Toward a Global Rule of Law

Toward a Global Rule of Law

The attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001 can appear within two different frames of interpretation. The first sees them as attacks on the United States as a state and its people. The second views them as crimes against humanity. The difference in interpretation is not technical, but political, and each implies different strategies of reaction. Although some public figures recommended the second interpretation shortly after the attack, we know that the first has prevailed. Here we question the statist response to the terrorist attacks and offer some vision of how the United States and other global actors might conceive their possibilities for action under a more cosmopolitan interpretation of the situation.

The Statist Interpretation

The Bush administration framed the attacks as an act of war against the United States, for which military retaliation is the appropriate response. This frame meant finding a state or states to engage in war, and the United States chose Afghanistan on the grounds that the Taliban government harbored and supported al-Qaeda. The United States has singled out Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as additional states toward which military action may be taken. The construction of a response to the attacks as a state-to-state military conflict, however, has never fit well. Even within a traditional state-centered world politics, the fact that the government of Afghanistan allowed al-Qaeda leaders to run camps in its territory is a shaky justification for making war on the state and eliminating its government. Aware of that shakiness, the United States shifted its reasons for the war against the Taliban from a rationale of self-defense to a humanitarian defense of freeing the Afghan people, especially its women, from oppression. We find this rationale cynical and opportunistic, since neither the Bush nor the Clinton administration publicly worried before about the plight of the Afghan people.

Responding to the terrorist attacks in the frame of the states system, thus making a war against a state, does not fit the case, nor has it been effective in making a safer world. Although the war may have destroyed some al-Qaeda bases and the United States has captured some members of that group, as yet the world has no reason to think of them as specifically connected to the nineteen suicidal attackers of September 11. Widely circulating estimates of civilian deaths in Afghanistan give a minimum of 1,000 and as many as 3,700, and hundreds are likely to die from unexploded bombs. The numbers of refugees suffering hunger and frost because of the war is impossible to calculate. There is no reason to think that the war has deterred other would-be terrorists around the world. The war may have contributed to destabilizing central Asia with consequences yet to be seen.

Although the United States has not acted alone in prosecuting the war, it has called the shots. The United States de...

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