International law won’t save us


International law will not save us from stupidity or hubris in the conduct of American foreign policy.

That much should be obvious to everyone 15 years after George W. Bush launched a war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq that was justified as an effort to enforce international law while being simultaneously denounced at home and abroad as such an egregious violation of international law that leading members of the Bush administration deserved to be hauled before The Hague as war criminals.

But alas, it isn’t obvious — or at least not as obvious as it should be. Just look at the reaction of leading members of Washington’s foreign policy establishment to the decision of the Trump administration (along with the governments of Great Britain and France) to launch a punitive strike against Syria in retaliation for the government of Bashar al-Assad allegedly using chemical weapons against his own people in his country’s interminable civil war.

Many of the people cheering on this show of force have taken this tension or contradiction to a whole new level — somehow embracing both positions at once, maintaining that the American-led attack probably violated international law (whether under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention or the vaguer humanitarian imperative to protect the victims of violence and injustice) but was nevertheless welcome and perhaps even long overdue in order to uphold and enforce … international law.

The instinct to appeal to an extra-political, universal legal standard to hem in the actions of states is very deeply embedded in the thinking of Western elites. As a recent, illuminating book explains, it has roots in early modern just-war theory, picked up momentum in the years following World War I, when several writers, thinkers, and political actors attempted to pass laws that would effectively outlaw war at the international level, and then gained decisive traction after World War II, with the creation of the norms and institutions of the liberal international order. Today the legitimacy and wisdom of the attempt to devise and enforce a body of international law is taken for granted across the West by almost everyone on the center left and center right.

Yet this project is also riddled with conceptual confusions that render it far less salutary than is commonly recognized and could well doom it to eventual irrelevancy. Those who would like to forestall that fate would be well advised to take note of these defects so they can respond with eyes wide open.

Although international law was first devised to bind the actions of states on the world stage and make them less likely to start wars, in reality international law is often invoked as a justification for launching military attacks. Hence the arguments in favor of bombing Assad’s forces in Syria in order to enforce international laws against the use of chemical weapons and in favor of protecting civilians in the name of humanitarianism.

That’s because international law is modeled on the only kind of laws with which human beings are familiar: the laws …read more

Source:: The Week – World


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