A Question of Legality? Sentiments in Britain

 British Prime Minister Tony Blair's effort to bridge trans-Atlantic gaps in geopolitical perception likely neared the end of the road this weekend, and at a venue that makes effective symbolism of geography.

 British Prime Minister Tony Blair's effort to bridge trans-Atlantic gaps in geopolitical perception likely neared the end of the road this weekend, and at a venue that makes effective symbolism of geography. The Azores, mid-Atlantic islands, hosted on Sunday, March 16 a summit between President Bush and two of the European leaders most closely aligned with his policy on Iraq, Blair and Spanish Prime Minister José María Aznar. 

The White House, in the view of many Europeans, has moved toward use of force precipitously and without due consideration.  Dismissal of Franco-German proposals for ‘robust' peacekeeping; followed by rapid  rejection of a Chilean draft resolution for the Security Council; and, finally, the signal, this past week that little traction has been gained in Washington by Britain's own last-minute effort at forging a new consensus on the Council, for Europeans-including Britons-substantiate the view. The  British appear to attach weight to assessments of the legality of action against Iraq-and legality not just in the sense of satisfaction of the rules of domestic law but also in the sense of an international legal  system. A substantial cross-section of the popular press and, as far as can be told from polling and impressions, the general public here have assumed  that the United Nations constitutes a highly relevant, if not indispensable, mechanism on questions of use of force. 

Blair's advancing of a new draft resolution last week is best understood in this light. Public opinion in Britain is much more receptive to use of force against Iraq than public opinion in Europe, putting Britain very much closer than Europe to America in the trans-Atlantic debate. It is on the relevance of international law that a meaningful Anglo-American difference appears to have arisen.  

The international law debate bears direct linkage to British politics.  While it would be hard to imagine Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly deferring to William Howard Taft IV (the Legal Advisor of the U.S. State Department), Foreign Minister Jack Straw and other members of the Cabinet are highlighting the assessment that Lord Goldsmith, British Attorney General, is expected to formulate on the legality of use of force. The Attorney General's  reports are traditionally kept confidential, but in this instance calls have intesified to publish it. References in the press to it are numerous.  

Legal opinion on an Iraq war indeed has taken center stage. A group of international law academics, led by James Crawford of Cambridge, published  a letter in The Guardian on Friday, March 7, and this received front page coverage and attracted notice elsewhere in the media.  These academics argued that no present authorization to use force can be inferred from existing Security Council resolutions on Iraq; and rejected the notion that a doctrine of preemptive self-defense would legalize action either. Chris Greenwood of the London School of Economics argued in the Times that the existing resolutions do furnish authorization, and he and likeminded specialists also were given prime coverage. 

Law, of course, does not exist in a vacuum. British opposition to use of force has a dimension that resides in the realm of pure politics. Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, continues to be widely rumored to have leadership ambitions, and some commentators, though noting Brown's outward support for the Prime Minister, speculate that he maneuvers ever alert to the opportunity that would arise, were Mr. Blair to loose the confidence of the House. Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats-the third party--enjoys increased popularity, stemming, it seems, from his role as unofficial spokesman for anti-war sentiment. Indeed, one poll last week showed Kennedy's approval rating climbing within inches of that of Iain Duncan Smith, Conservative Party leader. The Liberal Democrat reportedly keeps a UN flag on his desk.    

Individuals well might talk international law to advance narrow political ends.  But it would be a mistake for American policy makers to trivialize the British embrace of international law. Politicians tend little to linger on themes that do not resonate with their constituencies. The international law theme in Britain resonates well, and this is at root why it now holds such prominent place in the public discourse. It could be that the UK's engagement with the EU-albeit lukewarm relative to other member states'-has acclimatized the British to international checks on national initiative.  

Washington policy makers can make more sense of the environment within which Tony Blair operates, if they take account of the degree to which the conviction has permeated the UK that a set of transnational constraints acts upon national policy, especially on matters of war and peace.