Even the Sheriff Upholds the Law

For some time now America has appeared to be intent on discarding the basic ordering instrument of relations between states - international treaties and the institutions that watch over them. The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty with the former Soviet Union banning missile defense has been cancelled. A protocol seeking to supervise the prohibition of biological weapons production has been rejected. The Kyoto Protocol on climate change has been declared unacceptable to the US. The Nuclear Test Ban Treaty - negotiated with major US involvement - has been dismissed. The project of an international court of justice is ridiculed and resented.

Indeed, when Russia demanded that agreed limitations on nuclear strategic warheads be defined in a document binding both Moscow and Washington, the US balked, preferring a vague declaration of principle instead. International covenants, the Bush Administration conveyed, are maybe all right for lesser powers - but they are an unacceptable restriction on the freedom of action of the world's only superpower.

It is not only America's enduring willingness to use her unique power in ways generally benign to international stability that should put fears over this trend to rest; nor the other familiar phenomenon that American administrations tend to start off with ideology before they arrive at pragmatism. We are not witnessing a Copernican revision of the orbits of global diplomacy. For, although a world without treaties and institutions would hurt most other countries more, it would hurt the mighty US as well.

The Guantanamo experience on how to treat Taliban and Al-Qaida fighters is a clear case in point. In the past, the Geneva Convention prescribed how regular prisoners of war and members of irregular military forces should be treated when apprehended: they are not to be dealt with as criminals.