The United States and International Law during the Obama administration: executive and legislative perspectives.

Author:Slaughter, Anne-Marie
Position:Proceedings of the One Hundred Third Annual Meeting of the American Society of International Law: International Law as Law

This plenary session was convened at 5:15 p.m., Thursday, March 26, by its moderator, Alexander Aleinikoff of the Georgetown University Law Center, who introduced the panelists: David Abramowitz of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs; Joan Donoghue of the U.S. Department of State; Former U.S. Senator Charles Hagel of Georgetown University; and Anne-Marie Slaughter of the U.S. Department of State.


Welcome to this plenary on the United States and International Law during the Obama Administration: Executive and Legislative Perspectives. I'm Alex Aleinikoff, the Dean at Georgetown Law School, and Georgetown is pleased and proud to sponsor this terrific panel. I will just say a few words about each of the speakers, who probably need no introduction to you, and we'll get right to their presentations. First, to my immediate right: Anne-Marie Slaughter, Director of Policy Planning at Department of State. My guess is she is somewhat well known to this association, having been its president, of course. Before going to the State Department, she was the Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs of Princeton University. Why someone would leave a deanship to go to the State Department .... She's also, as I mentioned, a former president of ASIL and her most recent book is The Idea That is America: Keeping Faith with our Values in a Dangerous World.

Sitting to Anne-Marie's right is Joan Donoghue, Principal Deputy Legal Adviser at the Department of State--a position she has held since 2007--she's actually currently Acting Legal Adviser at State. She' s had a variety of other positions in the Office of Legal Adviser and has served as Deputy General Counsel of the Department of the Treasury and General Counsel at Freddie Mac.

Next to her is David Abramowitz, Chief Counsel of the House International Relations Committee. He's responsible for advising the Committee on constitutional questions and international law issues. He's worked on issues such as the Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, legislation on U.S.-India nuclear cooperation, and implementing the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission. Before joining the Committee staff, he worked for ten years at the Office of Legal Adviser in the State Department.

And sitting next to David: Senator Chuck Hagel, who is currently a Distinguished Professor at Georgetown University and at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He serves on a number of corporate boards and is also chairman of the Atlantic Council. As you all know, he served for two terms in the United States Senate from 1997 until just this year, representing the state of Nebraska. Senator Hagel is the author of the recently published book, America: Our Next Chapter. And I did want to note in the front row of our audience here, in high listening mode, is Dean Harold Koh who has just been nominated to take the position of Legal Adviser in the State Department. Each panelist will speak for ten minutes. I will be relentless in keeping time and then we'll have plenty of time for questions. Anne-Marie.

* Dean, Georgetown University Law Chapter


Some things do change. In my experience, this audience gets larger and larger and more and more diverse, both of which are very good things. Some things don't change. Every panel I have ever been on or attended at the American Society of International Law started with "we're going to speak briefly and leave time for questions." We'll see if this panel can change what typically then happens.

I want to talk broadly about international law and the Obama administration. I'm going to talk in broad contours. If you just think about what the administration has done to date, I think you can take comfort in two things. First of all, President Obama has often talked a great deal about responsibility, beginning with his inaugural address and often since. He has talked not only about personal responsibility, but also about national responsibility. If you push that a little further and you look at the continuing emphasis in our engagement with many of our allies, and rising centers of influence, we urge them to be responsible stakeholders--China in particular, but not only China. Fortunately, under the Obama administration, responsible stake-holding starts at home.

Being a responsible stakeholder in the international order, being a good global citizen, means living up to your own international legal obligations. That means at least attempting to pass a number of treaties through the Senate. I will not enumerate which ones--I'll leave that to Dean Koh in about a year. The administration recognizes that we cannot refuse to sign treaties but then talk about being bound by the parts we like. It's not acceptable for us to preach to others and not live up to our obligations at home. You have already seen examples--we'll be hearing quite a lot about the specific issues of Guantanamo and detention and interrogation. Overall, however, the President made very clear immediately that changing our policy with respect to complying with our international obligations and with respect to international law generally was part of being a responsible nation, a responsible stakeholder.

The second thing I think you can take comfort in, although this may depend on what you think of my writings and my presidency of this organization, is that the Secretary of State appointed an international lawyer to be her advisor of policy planning. Now maybe she didn't know I was an international lawyer--given my policy writings of late, many of you may no longer recognize me as an international lawyer!--but I think my appointment actually says something important about how this administration views law. It is not simply as a set of obligations to be lived up to, although as I just said, that's a very important part of the role of international law. Law is also, in good Anglo-Saxon lawyering fashion, a tool to solve problems and to help achieve the outcomes we want to achieve cooperatively with other nations.

I recently gave a talk to a group of lawyers in the Legal Adviser's Office. What was most striking about the questions and the comments after my talk was the extent to which the lawyers are the institutional memory of the State Department. Why? Because all political problems, such as ethnic conflict, maritime issues, climate change, or nonproliferation, have a legal dimension to their solution, often an extremely creative legal dimension. Thus, the lawyers who stay through multiple administrations are the institutional memory for much of the foreign policy of the State Department.

In setting our own agenda, both in terms of thinking about the hallmarks of Secretary Clinton's approach to foreign policy very broadly and also in thinking about longer term approaches to specific problems, we're bringing the lawyers in early and we're also thinking about these problems in terms of what kind of institutions we may need to build. If we were to get a settlement or a broader peace in any of the crisis areas at the moment--Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, or obviously Israel/Palestine--that peace would have to be enshrined in a set of larger institutions with rules and norms. So, to that extent, law is a central element of this administration's approach to foreign policy.

Third, and on the subject of institutions, I think many of you will not be surprised to hear that I actually spend quite a bit of time on informal institutions and networks. I've stood up here for many years and talked about networks and groups and partnerships and initiatives. Well, right now, we may be watching the birth of a new group, as President Obama wrote in his op-ed this week that the G-20 is the preeminent global institution for dealing with the current economic crisis. Now, as all of you know, the G-20 has no formal international legal status. It is a group that was created as a group of finance ministers after the East Asian financial crisis. It is now meeting at leaders' level and may continue to do so. If so, then a great part of our...

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