One should not conclude that the relationship between national sovereignty and international organization is in all respects a competitive one. International agencies are not engaged in a zero-sum game with states, a situation in which the weakening of the latter is the condition of the strengthening of the former. On the contrary, effective international organization requires the participation of broadly competent states—states that are able as well as willing to meet their obligations, that are capable of formulating responsible positions and reaching meaningful decisions, and that can manage their resources, people, and territories to the degree required for dependable cooperation in multilateral activities. States deficient in these respects are frequently pressed by involvement in international organization to remedy their deficiencies, and the agencies of the United Nations system have attempted to give attention to building up the capabilities of particularly deficient member states to increasing, rather than diminishing, the meaningfulness and effectiveness of their sovereignty.
America's engagement in international organizations has always been handicapped by limited possession of the kind of national sovereignty essential for effective and reliable participation. Its collaboration in multilateral enterprises has been restrained by reluctance to bend to pressure for strengthening the national capabilities in question. When Americans worry about the implications of membership in international bodies, they are at least as likely to exhibit concern about the enlargement as about the diminution of the sovereign competence of the U.S. government.
The essence of the matter is that the United States is a political society dedicated to the ideal of constitutional democracy, a state whose central government is designed to operate within a framework of limitations derived from the principles of democracy and constitutionalism. Democracy implies that government must be responsive to the majority will more than, and in case of conflict, instead of, the exigencies of the international situation, the rules or decisions or pressures of the organs of international agencies, or the obligations prescribed either by general international law or by treaties. The problem posed by the tension between international commitment to order and domestic commitment to democracy is a real one for the United States; and the more the country becomes involved in multilateral agencies and activities the more intense it becomes.
Unfortunately for international organizations, the democratic principle is not exhausted by the proposition that national commitment requires popular consent. Consent theory implies the right of a nation to change its mind and the obligation of a government to accept the implications of the withdrawal of popular consent. The international legal sanctity of national commitments is challenged by the democratic legitimacy of popularly inspired decisions to violate or repudiate such commitments. The government of the United States came face to face with this problem in the 1960s and 1970s, when the popular consensus that had supported the acceptance of commitments in the two preceding decades began to dissolve. So long as the United States undertakes to combine international responsibility with domestic democracy, its leaders will confront serious dilemmas, and uncertainty will prevail in international organizations as to what can be expected from the United States. Democracy coexists uncomfortably with international law and organization.
Constitutionalism, no less than democracy, creates difficulties for the United States as a participant in international agencies. The president's responsibility for the conduct of American foreign relations, including the management of American participation in international organizations, is not fully matched by his legal authority or his political power to exercise this responsibility. He must compete and cooperate with the Congress, which shares in the control of foreign policy. The division of powers associated with American federalism limits the capacity of the federal government to accept and carry out obligations, or to engage in cooperative arrangements, under the auspices of international bodies. The national commitments to preserve a significant degree of autonomy for the private sector of the economy, to maintain the freedom of a press that zealously guards the right to self-definition of its responsibility, and to respect individual rights enshrined in a written constitution and interpreted by an independent judiciary, establish further limitations upon the capacity of those who speak and act officially for the United States to engage the country fully and reliably in the work of international organizations.
To say that the United States is a constitutional democracy is to say that the body politic has not conferred upon its central government the full powers, usually associated with the concept of sovereignty, that may be required for loyal and effective performance in foreign relations, including the country's effective performance in international organizations. To say that the American public is dedicated to the preservation of the system of constitutional democracy is to emphasize its reluctance to enlarge, or to countenance the enlargement of, governmental capacities relevant to involvement in multilateral enterprises, capacities to make and carry out commitments, to act decisively, and to exercise the degree of control over a variety of internal matters that may be entailed by acceptance of international schemes of regulation or cooperation.
There is a constitutional doctrine, derived from the Supreme Court opinion in Missouri v. Holland (1920), supporting the view that the valid acceptance of international obligations carries with it the enhancement of federal powers to the extent required for meeting those obligations. Moreover, early enthusiasm for membership in the United Nations was reflected in a widespread tendency to acquiesce in a broad interpretation of executive authority to act as might be required for effective collaboration with the organization. This acquiescence proved to be short-lived. In the 1950s the Bricker amendment campaign argued—at least according to President Eisenhower—in favor of curtailing presidential power and empowering Congress with the obligation to ratify all treaties negotiated by the executive. Yet the campaign revealed the high regard for the U.S. Constitution. The doctrine of Missouri v. Holland was more generally feared as a threat to the integrity of the American constitutional system than valued as a promise of the adaptability of that system to the requirements of the age of international organization. The formal constitutional renunciation of the doctrine was obviated by assurances that it would not be exploited. Less than two decades later there emerged a political mood dominated by insistence that the competence of the president to commit the country in international affairs should be significantly reduced. In 1973, in view of the lost war in Vietnam and the Watergate crisis, this led a Democratic Congress to pass the War Powers Act, which compelled the president to consult with Congress about sending American troops into combat abroad and required him to withdraw these troops within sixty days unless Congress gave its approval for a longer mission abroad.
Generally, however, it appeared that Americans were more concerned about preventing involvement in international organization from impinging upon the distribution of authority within their political system than about preventing the peculiarities of their domestic arrangements from handicapping the nation's performance in international organization. The dominance of this concern had a great deal to do with American rejection of the League of Nations. Acceptance of the United Nations clearly has not eliminated this element from the American attitude toward involvement in world affairs.
Nineteenth-century isolationist doctrine, with its emphasis upon aloofness from European political entanglements and intrigues, expressed not only a pragmatic judgment concerning the best way for the United States to survive in a dangerous world but also a moral aspiration, an ideal of national virtue defined as innocent abstention from the evils of power politics. This heritage of moral distaste for international politics colored early American thinking about international organization to promote world peace and order. Nineteenth-century Americans, ranging from spokesmen for the various peace societies that sprang up after 1815 to leaders in government, tended to conceive organization for peace in essentially apolitical terms, emphasizing legal formulas and arbitral or judicial settlement of disputes. World courts figured more prominently than diplomatic forums or international armies in favored formulations, and the ground was prepared for the perennial popularity of the "rule of law" in American internationalist thought. In particular the vision of the future did not include the involvement of the United States in the international political arena or the burdening of the United States with weighty political responsibilities. It certainly did not refer to the obligation to participate in military sanctions against disturbers of the peace. America was not to be contaminated by being dragged into power politics; rather, the world was to be purified by being persuaded to rise above politics, to the realm of law. Global salvation was to be achieved by formula and gadget, not by American commitment to share in the hard, dangerous, and dirty work of an organized political system.
The scheme, set forth during World War I by the League to Enforce Peace and by similar organizations in Europe, then formulated in the League of Nations Covenant under the leadership of President Wilson, was not in accord with this American vision. Calling for an essentially political approach to world order supported ultimately by national obligation to engage in military sanctions, it violated the basic tenets of the traditional American creed. It offered a painful, not a painless, solution to the problem of order. The American peace movement had hoped for the appointment of a judge; it was confronted by the demand that the United States serve as a policeman. The league promised not reliance upon predictable legal process but involvement in the uncertainties of political and military activity. True, the new machinery included the World Court, and there was massive American support throughout the life of the league for membership in that body. The movement to join the court was ultimately frustrated, however, by the fear of involvement in the political league through adherence to its judicial annex. The American legalistic tradition demanded acceptance of a court, but it did not permit acceptance of that particular court.
Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: