Steinberg pushes collective action

James Steinberg LAW ’78 encouraged international cooperation to combat terrorism Monday in a Dean’s Lecture at Yale Law School.
James Steinberg LAW ’78 encouraged international cooperation to combat terrorism Monday in a Dean’s Lecture at Yale Law School. Photo by Allegra Krasznekewicz.

International law is crucial to confronting the challenges of a globalized world, such as climate change, terrorism and the recession, said Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg LAW ’78 at a Dean’s Lecture at the Law School on Monday afternoon titled “Law and Foreign Policy.”

Steinberg said nations must increase cooperation to solve these problems and the United States should make greater efforts to engage with international institutions, such as the United Nations. He argued that the role of non-state actors, both non-governmental organizations and terrorist groups, is growing, and that international law must adapt to face the challenges and opportunities they present.

Steinberg said that unlike the periods of major global conflict in previous centuries, most of today’s major powers have common interests on policy issues, such as those surrounding the environment and the economy. Still, he argued, commonality does not imply cooperation.

He said the United States has been unable to solve global problems on its own. Instead, he said nations must use international law to develop institutions that will allow them to cooperate and negotiate effectively.

He argued that the United States’ global hegemony has declined, the power of non-state actors has increased, “represent[ing] a challenge and an opportunity for the United States.”

Steinberg described two types of non-state actors during his talk: Non-governmental organizations and terrorist groups.

He said non-governmental organizations have begun to play a greater role in international negotiations. For example, he said, NGOs will be a part of the U.S. delegation to a United Nations conference on climate change in Copenhagen this December.

But he said non-state actors such as terrorist groups pose substantial challenges to the effectiveness of international law.

“What can international law contribute to dealing with those who reject their very premises?” he asked.

He said some policy makers argue that the rejection of legal norms by terrorists means the United States must do the same in dealing with them. But others believe that there should be no double standard, he said.

Steinberg cited President Barack Obama’s May 2009 speech on national security as an example of this debate.

“On the one side of the spectrum, there are those who make little allowance for the unique challenges posed by terrorism, and would almost never put national security over transparency,” Obama said. “And on the other end of the spectrum, there are those who embrace a view that can be summarized in two words: ‘Anything goes.’”

Steinberg said a solution lies in between these two extremes. International law and conventions should not be abandoned, he said, but institutions should adapt to meet the challenges of terrorism.

He said he thinks the Obama administration is committed to cooperating with and supporting global institutions, such as the United Nations.

“We’re convinced that the failure to engage and use our influence to create more effective international institutions will in the long run be disadvantageous to our national interests,” Steinberg said.

Though the audience applauded at the end of the talk, not all agreed wholeheartedly with Steinberg’s ideas.

“I thought he was very articulate,” Pratik Chougule, LAW ’12, said. “Yet I fear that in his emphasis on multilateral institutions and collective action, he is downplaying the importance of hard power and American unilateralism that is critical to fulfilling our national interests.”

Steinberg was appointed Deputy Secretary of State by the Obama administration in January 2009. Previously, he served as dean of the School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin, the vice president and director of Foreign Policy studies at the Brookings Institution and deputy national security advisor to President Bill Clinton LAW ’73.

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