The Battle Between International Law and National Interests, Part I


With Russia-Ukraine and Israel’s military assault on Gaza, 2014 seems to be the year of international crises.  Beginning in late 2013 with chemical weapons used in Syria, global crises seem to arise routinely lately.  This is nothing new, international crises have existed since even before the establishment of the nation-state.  However what is different about this current series of crises is the lack of an international response.

This is comparable to western Europe’s appeasement of Hitler before World War II. The world was recovering from the Great Depression and the United States was apathetic to Europe’s troubles, having embraced isolationism.  The burden fell to the western democracies of Britain and France who were weary of reliving another world war, and thus did nothing.

80 years later, the world is recovering from the Great Recession in a highly globalized and interconnected world.  The world is in a phase where countries largely keep to their own borders and are reluctant to act outside them.  This is why despite Europe’s outrage with Russia going back to Putin’s annexation of Crimea, the continent’s response has been lukewarm at best.  As with Syria, the US is trying to muster international engagement in a community of nations that currently pursues national interests above international norms.

But what distinguishes this situation from previous crises is the shifting balance of power.  This trend of globalization and ‘geopolitical isolationism’ is happening against a backdrop of changing polarity.  Which leads me to conclude the world is in a unique situation–a composite akin to pre-WWI and pre-WWII.

Part of the US’ difficulty in mobilizing an international response to global crises is the rise of other powers challenging American hegemony.  Russia, India, China are rising powers who not only want a ‘piece of the power-pie’ but whose national interests lead them away from the West.  The US does not agree with their actions, but cannot intimidate them either.  Despite Britain controlling 25% of the world’s population, in 1914 Germany, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France and the Ottoman Empire shared power.  The fear of losing power and the desire to gain power caused the tensions that resulted in World War I.  A century later the US is trying to maintain its influence as other countries such as the BRICS demand shared power.

 The world before WWII was one where countries largely kept to themselves, so fearful of another global conflict and out of economic self-interest.  Likewise the world today is jaded by the international interventions that dominated the 1990s and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but is also still recovering from the Great Recession.


Just Because Putin’s a Hypocrite Doesn’t Mean He’s Wrong

I finally got around to reading Vladimir Putin’s opinion piece in the New York Times.  It caused quite a commotion in the United States and around the world, with many resonating with Putin’s words.  Within the United States it’s obvious the Russian president struck a nerve.  Putin spoke truth and both the American people and our leaders would be smart to listen to his message, no matter how dubious the messenger.

Putin brought up an excellent point about the League of Nations, and how it fell apart because it had no real power.  The same can happen to the United Nations if we are not careful.  What Putin doesn’t acknowledge is that the UN was created to prevent interstate conflict.  However since 1945, the majority of the world’s conflicts are intrastate.  The difference between the two types is what drives a lot of the discord in the United Nations today.

President Putin is right on many points, including the history of American military action in intrastate conflicts.  The Russian president is correct that an American strike on Syria would further destabilize the Middle East and negatively impact international law.  Because the bottom line is that without UN Security Council approval, any use of force in Syria would be against international law.  However Putin’s motive must be examined thoroughly also.  This is the perfect opportunity for him to step back onto the world stage and he has milked for all it’s worth.  Putin’s relationship with Assad brings over $5 billion to Russia so it makes sense he does not want Assad to go, despite his insistence that he is not trying to protect Assad and that international law must be upheld.

But Putin is also correct that the battle for Syria is not a battle for democracy.  Some people want democracy in Syria but many in the opposition are linked with al-Qaida and other groups seeking to harm the US as well as other western countries.  The US looks arrogant for insisting we can pinpoint the ‘moderate’ factions and help them overpower those who would do the US and the West harm.

None of this is to say Putin is an angel and the US is the devil.  I thought the last paragraph of his piece was paradoxical because it was hypocritical and correct at the same time.  However controversial, I agree with him that American exceptionalism, exceptionalism from any nationality is dangerous.  History has proven that.  From the British empire controlling 25% of the world’s population at its peak, to Nazi Germany seizing German-speaking lands prior to the start of World War II and Japan seeking to control all of Asia.  However Putin looks hypocritical talking about God creating everyone equal after he passed laws clearly saying he does not think gays and lesbians were created equal.