A case for war outside the law

Legitimacy in International Society
February 10, 2006

Legitimacy is a concept of great contemporary relevance, particularly in international affairs, and perhaps achieved its greatest prominence in the UN Security Council's debates on Iraq. It is a word that seems to carry its own good housekeeping seal, a clear-cut guarantee of infallibility. After reading this book, this comforting veil of unambiguous certainty wears decidedly thin.

Legitimacy in International Society is an immensely scholarly work, well researched and closely argued. Ian Clark's list of references fills 16 tightly packed pages and comprises no fewer than 335 authors, many with several publications to their credit. It is a comprehensive survey of the literature and as such a valuable work of synthesis.

Scholars will find great intellectual nourishment, though it is sometimes served up in morsels that the general reader may find hard to digest. The indigestibility is compounded by the irritating practice of citing the innumerable sources within the text, thus impeding the continuity of reading. It would arguably have been better to consign them to the end of each chapter.

Clark casts his net very wide, first exploring the historical evolution of the concept and then considering its role in contemporary international society. His historical analysis of legitimacy begins in the 15th century with the discovery of the New World. From two of his sources he quotes the phrase, "in discovering America, Europe had discovered itself", reasoning that legitimacy and the growth of international society are intimately intertwined.

The impact of a series of seminal international peace settlements is then discussed: Westphalia 1648, Utrecht 1713-14, Versailles 1919 and the post-Second World War settlement of 1945. Interestingly, Clark disputes the traditional academic view of Westphalia as the origin of the doctrine of sovereignty, claiming rather that it marked the constitutional foundation of international society.

The second half of the book begins with the effect of the Cold War on the evolving concept of legitimacy, and then examines its relationship with the principles of rightful membership, consensus, the norms of legality, morality and constitutionality and equilibrium, or the balance of power.

Clark concludes that while there are many interfaces between these, legitimacy is a thing apart. He stresses its intrinsically political nature, "the exercise of choice in a realm of indeterminate values".

Not only has there been a shift in focus over the centuries, but in the contemporary era legitimacy takes on many different guises and interpretations, as Clark shows in a series of fascinating vignettes describing the handling of recent international crises.

He singles out Kosovo as a milestone, the first time a group of states defended a breach of sovereignty on humanitarian grounds. Nato's use of force of arms to implement Security Council resolutions without specific Security Council authorisation was deemed by the Independent International Commission on Kosovo to be "illegal but legitimate". Lawrence Freedman, professor of war studies at King's College London, has described legitimacy as "that magic quality... somewhere in the vicinity of legality and morality".

The tangled web of Security Council debates over Iraq amply illustrates the fluidity of the concept when three interwoven issues of legitimacy were in play: the war; the UN and the Security Council; and the successor regime in Iraq.

One conclusion is that power and legitimacy are fundamentally inseparable, and this leads to a discussion as to whether legitimacy is challenged by the predominance of the US in today's world. Clark expresses the view that Europe clings to the 19th-century concept of a "just equilibrium" while the US seems to favour a "just disequilibrium".

In an analysis of US policy, Clark rightly emphasises the symbiotic relationship between the US and the UN: without the US the UN would be effectively disempowered; without the UN, the exercise of US primacy would be more costly. In a sense, he says, the "war" on terror presents a key test for both. He cites an article from The Times (March 2003) defining the UN's post-Cold War function as "simultaneously to restrain and legitimise the global hegemony of the US".

Clark implies that the jury is still out on where this will all lead, though he does point to potential dangers for the coherence of international society. His conclusions are also general: legitimacy matters and international relations studies should take it seriously.

For the lay reader, the profusion of often contradictory views from authoritative sources makes it hard to form a firm view. To a long-time practitioner of international affairs, who has had to resolve dilemmas of legitimacy in real life, its interpretation, like that of another favourite dictum, impartiality, lies in the eye of the beholder. If it is to your advantage, you embrace it as just; if not, you cast it asunder.

Dame Margaret Anstee is a former Under-secretary General of the UN and was a special representative of the Secretary-General in Angola.

Legitimacy in International Society

Author - Ian Clark
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 8
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 19 925842 2

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