Harold Koh visits the College
Legal Adviser to the U.S. Department of State and to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Harold Koh, visited the College to deliver the sixth annual George J. Mitchell Distinguished International Lecture on Feb. 26.
The talk, “International Lawyering for the US Government in an Era of Smart Power,” touched on Koh’s role as the general counsel of the State Department and the challenges he faces.
Koh began the talk by citing the difficulties that often arise in multilateral cooperation. He explained his interaction with French, Russian, German and United Kingdom legal advisers and the difficulty in coordinating similar positions. “Any outcome is an outcome that’s negotiated with people who may not agree exactly as you do, which means it takes a long time for things to happen in government,” Koh explained.
He stressed the importance of remembering that he is not the sole lawyer in the state department, nor is he his own client. He also discussed the task of supporting views that may not coincide with his own. “My view is not the controlling view. The President’s view will be formulated….You may think it’s lawful but awful, but it’s not up to you.”
Koh’s lecture centered around the “smart power” approach that the Obama Administration has taken to foreign policy—“An approach that adopts a position not of isolationism or confrontationalism, but of engagement where we respect the law and live our values under the theory that living our values makes us safer and stronger,” Koh said.
According to Koh, “Smart power…is the full range of tools at our disposal including defense, diplomacy, development of law and human rights and public-private partnerships to achieve our goals.”
Koh criticized those who see military intervention and hard power as the sole means for conducting successful foreign policy. He said, “What I want to suggest to you is that sure, that’s one of the ways in which the United States conducts foreign policy, but it’s an expensive way both in terms of human lives and money.”
Koh laid out several instances in which “smart power” strategy and cooperation were successful and the differences it has enacted in the war on terror. “Law challenges [terrorists’] ideology, counters their propaganda, denies them protection, develops effective international partners to basically attack their means of counter terrorism,” Koh said.
According to Koh, the Obama Administration’s ideology of preserving values and using cooperation over confrontation has garnered international respect. He applauded the current administration’s commitment to following the rule of law and United States’ recent re-engagement with the International Criminal Court.
Finally, Koh urged students to “support a sophisticated ‘smart power’ approach in which the United States continues to lead based on its values, commitments and imagination. Where we treat our diplomats with the kind of respect we give our soldiers and lawyers are treated with the kind of respect that we give our policy makers.”
Koh is a Harvard Law School graduate, former dean of Yale Law School and author of eight books. He has practiced international law for over 30 years.