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Keywords:

  • human rights;
  • international relations theory;
  • trust;
  • legitimacy

Research Highlights and Abstract

This article,

  • is a contribution to the theoretical debate over whether the Bush administration's defection from international torture norms led to a norm cascade favouring the Bush administration's preference for a more lenient definition of torture;
  • is a contribution to the theoretical debate over the relationship between material power and the ability to legitimate preferences in international society;
  • is a clarification of the utility of material capabilities with respect to legitimacy;
  • is a detailed historical presentation of the discursive interactions between the United States and other states within international society over the defection of the United States from the torture norm which is currently not present in the literature.

This article examines the effect of Bush administration's human rights preferences during the war on terror with respect to torture by analysing a large-n sample of public legitimation strategies of both the United States and other members of international society. The article asks two questions: first, has the defection of the United States from these human rights norms led to a ‘norm cascade’ that delegitimized the norms? Second, did the material preponderance of the United States help it to legitimate its preferences in international society? The article argues that despite initial ambiguity in the response to the Bush administration's preferences from key liberal states, there is little evidence by the end of the Bush administration's term that a core group of states supported their preferences, nor did its material preponderance help the Bush administration to legitimate its position.