Commentary

America Leads by Leaving the ICC

By Gary Dempsey
May 10, 2002

The Bush administration’s decision to renounce the treaty creating a permanent international criminal court, or ICC, has been met with howls of indignation. “The administration is putting itself on the wrong side of history,” says Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) apocalyptically warns that the White House’s actions “actually call into question our country’s credibility in all multilateral endeavors.” With “history” and “all multilateral endeavors” on the line, what must the Bush administration be thinking?

Fortunately, “history” and “all multilateral endeavors” are not really on the line. What is on the line is intellectual honesty, and the president’s critics seem to be abandoning it in increasing numbers. They claim, for example, that the president’s decision not to back the ICC is just the latest example of Bush’s “unilateralism,” which they say is “isolating” and “minimizing” the United States. Michael Posner, executive director of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, says, “By abandoning the court, the U.S. forsakes the leading role it plays in the world.” Others, especially in European capitals, loudly argue that the U.S. withdrawal from the ICC worsens Bush’s “record of hostility toward multilateral commitments,” from the Kyoto global warming treaty to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

Such dire rhetoric, however, is not supported by the facts. A closer look at these anti-Bush criticisms instead reveals a willingness to ignore inconvenient facts and a perverse understanding of the concept of leadership.

For starters, it should be recalled that opposition to the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty has been bipartisan and predates President Bush’s arrival in Washington. In fact, in 1997, 95 members of the 100-member U.S. Senate voted for a resolution opposing the carbon emission limits in the Kyoto Protocol. In 2000, the Senate decisively rejected the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And in early 2001 President Bill Clinton said that the International Criminal Court treaty had “significant flaws,” and recommended that the incoming Bush administration not submit it for Senate ratification unless and until U.S. concerns were resolved. The Bush administration has apparently concluded that the ICC treaty is beyond repair and that no amount of fine-tuning will correct its flaws.

With respect to the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the president’s critics must be aware that finding a framework other than a Cold War relic is something Bush must do if he wants to honor one of the core issues upon which he ran for, and won, the U.S. presidency: namely, deploying a missile defense system to protect the United States against accidental launches and deliberate attacks by rogue states and would-be terrorists.

Most troubling, however, is the muddled understanding the president’s critics have of the concept of leadership. Indeed, the president’s critics seem to believe that it is an expression of American leadership to go along with treaties that are flawed, like the International Criminal Court, and treaties that are contrary to U.S. national interests, like the Kyoto Protocol. By that logic, following the bad policies of other countries is a form of American leadership.

True leadership, however, is something different than the president’s critics imagine. True leadership means pursuing policies that are in America’s national interest, and persuading other countries that the policies are in their national interest too. It does not mean, as some of the president’s critics contend, doing things because they will make other countries happy. That’s what we might more accurately call “followership.”

Gary Dempsey is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.