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US Politics

In the likely event that Hillary Clinton secures the Democratic nomination by the end of May or early June, the task of uniting the party behind her will be much less onerous than that of whoever emerges from the GOP field. For Republicans, a ‘brokered’ convention looms on the horizon. And, given the severely fractured status of the conservative movement in America, it will be hard for any candidate—Trump or otherwise—to appeal to a national constituency that seems to lack any consensus on what it means to even be “conservative.” Secretary Clinton, on the other hand, would have the time and resources to bring unity to her platform and to her party following what has been an impressive challenge by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.

The idea of a ‘citizen’s income’ has made a real splash on the UK political agenda. The new year started with the Green party announcing a universal, non-means tested weekly payment of £72 to every British adult as its flagship economic policy, only to drop it this week from the party election manifesto after the programme’s costing failed to withstand rigorous scrutiny. Despite this step back, the citizen’s income idea may still feature in the election debate, given calls late last year by key Liberal Democrats for a universal basic income to become official party policy. And while the Greens have distanced themselves from the policy for the duration of the election, Green MP Caroline Lucas has identified the scheme as a long-term …

We are about to experience a substantial influx of unmanned systems into the maritime military services. On 17 December 2013, the Royal Navy launched a Boeing ScanEagle unmanned aerial system from the Royal Fleet Auxiliary Cardigan Bay, a first for the RN in an operational theatre. This places the Royal Navy alongside the British Army and Royal Air Force in demonstrated drone capability; the latter service has been operating surveillance drones in Afghanistan for years. Since 2012, ScanEagle systems have been in regular use by the Royal Canadian Navy. In May 2013, the Royal Australian Navy announced it would invest up to $3 billion on Northrop Grumman’s new MQ-4C Triton unmanned maritime patrol aircraft. Additionally, the latest Fire Scouts are coming online, Northrop Grumman’s MQ-8C, following its predecessor whose service in the U.S. Navy is now routine. A recent expansion of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., included the opening of a Laboratory for Autonomous Systems Research. The U.S. Navy announced it would introduce mine-hunting surface units by 2017, and it will not be too long before General Dynamics’ Unmanned Undersea Vehicle program produces workable unmanned submarines. Most dramatically, on 10 July 2013, Northrop Grumman’s X-47B fighter drone successfully landed on board the USS George H. W. Bush (CVN-77). Technological revolutions in warfare, whether bow and arrow, gunpowder, or unmanned systems, inevitably bring about a period of tumult and reshuffling. If we are lucky, such upheaval also brings systematic self-reflection. What changes might this newest revolution in maritime technology bring about?

I recently sat down with Dr Iain McLean and Dr Scot Peterson to discuss their new book, Legally Married: Love and Law in the UK and the US, which discusses the issues of same-sex marriage in both countries. I found your book very interesting and though it addressed a very topical issue whilst providing a wealth of historical information and context. Could I start by asking what you think is driving the apparently accelerating legalisation of same-sex marriage worldwide? Iain McLean: Which is the chicken and which is the egg? In North America, Latin America, and west/central Europe, social attitudes are changing further and faster than on any other moral issue that surveys have ever tracked. And politicians are responding. So are courts. Although judges like to believe that they are above politics, they would think hard about handing down constitutional interpretations that put them wildly at variance with public opinion. There is a possible ratchet effect too. The US Supreme Court’s decision in Windsor v. US, in June 2013, holding that denial of federal tax benefits to same-sex widow Edith Windsor, which she would have received if her spouse had been male, was unconstitutional, has speeded up the process of legalising same-sex marriage in New Jersey, and may do so in other US states as well.

For outside observers, gun control seems to be an oxymoron in America. Even following the school shooting in Newtown, the Senate failed to pass an amendment mandating universal background checks on sales of firearms. President Obama reacted with visible anger. He had staked much of his post-election political capital on ‘gun sense’, only to have a watered-down bipartisan bill proposed by two pro-gun Senators muster just 54 votes in the Senate. Polling revealed that the bill had more than 80% support amongst Democrats, Republicans and independent Americans. The formal American system is famously anti-majoritarian: it is a cluster of staggered, disjointed and (in the case of the Supreme Court) even mythical legitimacies, all of which exercise influence over federal legislation. But questions remain as to why America cannot pass stricter gun laws, when a majority of Americans support a number of increased restrictions.

It now seems fairly clear that the US and the UK are set to take military action in Syria in the coming days in response to the recent chemical attacks there. The UK Prime Minister, UK Foreign Secretary and the UK Secretary of State for Defence have all asserted that any action taken in Syria will be lawful. But on what grounds will military action in Syria be lawful. As is well known, United Nations Charter prohibits the use of force in Art. 2(4), as does customary international law. The UN Charter provides 2 clear exceptions to the prohibition of the use of force: self defence and authorization by the UN Security Council. It is almost certain that there will be no Security Council authorization. In a previous post, I considered the possibility of a (collective) self defence justification for the use of force in response to a use of chemical weapons. The scenario contemplated then is very different from the situation that has emerged, and the language used, at least by the UK, does not hint at a use of force on the basis of national interest. However, President Obama in a CNN interview last week did seem to speak of self defence when he said “there is no doubt that when you start seeing chemical weapons used on a large scale … that starts getting to some core national interests that the United States has, both in terms of us making sure that weapons of mass destruction are not proliferating, as well as needing to protect our allies, our bases in the region.” A justification for force on this basis would sound like preemptive self defence in a way that is very close to the Bush doctrine. I find it hard to see the Obama administration articulating a legal doctrine of preemptive self defence claim in this scenario.

A common Republican criticism of Barack Obama is that he has been a weak foreign policy president who has little regard for American ideals. Obama ‘has responded with weakness to some of the gravest threats to our national security this country has faced’, charged the 2012 Republican platform. Mitt Romney accused Obama of starting his presidency with ‘an apology tour’. Republican rising star Marco Rubio says Obama wants ‘to make America more like the rest of the world, instead of helping the world become more like America’. Yet, an examination of the history of US foreign policy and the ideas which influenced it shows that far from being a radical departure from the American norm, Obama’s worldview fits with a historical tradition. In fact, he sounds much like an early statesman. Stefan Halper, professor of International Relations at Cambridge and a former adviser to several presidents, argues that US foreign relations have historically been influenced by what he terms ‘Big Ideas.’ Their starting point is the belief in American exceptionalism, the umbrella concept from which all other ideas flow – ranging from the early 19th century Monroe Doctrine to the Bush Doctrine and democracy promotion.

The Republican Party believes that its loss in last year’s presidential election was primarily a failure of presentation rather than policy. In particular, the GOP’s heavy losses amongst minority groups – African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos – has prompted the party to try to broaden its appeal to take account of America’s changing demographics. Its poor performance with the Latino population has informed the Republican leadership’s decision to support a comprehensive immigration reform bill (co-sponsored by the Florida senator and widely tipped 2016 Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio). Barack Obama’s capture of 71 percent of the Latino vote was widely attributed to harsh rhetoric against illegal immigrants during the Republican primaries, including Mitt Romney’s promise to make them self-deport. The Republican establishment believes, therefore, that immigration reform is the gateway issue to begin a conversation with Latinos and other minority groups. Be more welcoming to immigrant communities, the argument goes, and these groups will become natural followers of the GOP’s message of limited government. The conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer, for example, argues that Latinos are naturally socially conservative and favour smaller government. However, the evidence suggests that the Republican Party’s fundamental problem is its political philosophy. The GOP’s strident anti-government message does not appeal to the constituencies which it needs to win presidential elections.