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  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: June 2012

4 - The US pursuit of legal security in substantive policy arenas


For the United States, an essential element of the rule of law has always been, and still remains, law among nations. We’ve always respected our international legal obligations and we have led the world in developing new international law . . . . [W]e try and use our great power not to win glory or imperial gain for ourselves but to establish international rules and norms that we encourage others to follow.

Condoleezza Rice, 2005

The US pursuit of legal security has involved an offensive dimension, by which the United States has sought to influence the international law undertakings as well as the domestic laws and policies of other states, as well as a defensive dimension, by which the United States has sought to safeguard its own legal position against interference by others via law. The pursuit of legal security is not, however, an end in itself but an avenue by which the United States can pursue its policy objectives more broadly, including in the economic, military, environmental, and social fields. The vehicles for the pursuit of legal security in specific substantive areas of US policy have evolved during the life of the United States. US legislation itself has been used on occasion, as well as the bilateral treaty and, in recent years, resolutions of the Security Council. But it is the multilateral treaty that is most distinctive of the American age. The era of the multilateral treaty coincides with that of the United States as a great power; the first multilateral lawmaking conferences, multilateral treaties, and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century.

The United States used multilateral treaties in the immediate post-Second World War years to establish a system of international institutions, characterized by John Ikenberry as ‘liberal hegemony’. A number of the multilateral treaties most fundamental to the post-Second World War international order were drafted in the United States, with US interests in mind. Institutions that could be regarded as foundational to the post-war international order in whose design the US took a lead include the United Nations, GATT, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

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