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“Because We Are America!”
by Paul Street
March 14, 2005

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In 1994, Madeleine Albright, then UN Ambassador, informed the UN Security Council during a 1994 discussion about Iraq that America “will behave, with others, multilaterally when we can and unilaterally when we must” (Middle East International [London], Oct. 21, 1994, p. 4). 

This was her fancy way of saying that the United States will play by international rules only when its policymakers feel that it serves American imperial interests to do so. When those rules produce unwelcome outcomes for what Albright later called “the indispensable nation,” then we “can't” play along and “must” follow our own path.

It's worth looking at the full formulation that contained that characterization of the USA:

”If we have to use force, it is because we are America! We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall, and we see further into the future.” (NBC Today show, February 19, 1998)

An interesting example of Albright's stunningly narcissistic nationalism and selective legalism came in 1986. For forty years prior to that year, The New York Times recently reported, “the United States accepted the general jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice [the principal judicial arm of the United Nations, P.S.] in all kinds of cases against other nations that had also agreed to the court's jurisdiction.” But when the IJC, located at The Hague, ruled against U.S. mining of Nicaragua's harbors in 1986, “the United States withdrew from the court's general jurisdiction.”

It didn't like the umpire's ruling so it took its ball and went home.

Another interesting example of selective imperial legalism and stunning national arrogance in defiance of The Hague was presented for our consideration last week. Once again the primary victims are Central Americans. This time, however, they are caught within United States territory -- inside the nation's burgeoning state prisons and more specifically within our country's heavily populated and very disproportionately nonwhite death rows. The policy that “must” be defended in this case is capital punishment -- the state's right to kill.

I am referring to the State Department's announcement last Wednesday that America will withdraw from an international protocol that lets the ICJ hear disputes under a treaty called The Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. This treaty gives people arrested outside their home nation states the right to contact their national consulates.

It was one of 70 treaties for which the United States was willing to acknowledge the continuing authority of the ICJ even though we withdrew from that court's jurisdiction 18 years ago.

Now we only recognize the ICJ's authority in 69 treaties. That's because the ICJ ruled last year that 51 Mexican citizens on American death rows deserved new hearings since they were denied the right to contact their national consulates after they were arrested in the U.S.

Well, we're out of that treaty. The White House got us free from that one just in time, before the insufficiently fascist Supreme Court hears the case of José Ernesto Medellín, a Mexican on death row in Texas, on March 28. Medellin is asking the high court to enforce last year's judgment of the international tribunal.

The Supreme Court is considered unreliable in implementing the degree of state repression that the proto-fascist Bushcons see as appropriate for the post-9/11 era. The irony, noted by a law professor quoted in The New York Times story that reports the recent White House action is that “international adjudication is an important tool” for serious anti-terrorism activity across national boundaries in the “post-Cold War, post-9/11 world.”

But then, as Noam Chomsky has noted, the real purpose of US policy is Hegemony, not Survival. (Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance, Metropolitan, 2003): unlimited freedom at home and abroad for a state that “stands tall” enough to hear God speak on the virtue of the state's right to kill.

Paul Street is a writer and researcher in Chicago, Illinois. His book, Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 is available from Paradigm Publishers. His newest book, Segregated Schools: Race, Class and Educational Apartheid in Post-Civil Rights America (New York, NY: Routledge-Falmer, 2005) will be available in the summer of 2005. He can be reached at:

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