Brittany Henderson's Blog

Do As I Say, Not As I Do: Power Politics and International Law

July 24, 2017

In the wake of the Second World War, the United States found itself in an unprecedented position of power. As the only country to emerge from the chaotic fighting as both victorious and unscathed relative to its European and Asian counterparts, the United States was able to set the tone for its establishment of a liberal hegemony over the world. Instead of regressing back into the isolationist camp, the United States instead utilized its preeminence to structure international institutions and law in a way that would both promote global stability and American interests. A system established in the foundations of liberalism would most likely, then, reflect democratic ideology, allowing a certain standard of international conduct to be put into place that validated American action. In the decades following the end of the Cold War, the United States repeatedly exemplified that the codes of conduct that once had its stamp of approval are not binding to a hegemon.

The United States has been tearing down the system of international legality and cooperation. Instead of bolstering a cohesive system of states working symbiotically to promote liberal values as was once envisioned, the United States has instead violated these laws, damaging both the legitimacy of the international system and the claim that all states are equal under the law. Due to the fact that this behavior is not limited to extreme case scenarios, in which a crisis necessitates unilateral action that may not be entirely concurrent with international law, it leaves researchers questioning why the United States chooses to break international law when doing so does not necessarily serve to promote its vital interests.

Although other states repeatedly condemn this pattern of behavior, there is little legitimate action being taken to alter it. Additionally, other rising powers are taking similar action during conflicts, allowing power interests and Realpolitik strategies to outweigh the value of lawful conduct. This phenomenon is rather constant trend when states rise to prominence. Furthermore, whether or not international law can realistically prevail and govern the actions of states domestically and internationally must be discussed. It would be unimaginative to rest on the assumption that uncontested powers will act as they wish without consideration as to how their actions will affect their international relations. An effective strategy cannot rely on raw power alone to function; however, power disparities will undoubtedly influence how states interact with one another, and how certain states will interact with international legal provisions as well.

The United States assumed the role of the unipolar power in the international arena after the end of the Cold War. The system predicated on mutual cooperation, legal practice, and the promotion of diplomacy and other channels of soft power extension that resulted after the end of the Second World War were no longer necessary. The United States no longer needed to, and, evidently, still does not need to, implement policy that is always concurrent with international law. So long as there is not a sizable opposition that can take action to harm the interests of the state, there is no incentive to alter course. Rather, there is a growing appeal in convincing the rest of the world that international law should still be applicable to other states’ actions, especially to states that pose a threat to the United States. There is nothing surprising about this strategy, given that powerful states need to maintain the status quo in order to ensure the preservation and projection of their power and interests. It is only natural that other states rising in the power ranks would follow suit.

This, however, creates an atmosphere that diminishes negotiation and meticulous planning during conflict resolution. If powerful states repeatedly disregard international law, there is an opportunity for rogue states to engage in behaviors that bring chaos to the world as a whole. Human rights provisions could be neglected, leading to the suffering and persecution of civilians worldwide. The expectation that states with less power will sacrifice opportunities to pursue their own interests simply to keep up with the international order that powerful states have put into place is ludicrous. The relationship that great powers fantasize of is no different than that between a parent and a child. Powerful states impose a set of rules on their “child” states, ensuring that they do not act in a way that presents difficulties in achieving their interests. Conversely, the same rules do not apply to the “parent” states, which are free to act on their own volition, without facing the same consequences for breaking international law. This attitude of believing that state power somehow supersedes the expectation to follow internationally recognized standards of conduct may be defined as exceptionalism. Exceptionalism implies that a state only recognizes the legitimacy of a given rule or standard of conduct insofar as it applies to lesser powers. It believes that its state has reached a status of power that somehow cancels out the need to abide by international law.

Though many powerful states have pledged their allegiance to the international order and the established laws and codes of conduct in place, whether they be customary or legitimized through treaties and formal agreements, there is a dearth in actual compliance with international law. The United States, for instance, used its status as a great power to enter into wars with Iraq and Afghanistan throughout the three decades following the end of the Cold War. By relying on power politics and exceptionalist ideology, the state circumvented the United Nations in order to declare war and engage in transformational military strategies in these regions. Violations of the most rudimentary laws, such as the requirements and measures necessary in order to lawfully declare war on an international scale, were extremely common. Another example of great power exceptionalism taking hold is Russia’s decision to join the United States in ruling that the ICC is an illegitimate organization whose rulings, therefore, are invalid and void. This being said, international bodies offering rulings and opinions on the legality of Russian international action, namely concerning actions taken in Crimea, are rendered to be ineffective.

In certain cases where multiple powers are engaging in the same conflict, this deviation from international law is most starkly pronounced. In the Syrian Civil War, both the United States and Russia are involved and opposed to one another’s intervention. Each has conducted major military operations in the region without international authorization; ironically, each claims that the other has violated international law through such action without taking responsibility that their own state has engaged in the same actions. This leaves the two states to negotiate and engage with one another without the consultation of international legal experts who have less biased opinions on the strategies and goals of each of the states involved. The inability for international institutions to actively engage in these discussions effectively nullifies their capability to ensure that international law is being followed during these conflicts. Instead, each state volleys air strikes to the other side, claiming that it is justified in the same action that it condemns its adversary for.

So, what is there to do to protect the integrity of international law and the institutions designed to project its jurisdiction? Realistically speaking, the international community would be naïve to believe that any great power would abandon its exceptionalist strategy for the greater good of the world as a whole. If international law were to actually restrain great powers from exerting their might whenever they deemed necessary or beneficial, there would need to be legitimate repercussions when a state violated international law. Seeing as there will most likely never be a reformation of international institutions that results in a powerful, international body capable of prosecuting great powers for their actions, international law will most likely remain a set of rough suggestions rather than a hardline policy that is enforced and maintained. Furthermore, it is also unlikely that the system will be legitimate and useful unless the scope of global politics shifts to a more multipolar scope, in which more powers are at odds and will find it in their best interests to keep their counterparts accountable in their adherence to the law. This very well may become a reality if states such as China and Russia continue to rise in power, challenging the unipolar system kept in place by the United States.

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