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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The utility of symbols : the relationship between symbols and legitimacy in international relations Smith, Alison Mary Ann


My thesis will demonstrate that symbols matter in international relations because of the way they can influence legitimacy. Joseph Nye has argued, “cooperation is a matter of degree” in international relations (Nye 2004, 29); legitimacy is one of the factors that determines the extent to which the international community will cooperate with a given action. Thomas Franck (1990) argues that legitimacy, too, is a matter of degree. This means that actions are not always judged to be strictly legitimate or illegitimate, but rather, they fall on a spectrum somewhere between the two extremes. The puzzle, however, is how states calculate the degree of legitimacy of an action. I argue that symbols have an important role to play in this calculation of the extent to which an action is seen as legitimate. This thesis will further explore the role and power of symbols in international relations, a role that the literature on legitimacy has not thoroughly discussed. I will use two case studies, Canada’s refusals to endorse Operation Iraqi Freedom and Ballistic Missile Defence, to demonstrate that symbols are a source of power in international relations. The American administration went to significant lengths to try to obtain a Canadian endorsement of these initiatives because it knew that this endorsement would contribute to the perceived legitimacy of these actions. The degree to which an action is seen as legitimate can influence the extent to which the international community will cooperate with it, or at least not resist it. I conclude that this argument has implications for Canadian foreign and defence policy, and that the literature regarding legitimacy should better reflect this power of symbols in international relations.

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