Putin’s violence undermines centuries of international law and norms

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Insofar as Vladimir Putin has a philosophy, it is that only the strong deserve to survive. As he told one of his biographers, he learned from an early age that “in every situation – whether I was right or wrong – I had to be strong”.

In Ukraine today, as in Syria in 2016 and Chechnya in 1999-2000, Putin’s armed forces law with the same disdain for organized morality. Since there is no larger framework for judging right from wrong, all that matters is who can subjugate who through raw killing power.

Putin’s vision of a global thunderdome hides the fact that Russia is not half as strong as it makes it seem, even in military terms. But it is also a serious attack on a very old international code of conduct of which Western democracies should be proud, even when they do not respect it.

When European nations in their modern form emerged in the Reformation era, they all claimed to represent God and piety. This led to them killing each other on a colossal scale during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), as Protestants and Catholics both insisted that God was on their side.

The carnage depopulated huge swathes of modern Germany, and even Protestant Englishmen, watching from their relatively peaceful island, had to admit that on both sides — on all sides — tortured and killed their enemies.

After this calamity, however, major European powers like France and England as well as smaller states like Switzerland and Denmark began to recognize a “law of nations”, a precursor to international law. This code obliged all legitimate countries to respect the external borders and the internal affairs of their neighbours. Even in time of war, they were to treat their enemies as temporary enemies rather than ungodly monsters, never forgetting, as the Swiss theorist Emer de Vattel wrote in 1758, that nations as well as men were “naturally equal”.

“A dwarf is as much a man as a giant,” Vattel continued in his classic bestseller, “The Law of Nations.” “A small republic is no less a sovereign state than the most powerful kingdom.” Even as they vied for world supremacy in the 18th century, the British and French paid tribute to this code, for example by treating each other’s prisoners of war better and better.

The new United States continues this European tradition. In fact, early Americans had a special interest in the principles of national equality and international law. In military terms, they were a “small republic” and an easy target. Unable to intimidate the British or French superpowers, they promoted a world order based on law rather than force.

On this point at least, the Founders agreed: America would be a “nation of lawswhich obeyed the law of nations. James Wilson, the new country’s leading legal mind, pointed out that international law was binding in America. “The law of the people is the law of the people,” he intoned. Congress said much the same thing in one of its first acts, the Alien Offense Status of 1789, which allowed (and still allows) foreign nationals to sue in US courts for violations of international law.

Thirty years later, during a heated debate on the story of Andrew Jackson invasion of Spanish Florida, both pro and anti-Jackson members of Congress based their arguments on the law of nations. One of Jackson’s most rabid fans cited Vattel 22 times to establish the legitimacy of the attack; one of Old Hickory’s most virulent critics reminded everyone that “we belong to the family of enlightened nations” and that we must therefore renounce aggressive war.

Of course, Vattel’s book never stopped the Euro-Americans from waging a ruthless war against the Indian nations. Indeed, “The Law of Nations” authorized “rigorous” punishments against any member of a “savage nation”. Obviously, only the whites belonged to “the family of enlightened nations”.

And so, the Western tradition of international law has often become a rhetorical cover for the greed for land and markets that has driven Western imperialism. American officials (especially the Jacksonians) argued that since the Indian nations could not control their warriors, as required by the law of nations, the United States could take their land; the British Empire has impatiently imposed treaties on the African peoples so that they have access to natural resources.

But Western international law could also put an end to colonial violence. The best example here is the Anglo-American turn against the Atlantic slave trade just after the American Revolution. In direct opposition to gross self-interest, the American and British governments banned the grotesquely profitable commerce in 1807 as a grave violation of human dignity and the rule of law. (Vattel denounced the sale of people as a “disgrace to humanity.”) The British used their mighty fleet to suppress the trade, then abolished slavery itself in 1834.

Perhaps the British simply wanted to “look good,” showing the hypocritically slave-owning United States while distracting their own working classes from the miseries of industrialization. Perhaps they used abolitionism as an excuse for the Royal Navy to rule the waves.

Yet even such cynical readings of the international law tradition testify to its power to shape norms and change behavior. Whether they were moved by sympathy for slaves or by concern for their own reputation, the fact is that the British acted as if they were following an international code. And by behaving as if someone – God, history, justice – was watching them, they became better, especially compared to the few nations in modern history (think 1930s Germany) that have openly disregarded international rules.

It doesn’t matter what you pretend to be. For nations and for peoples, ideals such as international law call us to our best angels and challenge us when we fall short of them. Against nihilistic thugs like Putin, they offer faith that a better world, however unlikely, is always possible.

About Thomas Brown

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