Americans used to be big supporters of international law. It was President Woodrow Wilson who proposed the League of Nations after World War I. Politics kept the United States from joining, but after World War II the United States played a leading role in creating the United Nations as well as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and a host of other international organizations. Because of new international trade and investment agreements, intellectual property accords and treaties on the environment, international law has grown; yet when it comes to waging war, a cornerstone principle, more and more the United States acts as if international law applies to other countries but not to itself.
The law of war prohibits force unless force has been approved by the U.N. Security Council or unless a country has been attacked and is acting in self-defense. Even under those conditions, force is regarded as a last resort, permissible only if it is likely to be successful.
Diminishing respect for international law can be linked to the rise of the United States as a military power after World War II, to the domination of U.S. foreign policy by realists who emphasize U.S. military might and our willingness to use it, and even to the civil rights and feminist movements of the 1960s. As interest in the Constitution was renewed, Americans turned inward and perceived the struggle for justice almost exclusively through their own legal system.
According to Mary Ellen O’Connell, a professor of international law at the University of Notre Dame, there has been a decline in the knowledge of international law at every level of our society, from our highest government officials to the person on the street. Along with that some key misconceptions have taken hold—among them that international law is ineffective and unenforceable. Such views are “factually incorrect,” said O’Connell, author of the book The Power and Purpose of International. Law.
The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, led the United States to embrace military force in a way it had not done before. Along with that came indefinite detention, torture and the kidnapping of terrorism suspects and their rendition to secret black-box sites. But some of those abuses go back before President George W. Bush, to the Clinton administration in the 1990s.
“The Clinton administration had some vaunted notions of what you could do with military force,” O’Connell said. “They thought you could use military force to promote human rights, so they regularly bombed Iraq to help the Kurds in the north and the Shias in the south. In the views of other countries, France and Russia in particular, that constant bombing was unlawful and counterproductive. The British unfortunately, did not [share this view]. Already the mindset was coming into the United Kingdom that you could use military force to help persecuted minority groups. That led to a great deal of unnecessary and counterproductive violence in Yugoslavia. It was the beginning of this mindset that military force could be used with no regard for the U.N. Charter.”
U.S. violations of international law continue. You would never know it listening to our president, our politicians or our news media, but the U.S. intervention in Syria is one of them. In 2013, Michael Ratner, president emeritus of the Center for Constitutional Rights, described it as “an illegal use of force” and “a crime of aggression.” “It’s a war crime. It’s the kind of crime that the Germans were tried for at Nuremberg,” he told the Real News Network.
President Obama’s actions in Syria have been described as the legal equivalent of Vladimir Putin’s in Ukraine—both arming rebels and conducting air strikes.
U.S. drone attacks around the world also constitute an unlawful use of force. We have not been attacked, nor do we have U.N. approval for our targeted killings in Libya, Yemen, Somalia and other countries.
Will these acts of war ever cease? Many Americans seem to forget they are even going on. Discussions of their justice, their legality and necessity, even their cost or effectiveness are almost entirely absent from our politics. To the extent they consider them at all, Americans assume might makes right. The evidence points elsewhere: to the millions of refugees fleeing war, instability and the breakdown of law and order in the world.