It is a mistake to think that military force, alone, will preserve America's role in the global order. "Soft power," a phrase coined by Joseph Nye to describe how countries can influence international relations in ways other than through force, remains an important source of America's global strength.
Soft power advocates are in short supply these days. This is not good. Power, like anything of value, is an investment. When a country chooses to invest only in hard power, and not in soft power, it puts all its eggs in one basket. It make enemies too quickly. It lives only by the sword, which means, it risks dying by the sword.
The aspiration to freedom and democracy, and the defense of human rights, was once a credible form of American soft power. Label these values under a larger umbrella called "the rule of law."
America needs to reinvest in soft power, and the rule of law. By defending the rule of law, the US increases its global authority and its power. It makes the US stronger.
The defense of the rule of law is not a handcuff. It is a powerful weapon against genuine despots. Here are some things the US can do to strengthen the rule of law, and in so doing, strengthen itself:
End unlawful wars and drone strikes. This is an easy one because it is so obvious. The US should honor the rule of law with respect to war and peace. This means US foreign policy should stop invading other countries if doing so would be illegal. This means working with international partners to maintain the global peace. And it means ending the use of drones as instruments of terror and assassination, particularly when such drone attacks may constitute illegal acts of war, or crimes against humanity.
Prosecute Bush-era crimes related to torture and aggression. US standing in the world was irreparably and dramatically damaged by the crimes of the Bush Administration. Conduct that used to be the hallmark of America's enemies -- torture, for example -- became accepted practice by government officials. Innocent people were and continue to be detained indefinitely without trial, an affront to common law principles enshrined in Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. And the supreme crime of aggression was committed by President Bush and others, when they planned and executed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In truth, these crimes are as dark and as brutal as those of any other rights-offending regime. These are heinous crimes, and they must be prosecuted.
Support the International Criminal Court. The International Criminal Court is in deep trouble. Once hailed as a triumph of the global rule of law, the court today is plagued by accusations of bias in that its docket is filled with black African leaders -- and no one from anywhere else. African countries are leaving the court in droves. The court has precious few allies and a growing list of enemies who wish to see it fail.
The US can and should support the effort of the International Criminal Court. It should ratify the Rome treaty, join the court, and play a role in advancing global accountability for crimes such as torture and aggression.
Permit federal courts to hear and adjudicate global human rights cases. Human rights litigation in the US used to be robust. This changed in 2013, when the US Supreme Court limited the jurisdiction of a primary human rights law, requiring a connection with the United States. After that decision, the majority of human rights cases being litigated were thrown out because of a lack of such connection. Congress should reverse that decision and permit US federal courts to act as a forum for global human rights abuses, as they were for many decades.
Take the lead on global climate change remediation. The world is only going to get hotter, the science will only become more pronounced, and the devastation will only become more obvious -- that much is certain. Climate change is here, it is a reality, and if nothing is done, it will lead to tremendous changes in the international order. The US must take the lead in building a global coalition of governments that are willing to face this stark truth and do something about it.
Promote economic, social and cultural rights. International human rights law doesn't just defend due process and free speech. It also insists that people have access to economic, social and cultural rights -- things like health care and education. Health care and affordable education are not just domestic issues, they are human rights issues. They ought to be treated as such. The US should thus invest in economic, social and cultural rights to ensure that Americans have access to opportunities and resources that will permit them to lead better lives. This is not just a quality of life issue -- it is a human rights issue as well.