10/20/2012 12:22 pm ET Updated Dec 20, 2012

The Foreign Policy Debate: What Principles Govern?

Who knows? The candidates just might be asked tonight what principles guide them in dealing with US military intervention or promotion of human rights. Would they look to UN Charter principles? If not, where else might they look for guidance?

But, don't hold your breath. It is unlikely that either the press or the candidates will focus on this key issue. What a pity!

There was a time in the not too distant past where no American president would think of going to the annual opening of the UN General Assembly session in September without expressing America's allegiance to core UN Charter principles. This is only natural. After all, the United States is the principle draftsman of the UN Charter. So while we may rail against UN actions we have always done this more in sorrow than in anger. We have always proclaimed that the UN Charter has much to teach us about restraints on the use of force and respect for human rights and the territorial integrity of all nations.

Seen in this light, it was quite strange to see that President Obama's address to the UN General Assembly last September made no mention whatsoever of UN Charter principles. Perhaps this might have been expected of Mitt Romney. But Obama in his first address before the United Nations three years ago went out of his way to laud the advantages of multilateralism, stating that he would chart a new course more respectful of the collective will of the community of nations.

What happened? Surely the current change of tack was no accident. Presidents' speeches before the United Nations first get vetted through the White House, the State Department and the US Mission to the United Nations. And, this year, with the unfolding crises in the Middle East and elsewhere would have been a particularly important year to stress a commitment to international law principles. That is precisely what was done by the Foreign Minister of Russia, the Prime Minister of England, and Egypt's new president, to mention but a few other world leaders. Each spoke of the need to strictly adhere to UN Charter principles. So, why is this administration lagging behind? Political opportunism in an election where increasingly few voters seem to care about the United Nations? Or could it be that he did not want to be challenged as the United States pursues an aggressive anti-terrorism policy including unprecedented wide-spread use of drones?

We may never know the answer to these questions for the simple reason that neither the President nor his opponent, Mitt Romney, seems particularly concerned with this issue. After all, Mitt Romney had dismissed the United Nations as "an extraordinary failure" and charged in May 2012 that President Obama had "subcontracted US Foreign policy to Kofi Annan and the United Nations."

As a result, we see for the first time in recent American history the abandonment of even lip service to core UN Charter principles. This is a shame, for UN Charter principles are in fact American principles. They can serve as a guide and can serve as justification.

Indeed, prior administrations -- Republican and Democrat alike -- have looked to UN Charter principles for both these purposes. The Reagan administration dealt with Cold War crises, the Israel-Lebanon war, terrorism, and the US intervention in Grenada by looking to such principles, as an integral, if not exclusive, part of its decision-making calculus. So did President George H.W. Bush at the outset of the first Gulf War. He spoke of American intervention as necessary to advance "the rule of law to establish a new world order, an order in which a credible United Nations can use its peacekeeping role to fulfill the promise and vision of the UN's founders."

On the eve of the 2003 Gulf War, President George W. Bush, in an effort to obtain Arab League support at the UN marshaled the argument that our action in Iraq was fully consistent with UN Charter principles of self-defense.

Consider the following examples where UN Charter principles might serve as a guide.

- Iran. The UN Charter commits every member-state to honor the territorial integrity and political independence of every other state. (Article 2:4). Iran's calls at the UN and elsewhere for the destruction of a member-state, Israel, are clearly inconsistent with that commitment. That fact alone provides ample ground for stripping Iran of UN membership. Yet, neither presidential candidate has mentioned, let alone launched, such a campaign. Regardless of whether such a campaign can succeed, it could provide a moral focal point for sound policy.

- Libya. UN Charter Article 51's prohibition on the use of force except in self-defense against an armed attack does not carve out an exception for humanitarian intervention. The UN Security Council can, however, create such a right in particular instances and this is what Russia and China thought they were signing up for when they joined US efforts to authorize NATO air-strikes to prevent a bloody onslaught against the citizens of Benghazi. But the US authorization of NATO air-strikes to kill Moammar Gaddafi came long after the humanitarian threat had vanished.

Today, Russia and China appear ready to veto any UN Security Council resolution authorizing humanitarian intervention in Syria, where far more lives are at stake, because of what they perceive as America's abuse of UN Security Council authorization in dealing with Libya. It might be good for Obama and Romney to ponder the consequences of actions which appear to those with whom we need to partner at the United Nations as incompatible with UN Charter principles or UN Security Council pronouncements.

- Israel and red lines against Iran. Article 51's prohibition against the use of force certainly does not require that where nuclear weapons are concerned one must wait for the first bomb to drop. Rather, the prohibition of the use of force must be read in the context of capacity and intent. Such a determination requires day-to-day assessment. President Obama could have made reference to Article 51 to make the case for American deterrent action in a way that might well have addressed all parties' concerns.

- Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Referring to core UN Charter principles does not mean that they necessarily become the exclusive basis of our policies. Sometimes it is more prudent to acknowledge that legitimate differences about the law exist and that it is better to avoid a legalistic approach so as not to distract from pursuing a negotiated resolution. The Reagan administration took this position with regard to Israeli settlements and the status of Jerusalem. It continues to serve as a good model.

- Iran and the listing of the MEK by the State Department as a Foreign Terrorist Organization. On September 28th, 2012 the State Department finally removed the MEK, an Iranian dissident group, from its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, bowing to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia which had directed the State Department to do so by October 1st, unless they could provide compelling grounds for the continued listing. For years, the State Department had stonewalled efforts by Congress to require precise reasons -- not diplomatic expediency -- as the grounds for designation of organizations as a terrorist entity, especially if it had renounced violence.

Of course, in and of itself, UN Charter principles provide no clear answers for how to deal with Afghanistan, Iraq, the war against terrorism, or any one of the myriad crises that confront U.S. foreign-policy makers. But, as no less a "realist" than Henry Kissinger has come to acknowledge, Americans are imbued with the belief that the rule of law should guide our conduct of foreign affairs. We need not embrace the United Nations, but we ignore its Charter's principles at our peril.