nature of the new and distinctly American internationalism proffered in the just released document.

Through a lively discussion, they offered opinions on the implications of the newly defined American role for international relations, international law and global institutions. Chairperson Prof. Karen Knop particularly emphasized the controversial inclusion of a "pre-emptive strike" approach to emerging international threats in the National Security Strategy's military and strategic vision.

Adler opened the discussion with an exploration of the philosophical ideas unpinning the strategy, namely the messianic idealism envisioned in the document. While others doubted its revolutionary capacity, Adler steadfastly held to his conviction that the ambition of the document, namely prescriptions of terrorism at the normative level and notions of "social engineering" or "democratizing Iraq", had the capacity to change the very rules of the international law game.

Prof. Brunnée followed and supported Adler's position with an exposition on the importance of international law for imposing "normative constraints against which states must - and do - justify their actions." She dismissed international law as the domain of scholars and other idealists. She defended it as valuable forum for intelligent criticism and debate; something, which ought not to be lost in the United State's design for greater unilateral decision and action.

Prof. Ed Morgan starkly criticized Brunnée's characterization of international law and institutions. Boldly claiming that international law demands no such objectivity or normative discourse, Morgan concluded "multilateral action is no better and no worse then the unilateral self-interested votes that put it in place." As such, there is no trading subjectivity for objectivity, nor power for norms. Rather, there is the same possibility for positive and effective actions outside as within the institutional structure.

Particularly important for Prof. Clifford Orwin was the relative position now occupied by the U.S. with respect to other members of the international community - "no longer is the U.S. first among equals but first without them," he said. More importantly, he said the "UN is now completely dependent on the United States in cases requiring the threat of military action; it has become the tail presuming to wag the dog." 

Prof. Janice Stein focused her discussion on the nature and justification for pre-emption. Most interestingly, she examined the implication of the U.S. articulating a general principal seemingly designed to justify only a single course of action - military strikes against Iraq. The novelty of the document, she argued, resides in the definition of imminence. While "pre-emption has always been a legitimate and legal strategy if there is evidence of an imminent attack," imminence has now been "expanded to include past behaviour as a measure of character," she said. It seems foolhardy and extreme to legitimate a principle that would grant every state a right of military pre-emption on such a flimsy and subjective definition, Stein said.

Although no general consensus was reached concerning the nature and implications of U.S. National Security Strategy, these Canadian professors joined scholars from around the world in imagining and debating the document's impact. Their theories and positions were published as editorials in the National Post throughout the week of October 21st.  Like the subject of their analysis, only time will tell the truth of their writings.