Rogue Nation USA

Which country refuses to sign international treaties and ignores UN resolutions while demanding that everyone else play by the rules? You guessed it.

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

Quick—no peeking. Who was the last American to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize?

I try this in front of audiences, including quite “concerned,” liberal ones, all the time. It’s shocking to hear the enveloping silence that falls. All right—it was Jody Williams in conjunction with her organization, the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines. Now why is it that so few people know that? It’s not as if the American press doesn’t print prominent annual coverage of US Nobel laureates, and it’s not as if the Peace Prize goes very often to an American citizen.

There are probably two reasons why Ms. Williams is not more famous than she is. The first has to do with the fact that the late Princess Diana sucked up all the available oxygen on the land-mines issue by the simple tactic of staging a couple of photo ops in Bosnia and Angola. The second is that President Bill Clinton did not follow the usual practice of telephoning the winner with his congratulations. Perhaps this reluctance derived partly from the fact that Ms. Williams had publicly called him a “weenie” for refusing to put an American signature on the treaty, which (though it was a great triumph as international agreements go) did look a bit threadbare without the assent of the world’s largest exporter of arms. In the end, there was a Clintonian compromise. He belatedly made the call of felicitations. But he didn’t sign the treaty.

What was the reason given by the United States for being the holdout country? It was candid enough: We quite like land mines, and may need or choose to employ them. You don’t just have to be a very big country to say that. You have to be a very arrogant one.

A small but interesting thing happened in the last year of the Clinton administration. The State Department decided to drop the term rogue state as applied to unpopular or unpleasant regimes, such as those in Libya or North Korea. This was a relief; a serious nation has no business employing cartoonish designations or schoolyard epithets. But one of the reasons for the decision, as I was told in confidence by a person at Foggy Bottom, was that the phrase could be too easily turned around on its author. Time and again, the United States exempts itself from the standards that it applies to others.

This is not a new contradiction. In the late 1970s the US government quite rightly took Iran to the World Court for the crime of diplomatic hostage taking, and secured a judgment in its own favor. A few years later, Nicaragua took the United States to the World Court for the crime of mining its civilian harbors, and secured a judgment in its own favor. On this occasion, Washington refused to recognize the jurisdiction of the court. So it goes.

The word for this might be unilateralism—a superpower that openly proclaims that it recognizes no interests except its own. The so-called Powell Doctrine, named for Colin Powell himself, states with beautiful simplicity that the United States reserves the right to act only in its own interests, to do so with overwhelming force, and to disregard any tedious legalisms that might stand in its way. (This also exempts the United States from participating in bleeding-heart humanitarian missions it doesn’t like.) Currently, a version of the same doctrine is being wheeled out in order to demolish the most important treaty that the United States actually did sign — the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, forbidding the development of shields such as the Star Wars fantasy. Ah, say the Bush people, we didn’t sign that treaty with Russia. We signed it with the Soviet Union! (And they like to mock Clinton’s tricky way with words.)

Remember the invasion of Panama in the winter of 1989? A full-scale military operation to apprehend a drug-dealing head of state who had turned sour on his partners in Washington, it was given the grand-sounding title “Operation Just Cause.” Reviewing some of the more pathetic justifications offered for this operation, in which young Colin Powell so distinguished himself, my then-colleagues at Harper’s came up with the brilliant slogan “Just Cause We Say So.”

This fat and superior mentality can be found all over our official rhetoric. Not long ago, Madeleine Albright was asked why the United States imposed diplomatic isolation and economic sanctions on Cuba, but not on the far more repressive People’s Republic of China. Her reply, essentially, was that China is a world power whereas Cuba is only a regional nuisance. Regional to whom, one might ask? The unexamined assumption is that something is what it is because a superpower says so. (She might as well have answered that China is a big potential market for American corporations whereas Cuba is not, but that would be making the same point in a different way.)

The United States is a founding and senior member of the United Nations and also its host country, but it doesn’t feel like paying its full membership dues. (The current US proposal to pay perhaps half our debt to the U.N. is even more arrogant than the original deadbeat line: As Alfred Rubin, a Tufts University professor of international law, points out, you express more contempt for your obligations if you acknowledge them but say you’ll meet them as and when you feel like it.) The United States nonetheless reserves the right to veto U.N. resolutions, to insist on their full implementation, or to ignore them.

Does it make wise use of this luxurious range of choices? In 1994, several smaller states went to the U.N., urgently pleading for a small but decisive increase in the world body’s presence in Rwanda. Advance warning had been given of the intentions of the Hutu militia, and word of their plans had been authoritatively leaked to local peacekeepers. Madeleine Albright, then the US envoy to the U.N., was instructed to block the proposal to send more troops. After the self-inflicted debacle in Somalia, the United States had decided that Africa was boring and dangerous and that its pleas should go unheard. The Hutu genocide plan went off without a hitch; the United States then approved a military intervention by the French government, which sent its troops to protect the mass murderers against the rebellion of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

Do yourself a favor and look up the date on which the United States actually ratified the 1948 Convention on Genocide (40 years after its passage at the United Nations) or the last time it refused to recognize a genocide (the 1915-1923 massacre of Armenians, the subject of a failed congressional resolution last fall).

On the other hand, when it wants to mobilize the international community, the United States is prepared to expend a lot of effort. The same Madeleine Albright supported the passage of the Helms-Burton legislation, which sought to extend the embargo on Cuba to any third country or corporation doing business with Havana. This is probably a violation of international law; it is certainly a violation of the norms of international trade. Countries not party to the US-Cuban quarrel, like Britain and Canada, objected to being sanctioned for carrying on ordinary commercial relations. They were told, basically, that this was just too bad because the Senate has a mind of its own. They are told the same thing when they inquire about the US refusal to pay U.N. membership dues or sign on to the land-mines treaty. Sorry, our Congress can’t be persuaded. But if an administration wants to persuade Congress on a foreign policy matter, it generally can do so — as the Gulf War demonstrated.

One definition of a “rogue state” was that it engaged in the promiscuous sale of weapons. North Korea, it is true, does sustain its near-dead economy by this means. But the United States helps float a whole booming industry on the manufacture and sale of all kinds of weaponry, and is not in the least bit choosy about where it distributes the stuff. (The latest, and perhaps the worst, example of this involves the means by which Pakistan, our client in the Afghanistan nightmare, acquired the makings of a nuclear capability.)

The term double standards became customary in the time of Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who famously distinguished between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, allegedly preferring the first to the second, but actually preferring authoritarianism to democracy. The same three-card monte operated when it came to terrorism; guerrillas in El Salvador were terrorists by definition, but French agents blowing up an unarmed Greenpeace vessel and killing a crew member were not. (In those days, Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress was on the administration’s list of terrorist organizations, as of course was the PLO.) At the time, even some Democrats made critical noises about this hypocrisy, but that didn’t prevent it from persisting across changes of regime in Washington. Thus, for example, Libya is quite rightly subjected to sanctions until it gives up two wanted men in the Pan Am 103 atrocity, but Saudi Arabia escapes even rebuke for sheltering Idi Amin. After a bit, this stops looking like a double standard and becomes a single one: It’s okay if we do it or if it’s done by one of our friends.

I happen to be one of those on the left who was sufficiently impressed by the threat of war and fascism in Bosnia to urge that international military help be given to the Bosnian resistance. (This meant that I sometimes found myself signing the same petition as Jeanne Kirkpatrick.) And I still can’t read the urgent faxes and cables sent from Rwanda in the last days before the genocide without a feeling of insurmountable rage and frustration. Many on the left do not especially like to admit it, but there are probably other genuine “just causes” in our future, where American help will be solicited by deserving victims. It will be harder to argue about this logically or intelligently if the political establishment allows itself to go on picking and choosing from its own standpoint of impregnable moral self-regard.

Recently there was a semiserious proposal that European Union countries be graciously allowed to join nafta and share in its fabled benefits. But suppose the offer was reversed and the United States was seeking to join the European Union? It probably would be refused membership, because it has not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which forbids the execution of minors. The only other holdout country when last I checked was Somalia.

Actually, the United States might also be refused membership because it, along with China and a handful of other execution states, voted at the United Nations against an E.U. proposal for a moratorium on capital punishment for the underage, the insane, and the pregnant. In fact, it might be refused membership because of its addiction to capital punishment across the board, and for its occasional boastfulness about the fact.

The classic statement of arrogant fatuity in this department was made by our president while he was still governor of Texas. A Canadian citizen had been executed in the Lone Star State in violation of a treaty that mandated consular access to prisoners accused of serious crimes. When asked why the Canadian had been snuffed without proper notification to his embassy, Bush replied that this sent a message about not committing murder in Texas. It did not even strike him that, by this standard, the Canadians could sentence an American tourist to life imprisonment while ignoring his request to contact the US consul. Of course, the Canadians wouldn’t do that. But that’s because they don’t suffer from a superpower superiority complex.

The laws, it was said by cynics in classical times, are like cobwebs. They are strong enough to hold the weak, but too weak to detain the strong. Case in point: the International Criminal Court, which has been set up as a kind of permanent Nuremberg tribunal by a large majority of the world’s democratic nations. Bill Clinton could not bring himself to sign the treaty establishing the court until his last weeks in office, and Congress has yet to ratify it. However, this abstention does not prevent the United States from demanding that other smaller countries such as Serbia (but not yet Chile) adhere fully, deliver their own wanted war criminals, and generally shape up.

And what is the reason given by the military and political right wing for opposing the establishment of an International Criminal Court? Why, such a court might impede the orderly conduct of American foreign policy. Think about it. What kind of implicit admission is that?


Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods


Straight to the point: Donations have been concerningly slow for our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, over the next few weeks so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods

We Recommend


Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.


Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.