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CELEBRATE! profile: James Dolphin '12

An international studies & political science double major analyzed arguments U.S. officials make against joining the International Criminal Court.

“The more frequently we have cases like this, and the more frequently the ICC is in the spotlight, the better we’ll be,” said Elon University senior James Dolphin.


Nearly a decade after the International Criminal Court was created by a collection of foreign nations to prosecute those responsible for genocide and other crimes against humanity, the United States remains one of the world powers not to have ratified its founding treaty.

Not only has the United States failed to ratify the treaty, which could make American leaders beholden to a criminal tribunal for such actions as torture, but leaders in Washington took the unusual step shortly after the terrorist attacks in 2001 of “un-signing” the negotiated agreement signaling their hope to one day join the court.

Elon University senior James Dolphin wanted to learn more about the logic American leaders use in defending their decisions not to join the ICC, and his research is the last to be featured this week as part of CELEBRATE! Week 2012. His work, “American Exceptionalism and the International Criminal Court,” was among the many dozens of projects shared April 24 during the Spring Undergraduate Research Forum held on campus.

Inspired by an international relations scholar who theorized that nations use four explanations for their actions, Dolphin created a scale to measure comments made by American leaders and compared their remarks to those explanations: realism, culturalism, institutionalism, and political conservatism.

He found that leaders largely rely on realism to justify their actions, the notion that the United State should act purely in its own best interests without consideration of other factors. The second most common explanation was that of institutionalism, where policy makers argued against the court because American systems of justice would conflict with the expectations of the international body.

If anything, that’s a good thing, he said.

“If realism arguments are the most prominent used, there’s more of an opportunity for a change in the relationship. Realism is a lot more fickle,” he said. “If it’s issues with the institutions of the country … there’s no way we’re ever going to accede to the (treaty.)”

Nor is the United States hostile to the International Criminal Court. Dolphin describes a subtle shift in American foreign policy favoring the ICC. One way for the court to bring state leaders to trial is through the United Nations Security Council, of which the United States holds veto power, and two pending cases - one from Sudan, the other from Libya - were initiated this way. Dolphin said the United States inherently validated the role of the court by not issuing a veto.

Another springtime event that has raised the profile of the ICC was the “Kony 2012” video that went viral on the Internet courtesy of the nonprofit organization Invisible Children. Invisible Children brought attention to Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony, who remains at large for crimes against humanity in the civil war there.

“The more frequently we have cases like this, and the more frequently the ICC is in the spotlight, the better we’ll be,” Dolphin said.

Dolphin’s interest in foreign policy and political science stems from his upbringing in Texas. As he traveled the state for school activities, he saw firsthand the discrepancies in how some people lived compared to his middle class upbringing. Though initially an acting major at Elon, it was this curiosity that convinced him to change majors in the spring of his freshman year.

Having an older sister sparked his interest in undergraduate research. Dolphin’s sibling conducted research of her own at the University of Texas en route to a career in school psychology. Her experiences opened his eyes to academic possibilities, and his research mentor, Assistant Professor Safia Swimelar, is thrilled.

“Jimmy is the kind of amazing Elon student that we seek and love to have as a student and a mentee,” Swimelar said. “His project is making a contribution to our understanding of U.S. foreign policy and international law, specifically human rights and global justice, by analyzing the competing theories for why the U.S. does not support or join the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands.”

Dolphin, an Elon College fellow, will attend law school at Emory University in the fall. His hope is to specialize in either international law or constitutional law.

“While of course I think Jimmy would make a great political science professor, he’s set his sights on law school and a career in international affairs/law, which will serve him and his passions well,” Swimelar added. “I won’t be surprised if we invite him back to Elon one day to give a talk on ‘Contributions of the U.S. to international justice – how the U.S. Came to join the International Criminal Court.’”

CELEBRATE! is Elon University's annual, weeklong celebration of student achievements in academics and the arts.

Eric Townsend,
4/25/2012 10:44 AM