Monday, May 07, 2007

Tragic Isn't Illegal

This past Sunday, the Tacoma News Tribune published my op-ed piece on the legality of the Iraq War. The argument is nothing I haven't already said here, but if you want to read the whole piece, it can be found here.


Matt Bondy said...

Great column. What I particularly liked is that you granted the possibility that the war was indeed a bad move, but made it clear that it was not illegal. I don't know about you, but I find that in pretty much everything, even-handedness confers a great deal of credibility.

By the way, I'd be very interested to hear what you think about McCain's recent speech about establishing a 'League of Democracies'. I posted some thoughts about it at my website today.

Matthew said...

"Law can only be meaningful and enforceable when applied fairly and consistently, and the U.N. falls far short of meeting this standard. States openly and routinely violate their commitments to the United Nations, genocides continue without response, sanctions and condemnations are levied with anything but an even hand and the U.N. has proven itself unable (or unwilling) to implement its own laws."

I imagine, given the gist of your argument here and elsewhere in the piece, you are at least somewhat familiar with Michael J. Glennon's work, particularly "Limits of Law, Prerogatives of Power: Interventionism after Kosovo." He makes much the same argument regarding international law and its effectiveness, evaluating the legalist use-of-force principles from the perspective of desuetude.

My question, though, is if one country - the most influential at that - views one particular portion of intl. law as constraining and decaying, how can it influence - or speak with credibility - other states to abide by other portions of law, such as nonproliferation commitments?

Seth Weinberger said...

Matthew: You're right that argument advanced by myself and Glennon, among others, means that it's hard for the US to rely on international law to get states to abide by their commitments. But that's less a function of the US's approach to IL than it is due to the general weakness of IL in the first place. States tend to follow law when it coincides with their own national interest, and break it/reinterpret it/ignore it when it diverges. Just look at France and Germany's violations of EU-mandated caps on national debt...this from the states that insisted in the UN that following IL was critical!

Appealing to IL is not what gets states like Libya, North Korea, or Iran to adhere to their commitments. It helps, of course, provide legitimacy and to provide baselines for judgments, but these are what ultimately make the difference.

Seth Weinberger said...

Matt: I think the League of Democracies is an excellent idea. I've actually proposed much the same thing many times on these pages, perhaps using NATO and the WTO as the foundations. See, for example,


Matthew said...

Seth: I couldn't agree more. The inherent weakness of international law is that at its core it is a compromise between the competing interests of a variety of states with different worldviews at vastly different stages of development. (This is a conclusion reached towards the end of Glennon's book and to some extent by Philip C. Jessup in an Oct '46 article in Foreign Affairs.)

Most states' overall conduct of foreign policy is pragmatic, interest-calculated and cost-vs-benefit-based, and not principled. That said, however, it is odd that to prevent the greatest horrors of our time, we would rely on - or at least appeal to - international law under the NPT to curb proliferation or the spirit of UNSCR 1540 to guard against the risk of nuclear terrorism.

The great irony of international law, moreover, is that while states view it more as a justification of certain acts as opposed to a strict guide for the conduct of foreign policy, it is hard to imagine a world so engulfed in anarchy without Articles 2(4) and Chapter VII of the UN Charter

Meanwhile, however, there is a quixotic battle underway at Jeb's blog, unearthing the classic Waltz-Sagan debate on stability and nuclear arms. Care to weigh in?