Ethics & International Affairs Volume 23.4 (Winter 2009): Book Reviews: "War Torture and Terrorism: Rethinking the Rules of International Security" Edited by Anthony F. Lang Jr., and Amanda Russell Beattie [Full Text]

Dec 15, 2009

War, Torture and Terrorism: Rethinking the Rules of International Security (London: Routledge, 2009), 232 pp., $160 cloth, $43 paper.

Richard Jackson (Reviewer)

It is something of an axiom that establishing rules and getting states to obey them will necessarily result in a more peaceful international order. What this excellent and highly stimulating volume demonstrates is that this view is not only overly simplified but potentially counterproductive, particularly when it comes to the practices of violence. In part, this is because rules are both constitutive and regulative, and in their practice and legitimation they can result in new sources of tension, stress, and conflict. That is, rules constitute (as well as regulate) new kinds of actors and processes, such as the sovereign state or the nonproliferation regime, which must then be accommodated within the existing interests and dynamics of the system. At the same time, rules are sometimes insufficient to deal with certain practices of violence. In other words, it is not enough to construct and then try to enforce a rule-based order to deal with international violence; attention to the underlying political dynmics and often unintended outcomes of the functioning of rules is also required. Although these central insights—that rules are limited in what they can achieve and that they can paradoxically create the kinds of tensions and conflicts they are designed to deal with—are not necessarily novel, this volume provides a fresh and engaging set of discussions, approaches, and case studies on key aspects of the subject.

Based on the workshop "Rethinking the Rules: Force and Security" held at the University of St Andrews in June 2006, this volume brings together a well-chosen group of scholars to reflect on the role of different kinds of rules in the international security order. Rare for an edited collection, all the contributions remain focused on this central theme, and the quality of individual chapters remains high throughout.

The volume opens with an insightful and powerful scene-setting introduction by Anthony F. Lang, Jr., in which he notes that the rules of the international security order are constitutive of actors in the system, but are currently in a state of flux brought on by the war on terror. More important, Lang convincingly shows how a number of problematic state practices—such as torture, preemption, and preventive war—are made possible by the constitutive rules of self-defense. An important and salutary point here is that once such practices are inscribed into the political practices of the sovereign state, they cannot be eliminated simply through the establishment of new rules.

The rest of the volume is organized into five related sections. The first, "Rules and Practices," focuses on the issue of torture, with contributions from Nicholas Onuf, Jill Harries, and Caroline Kennedy-Pipe and Andrew Mumford. What comes through clearly in all three chapters is that the torture so visible in the war on terror is no anomaly or exception, but has its origins in historical practices and doctrines of political community and state security. Moreover, it is embedded within broader cultures of violence, including the practice of war itself. An important question raised by Kennedy-Pipe and Mumford is "whether normative discussions about the regulation of torture actually normalize activities, inviting actors into the sphere of legitimate politics who ought not to enjoy such a distinction" (p. 65).

The second section, "Rules and Legitimacy," examines issues surrounding the norms and rules of intervention (Janne Haalland Matlary), and the impact of the practice of preventive war by the Bush administration (Ariel Colonomos). These thoughtful chapters highlight the problems posed by exceptionalist and unilateral U.S. actions in the war on terror as they relate to questions of legitimacy in the establishment of rules. Arguing that rules for using force require consistent state practice, rather than selectivity and double standards, and broad normative support by the international community, Matlary finds some cause for optimism in the growing acceptance by European states of the "responsibility to protect," while Colonomos argues that "moral luck" (a philosophical term referring to normatively transformative outcomes that mirror a prior moral choice but that are, in fact, unrelated to that choice) will probably need to play a role in developing such rules in the future.

The third section of the volume, "Rules and Regulations," is made up of two chapters, one by Michael E. Smith, who examines the regulation of new weapons technology, and the other by William Walker, who discusses the role of rules in the evolution of the international nuclear order. Smith's fascinating overview of the history and challenges of regulating new weapons technology shows how alternative models and new rules are always possible, despite U.S. hegemony. Walker's trenchant analysis of the Non-Proliferation Treaty once again highlights the limitations of what rules can achieve, but he believes that the tidemay be turning again toward a pragmatic constitutionalism in the quest to stem proliferation.

The fourth section, "Rules and Responsibility," contains a chapter by Larry May on the rules relating to the crime of aggression, and by Mario I. Aguilar on the role of truth commissions in a rule-based order. Both contributions highlight the need to find new mechanisms outside existing rules for auditing the actions of states—in large part because existing sources of international law, such as treaties and custom, provide a weak basis for regulating such state violence as aggression and human rights abuses. Thus, they return us once again to the problem that the constitutive rules of state sovereignty, especially the rights and practices of self-defense, make possible all forms of state violence, both "good" and "bad."

The volume's final section is aptly titled "Questioning Rules," and begins with a challenging and innovative chapter by Amanda Russell Beattie that questions some of the deeper sources and consequences of the present international rule-based system, while at the same time exploring alternative frameworks for thinking about international rules rooted in natural law and notions of the individual as a political subject. The book's last chapter, by Nicholas Rengger, explores and challenges the notion of supreme emergency and its relation to the just war tradition and the political community. In a brilliant deconstruction, he demonstrates how "there can never be a meaningful deployment of the idea of Supreme Emergency because if a certain act is deemed legitimate one does not need to invoke special reason to justify it, and if it is not, it is simply gratuitous special pleading to argue that 'the rules' don't apply" (p. 203).

Overall, War, Torture and Terrorism is a thoroughly satisfying collection of essays on an important and timely subject. Informative, challenging, insightful, and always interesting, it deserves to be widely consulted by anyone interested in the regulation of international security and the rule of law.

The reviewer is Reader in International Politics at Aberystwyth University and coeditor of Critical Terrorism Studies: A New Research Agenda (2009).

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