by Natsu Taylor Saito. New York, NY: New York University Press, 2010. 384pp. Cloth. $55.00. ISBN: 9780814798362.

Reviewed by Patrick Schmidt, Department of Political Science, Macalester College. Email: schmidtp [at]


I do not have to go out on a limb to assume that the substantial majority of those in academia were pleased to see the end of the George W. Bush administration, and a significant percentage of those likely looked for President Obama to usher in a policy sea-change, doing much to return equanimity and mutual respect to America’s international engagements. In MEETING THE ENEMY, Natsu Taylor Saito leaves no doubt about her place in the former camp, but the life of this book is her effort to put short-term changes of tone into historical relief. In so doing she puts herself at odds with the latter camp: to Saito, it will never be enough for the United States to live up to its international obligations or to engage existing international institutions, because those structures are inherently flawed. This book, part of the “Critical America” series edited by Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic for NYU Press, takes on the challenging task of detailing her objections to contemporary international law.

The primary preoccupation of this book is to chronicle and critique the origins and development of international law, revealing the ways that the entire intellectual foundations of American and Western thinking have brought the world to the perilous condition it is in today. Saito puts the problem starkly at the conclusion of chapter 8:

“If…one sees extant problems of global instability – ongoing wars, ecological disintegration, and the growing disparities in income or social well-being – as incapable of being resolved by the current international regime, perhaps even as caused by the policies and practices of ‘civilized’ states, a different story will have to be told, and lived by, that challenges both the contemporary framework of international law and the precepts of American exceptionalism.” (p. 228)

That is, even though the Introduction and first chapter invoke the post-2001 politics of the War of Terror, the recent behavior of the United States is a single scene in a longer play, the central plot of which can be sketched quite simply. The contemporary failure of the United States to prosecute the war according to international law demonstrates the deeply held belief that America is exceptional; recent wars carry on a frame of seeing the civilized world struggling against an uncivilized enemy; and, the nation has an obligation to make safe the path and lead the world toward civilization, ends trumping means if necessary. Co-incident with these ideological commitments is the belief that the democracy, liberty, and human rights are rational and universal values; as is the belief that the urbane, civilized peoples must assimilate the Other [*510] to these norms through education and economic development.

The bulk of the book – Chapters 2 through 8 – substantiates the role of this understanding of exceptionalism in the American project. The central conceptual narrative in this history is not international law qua international law but colonialism. From the development of European colonialism, the need to justify conquest resulted in the rehearsal of tropes about civilization and savages, cementing the terms of international law today. Thus, the long journey of American Indians drives Chapters 3 through 5, which retell how the belief in the Manifest Destiny of Americas enabled white Americans to build an empire without concern (and sometimes with overt malevolence) for indigenous peoples. Slavery and Mexico make appearances in these chapters as well, before Chapter 6 extends the account of the American Empire to Hawai’i, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines. Saito’s unforgiving approach to these chapters emphasizes the unvarnished racism, greed, and brutality of America’s 19th century pursuit of empire. Saito leaves no heroes in her wake, cherry picking the most damning quotations to represent the views of Presidents from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt and many other figures along the way (such as Frank Baum, author of the “much beloved” Wizard of Oz [p.111]). Her approach throughout is to draw extensively on secondary materials, weaving together episodes and legal cases with illustrative primary material.

The histories likely least familiar to readers (such as the Philippines) form the bridge between Saito’s vision of America and the rise of the 20th century global legal order, which is the subject of Chapters 7 and 8. Chapter 7’s more tightly focused progression from the Hague Peace Conferences to the United Nations at mid-century contrasts with the looser tour of international economic and legal instruments in Chapter 8. Yet, the arc remains one of colonialism, for however rapidly the European powers shed their colonial holdings, the precepts of that system became part of the American approach to international law, in which Western values would be imposed on the Other while the United States asserted the right to act unilaterally in the interests of civilization.

There are natural tensions in the argument Saito advances. From the Introduction and the first chapter the reader might detect and share an investment in international law, with the attendant hope that the United States would put short term interests aside and stand by principles. At the same time, she asks the reader to confront the centuries-old colonialism behind international law as we know it. How deeply can one feel an attachment to international law when it fails so consistently as to appear fundamentally flawed? Realists and cynics resolve the tension here by abandoning any idealism about the international legal order (if not law in general), taking in their stride the failure of legal rhetoric to induce compliant behaviors. Doesn’t every nation, not just the United States, desire to live by the slogan, “don’t do as I do, do as I say”? A more critical generalization about law might be inspired by the ease with which Saito switches between making “America” and “Western civilization” the target. [*511] Saito’s America is explicitly treated as a case study of colonialism and the law, and moving from the case study she could have gone further to consider how power and law connect at a higher level of generality.

Some abstraction is on display in Chapter 9’s concluding discussion of prescriptions. However much a reader might find themselves persuaded that an assumption of the superiority of Western civilization is laced through contemporary international law, the final chapter offers a bucket of cold water. What can anyone do to provoke wholesale change in a centuries-old conceptual frame? Perhaps not much, barring more imagination or optimism than most readers will muster. All that seems available are general, jargon-laced calls to “unleash the liberatory potential of alternative systems of world order” (p.245) by suspending “the notion of universality and its concomitant division of humanity into the ‘civilized’ and the Other,” (p.238), thus giving “room for all voices and a multiplicity of perspectives” (p.241).

Yet, don’t judge this book by the final chapter but rather by the diagnosis of the problem. Students of both American history and law should find thought-provoking the extent to which the traditional zones of “domestic” and “foreign” policy blend, chapter-by-chapter, into one unified account about the dominance of racist, Otherizing, colonializing ambitions. That narrative folds into the wider argument about Western legal traditions, drawing on episodes and discussions that implicate everything from political philosophy to development economics. In total the book makes it difficult if not impossible to ignore the historic continuities between international politics today and the overt racism of a century ago. Though not well suited for younger undergraduates, MEETING THE ENEMY is likely to generate substantial discussion and reflection beginning at the advanced undergraduate level.

Some of those discussions may dwell (as they often do) on the things that grate. The passages setting the socioeconomic backdrop for the historical episodes are sometimes breezy to the point of being contestable. Even accepting that Saito’s presentation of American historical episodes is avowedly critical, there is still too little space for charitable or exculpatory counter-interpretations (Chapter 7’s mention of U.S. efforts to advance international law provides one exception). Related, the thick footnotes paper over her sometimes reliance upon or derivative use of a few like-minded sources, especially in Chapters 2 to 4 and Chapter 9. Working from within a normative tradition, Saito probably should be understood as preaching to that choir, nowhere more so than the many places where she raises unexpectedly the imminent threat of environmental catastrophe (e.g., “Western science and technology, and the development they have fueled, have brought the planet to the brink of ecological disaster. . . . [p.232]).

Despite these criticisms, MEETING THE ENEMY is a far cry from a polemic. Saito has produced a synthesis that is thought-provoking and challenging, and it provides a welcome attempt to place the contemporary moment in the “war on terror” into a much longer historical frame. Most of all, like all good critical scholarship, [*512] scholars and students can look to this book as a way to interrogate one’s commitments about the American project. If readers find Saito’s work at all persuasive, they will come to appreciate her intended inflection for the book’s title and dust jacket, which become less ambiguous after encountering the page facing the book’s Introduction. There is placed the classic quote: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

© Copyright 2010 by the author, Patrick Schmidt.