In the latest round of the so-called “banana war” between the United States and the European Union, the World Trade Organization’s April 6 ruling reaffirmed the illegality of the European Union’s banana import regulations and approved retaliatory tariffs of almost $200 million by the United States. On April 9, the U.S. Trade Representative announced a list of specific European products subject to retaliation. This dispute, which has frustrated diplomats and amused headline writers for years, may appear both absurd and mundane, but the puzzling stubbornness of the European Union in this matter has troubling implications for the rule of law in international matters.

The Europeans commonly cast themselves as defenders of the international legal system, in contrast to the self-interested geostrategic politics of the United States. On a wide range of issues, from the Helms-Burton law on Cuba to U.S. sanctions against Iran and Libya to human rights issues such as the imposition of the death penalty on minors and aliens, Europe has taken the United States to task for failure to acknowledge and live up to international obligations. This U.S.- E.U. dynamic is naturally a matter of frustration to both sides. The United States resents the presence of a self-appointed international legal conscience, and the European Union resents its inability to persuade the United States of its view of international obligations. But the dynamic is good for the development of international law: The United States, as global superpower, benefits from the check of an external legal conscience, and the abstract European conception of international legalism benefits from exposure to healthy doses of U.S.-style strategic reality.

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