Obama, Change and International Law


The votes were tallied as the world waited. The results were announced and history was made. America got her new President. Change was the promise. With a Democratic party dominated Congress as well as the possible opportunity for President-Elect Obama to pick 2 Supreme Court Justices during his term in the White House, this is certainly a good time for the President-Elect to make good on his promise.


How well does an Obama administration bode for international law? During the Presidential Primaries, ASIL conducted a survey of the various positions taken by candidates on international law issues. Obama’s responses in this survey generally signal a shift in US policy from unilateralism to multilateralism as well as an emphasis on the need for better compliance with international law so as to enhance US ability to influence international law creation and promote American values abroad. However, on particular issues, the existing international obligations and rules seemed unsatisfactory. For instance, he, in the course of the campaign, strongly advocated the re-negotiation of NAFTA as well as supported humanitarian intervention in Sudan. See http://www.asil.org/obama.cfm as well as a previous post on intervention: https://fletcherfila.wordpress.com/2008/10/06/intervention-some-food-for-thought-on-a-fletcher-favourite/.


Two issues come to mind.

First, perhaps, only time will be able to separate meaningful policy statements from campaign rhetoric. Of course, this would have been a necessary concern regardless of whoever won the election. However, there already has been some controversy in the Canadian media over Obama’s commitment to re-negotiate NAFTA. See http://www.ctv.ca/servlet/ArticleNews/story/CTVNews/20080227/dems_nafta_080227/20080227?hub=CTVNewsAt11. Furthermore, adherence and compliance to international law takes more than executive policy and the new administration will be operating under domestic political constraints. Such is the wisdom of Putnam’s Two Level game.


Second, social constructivists may have some fun in examining the idealation effects that Obama and his “Change” campaign will have on international law creation. Will US values and preferences become more accepted in other states to the extent that these foreign values and preferences change? To what extent will this change be attributable to the strength of the Obama message? Also, high expectations can be a double-edged sword. In the event that the new administration fails to live up to its promises, what impact will the subsequent disappointment have on US ability to change foreign values and preferences? What can public diplomatists do to manage expectations?


4 Responses to “Obama, Change and International Law”

  1. jeremyleong Says:

    The good folk at the International Economic Law and Policy Blog have issued a list of questions pertaining to how an Obama administration will move on international economic affairs. See http://worldtradelaw.typepad.com/ielpblog/2008/11/change-is-coming.html.

  2. Jeremy,

    As always, you sustain an amazing intellectual effort in examining some salient issues. The questions are 1) will US policy change significantly with the new Prince of Change and 2) what are the inescapable effects of having a new person in office with such a reform IMAGE.

    As someone who attaches great importance to ideational factors without going off the constructivist deep-end, I would point to the amazing shift in international opinions that has occurred after the election of Obama. Abroad, the US has and will be viewed more positively. One international commentator said it well, this has reaffirmed the positive image of US democracy; the US can change and move beyond its previous, much maligned, policies.

    On the other hand, the ideational impact of having elected Obama has a potential concern if the promised “change” is not fulfilled. For example, many commentators see very few foreign policy changes in this new administration: a continued focus on democracy promotion abroad, preoccupation with counter-terrorism and the Middle East, and an emphasis on ideological cooperation over economic cooperation. Image and ideas are powerful but can be severely compromised if not substantiated by action.

    Needless to say, I remain optimistic and excited. As I said in a panel on US democracy promotion in the Middle East (http://farescenter.tufts.edu/events/forums/), I feel like we are in the non-Fukuyama moment, the cusp of history…

  3. jeremyleong Says:

    Thanks Ivan.

    Also, the good folk at Opinio Juris have asked similar questions, as has Dan Drezner. See http://opiniojuris.org/2008/11/06/president-elect-obama-on-international-law/. and http://danieldrezner.com/blog/?p=4046 respectively.

  4. jeremyleong Says:

    From the Europeans:-

    The Fletcher School’s Euro-Atlantic club recently held a lecture by Jacques Ruprik who is a senior fellow at Harvard. The topic was “Europe and the ‘Obama Effect'”. I am trying to get my hands on a copy of the text. The Euro-Atlantic Club referred me to a blogpost by the Centre for European Reform on an identical issue. See http://centreforeuropeanreform.blogspot.com/2008/11/what-obama-effect-for-transatlantic.html.

    Also, for perspectives on Obama and NATO. See http://www.ndc.nato.int/download/publications/RP_43EN.pdf. It is a paper by the Konrad Adenuar Foundation.

    Cybernods to the Euro-Atlantic Club for this.

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