Book Review: Empire

Empire’s Law – The American Imperial Project and the ‘War to Remake the World’.  Amy Bartholomew, Ed.  Pluto Press, London; Between the Lines, Toronto. 

The foremost phrase concerning law in modern news stories is that of “rule of law”, usually combined with two other catch words. “transparency” and “good governance.”  If it were all as simple as putting those three words together to create a better world, we would certainly have had it by now.  This indicates there is much more to these bits than simply applying a label for success.  The ‘rule of law’ has many different nuances and interpretations that are used and abused by various organizations, much of it centred on the United States and its role as modern imperial hegemon.

The basic arguments presented in “Empire’s Law” examine the way law is applied as a set of rules, and the manner in which empire engages or disengages from the rules as it chooses, essentially becoming a rule unto itself, not feeling it necessary to answer to outside influence.

Without a familiarity of the lexicon of legal vocabulary, I found parts of the work difficult to work through, but the general trend is often quite clearly stated, gems within the longer work.  The various essays serve as an indictment of the American Empire, the Bush Doctrine, recognizing also that the roots of the empire’s spread pass through the many preceding decades, culminating in the current situation where empire rules all – or tries to rule all. 

The first three essays are the most heavily academic.  The first topic examines the realization of an informal empire based on “The dynamism of American capitalism…combined with the universalistic language of American liberal democratic ideology.”   It emphasizes the role of “foreign direct investment and the modern corporate form” accompanied by “sporadic military interventions”, bringing the banana republics of Central America to mind.  Through an examination of capitalism’s development in the Twentieth Century, it arrives at the current situation where “to sustain intervention abroad” the empire needs to instil “fear and repressions at home” making it “more authoritarian internally” and “more blatantly aggressive externally.”

Iraq becomes the focal point of the current empire’s problems, with the UN receiving clear concise criticism at the beginning of Part II.  In testimony given before the World Tribunal on Iraq, several clear ideas are presented on the UN’s failure to halt the war in Iraq, summarized in the statement that “the United Nations…handling of the Iraq conflict by the Security Council will be recorded as a massive failure of oversight responsibility.”  While George Bush has provided several interpretations of terror, the Security Council has not defined it, “for fear that state terrorism employed by its permanent five member states would thereby be constrained.” 

While the UN is criticized, it is not denied completely, but is asked to step forward and take on its proper rule as an international agency “to act in keeping with the provisions of international law including the application of International Criminal Court provisions to Bush, Blair and their henchmen and women.”  This follows from the recognition that the war in Iraq is a “crime of military aggression on a sovereign member state by US and UK forces,” violating the core tenets of the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention and Protocols.” 

The final essay in the book, “Whither the United Nations”, examines various ways in which the UN can be revitalized, discussing various aspects including its political role, people’s rights (as a redefinition of sovereign rights), international law, management of economic globalization (subsuming and controlling the WTO, IMF and related corporate sponsored organizations), and finally the institutionalization of international justice.  There is recognition that this would be a long term process, but also that the UN as an organization is the place within which to perform these transformations.

The oft idealized but poorly defined concepts of ‘rule of law’ receives excellent coverage in the essay “Looking for Life Signs in an International Rule of Law’.   Rule of law as it is now used, is vague term used mainly by corporations indicating that if everyone followed the rules of economic law as dictated by the WTO, OECD, IMF and World Bank, there would be peace, harmony and prosperity in the world.  That has been proven blatantly false with the IMF taking direct contradictory hits form the likes of Argentina, while the WTO and OECD continue to operate secretly behind closed doors after the failure if the MAI fiasco, colluding towards a new world governance.  The author, Trevor Purvis, begins by identifying the “cognitive dissonance…about who represents the rule of law and might constitute its violations,” making it “particularly difficult…to settle on what a compelling conception of the rule of law might entail at the international level.” 

His arguments are clear and concise.  Rule of law “does not seem to apply to American foreign policy itself,” and which “assaults not only …a nascent international rule of law, but…rule of law at home as well.”   Rule of law is also not a “fact of simple compliance”, as “brutal, law-bound communities may evidence ready compliance with legal prescriptions.”

Purvis lists his core elements for rule of law.  The first, and this is discussed in many other areas, is that rule of law governs “particularly the arbitrary use of administrative power and the use of coercive force.”  It is quite the opposite of the Bush doctrine – the rule of law provides the ability to protect the people from the government.  Secondly, it should be “public, stable, general” and therefore “knowable”, that the citizens being governed “must be capable of knowledge of that law.” Third, and one would think this is obvious, while also recognizing that in reality it is obviously not, is that “no one is above the law.”  The latter concept truly emphasizes that law rules, and not that men rule through laws.  Finally, he argues, “decisions should be amenable to independent judicial review.”

Purvis returns to discussions of the rule of law as “occupying a central place in the discourses of economic globalization…pitched at the level of the state” to bring “municipal law into line with the…economic exigencies of a globalizing marketplace.”   It has become “one of capital’s primary exports”, assuming that “if markets flourish, so to will the rule of law.”  This has translated into “law and order backed by strong states, while the ‘goodness’ of good governance is to be measured in terms of market friendliness” even though “significant evidence to the contrary exists.” 

In his conclusion, he states that rule of law needs to address the “political and material demands of globalization’s disenfranchised”, arising from a “social and political struggle” including the “prohibition of arbitrary violence of the sort manifest in American imperial intrigue today.”  It could readily be added this applies to domestic law a well as international law.

The larger part of the book examines the role of the ‘rule of law’ in relation to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, directly stating in different words one of my consistent themes in examining world politics, that what you do speaks so loud I can’t hear what you are saying.  The U.S. “defines problem states as those that disregard international law, while it seeks to exempt itself” from those same laws.  More directly “The indiscriminate death, pain and destruction unleashed ostensibly in the name of extending freedom, human rights, and liberation…is enough to discredit thoroughly claims of humanitarian aim….”

One of the ironies of modern politics is how quickly some positions can change.  As a Canadian, that irony is fully evident in the essay “Canada in the Era of George W. Bush” which in general discusses how Canada has avoided full on entanglement with the U.S. in its overseas adventures and rising militarism.  Unfortunately while the book was in press, the Canadian government changed hands and the new Conservative minority led a clear change of direction to the right supporting the various doctrines and rhetoric that arises in Washington for most domestic and international statements, from Abortion through to Zionism.  This may well chagne again after the next election…and so on with Canada.

Once the reader becomes used to the lexicon of the legal discussion concerning international law, this work provides much in the way of valuable discussion as to how the empire deals with the ‘rule of law’, and to what significance and definitions should truly be applied to the concept of ‘rule of law’.  Along the way, it fully incriminates the American empire in its abuse and manipulations of the nascent system of international law.  There is obviously a long term effort required to truly transform ‘rule of law’ into justice for the citizens of the world, and “Empire’s Law” should help direct that discussion. 

-Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor of opinion pieces and book reviews to Palestine Chronicles.  His interest in this topic stems originally from an environmental perspective, which encompasses the militarization and economic subjugation of the global community and its commodification by corporate governance and by the American government. 

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