The US and International Law and Conventions

A lot of people are incensed with the Trump administration’s announcement of the formal withdrawal of the US from the Paris Accords (the latest agreement within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or UNFCCC).  These discussions are of course largely set within the internal domestic sound-bite wars that define modern US Politics. Republicans are applauding getting out of an agreement they contend would hobble the US economy and transfer wealth to foreign governments over the “fake” issue of climate change.  While some Democrats such Elizabeth Warren are noting the environmental and economic impacts, the response from other Democrats is emphasizing the disengagement from the treaty itself.  Bernie Sanders called  the President an “international embarrassment,”  and Biden tweeted “Trump continues to abandon science and our international leadership.”  Former Obama SECSTATE Kerry and SECDEF Hagel (technically Hagel is/was a Republican) have an op-ed in the Washington Post that emphasizes the disengagement from the international community as a central theme.

I won’t rant again about climate change and the UNFCCC, you can click here and read my views in another post.  In short, human impacts on the global climate system are increasingly serious and we’ve got to do something about it, but the present process and ideas on the table are utterly broken.  So while withdrawal is a bad idea, I don’t think the US pullout is going to make things worse because the Paris Accords and measures the Obama Administration committed to weren’t going to do much good anyway.  What concerns me here is how this is yet another example of the US undermining the entire framework of international law, norms, and conventions since the end of the Cold War.  This trend spans administrations and political parties.  At least the Trump Republicans are somewhat honest about it: they make their disdain for multilateral treaties clear, and have withdrawn from numerous agreements having much more direct consequences than the Paris Accords, such as the INF treaty, Iran Nuclear deal, TPP, NAFTA, and at least three other UN conventions/organizations (UNESCO, UNHRC, and UNRWA).  But Democratic Administrations (as well as prior Republican ones) have done tremendous damage to these organizations, and for individuals like Kerry and Hagel to whine about Trump’s actions is rank hypocrisy.

I have been involved with the technical operations of various international treaty organizations within the United Nations and Organization of American States for a bit over 25 years.  It’s a complex, frustrating, politically and technically complex world that at its worst is a monumental waste of time and money, but when it works (which is far more often than the critics would have you believe) it helps literally billions of people and makes the world a better place.  It requires a huge amount of patience and humility, and a willingness to compromise. Yes, you must keep America’s interests in mind, and there is nothing wrong with holding to reasonable lines that cannot be crossed, but one of those key interests is the long term stability of the complex system of international law, treaties, norms and conventions.  And that means sometimes you just can’t have everything your way, and you have to recognize that other countries also have legitimate concerns and interests.  But since the early 1990’s, the US has abandoned those concepts.  It views itself as “the Indispensable Nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future …” (per Madeleine Albright, the Clinton Administration Secretary of State from 1997-2001).  It feels “Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose.” (Dick Cheney, SECDEF in the 1990’s and VP under George W Bush). Time after time the US has not followed international law, intervening illegally in other countries, undermining treaty organizations, and acting as it likes simply because it has the military and economic power to get its way in matters great and small, pushing for its own position even in areas that are of little impact to vital US interests.  Compromise just isn’t in the US Diplomatic vocabulary any more.

After the GW Bush administration, many in the international community were hopeful that the US would re-engage the world on a more collaborative basis.  They were bitterly disappointed at subsequent Obama administration actions under Clinton and Kerry.  Given his pre-election rhetoric, there were no expectations of Trump.  He may be the last straw, but the loss of US prestige and influence in foreign affairs was a long time coming.  Eastern Europe and the Middle East are obvious failures, but in other areas less well known to the US public such as Central America, Africa, and Asia, the US has been playing a hypocritical game: flouting international law and treaties, all the while insisting other countries scrupulously comply with US interpretations.  You can’t have it both ways: to insist on rules, but violate it them when you don’t like having to follow them.

For the first 50 years after the Second World War, America was a leader in trying to create a stable framework of international relations. Over the last 25 years it has squandered that role. I hope the next Administration takes a long hard look at our Foreign Policy from first principles, and doesn’t just react to perceived flaws in the Trump administration’s term, because the problems run much deeper than that.

I close with a recent quote that sadly captures the current situation …

Washington’s daily display of contempt for other sovereign States has become the painstaking, mundane work of the U.S. state Department and the President. This policy has led to a virtual loss of competence in world decision-making, and the United States of America is perceived by fewer and fewer countries as a world leader, because the main feature of a leader is justice.

Washington has lost its bearings, who are friends and who are enemies … Washington is not able to reach a consensus, but uses blackmail and threats in its Arsenal of “diplomacy”.

It is impossible to build world politics and the future of our planet on the interests of only one state. I hope this will soon be understood by all the countries of our beautiful Earth.

— N. V. Poklonskaya


4 thoughts on “The US and International Law and Conventions

  1. I won’t try to educate you on something you know much more about than me but I do call foul on your false equivalence. Republican presidents are much more likely to engage us in war and are much more likely to flout international law. Trump is a true isolationist to boot. And He befriends our enemies and attacks our friends. If the Koch institute issued a statement that read “ climate change is real and anthropogenic in nature” republicans in Washington would become true climate change believers. Their collective climate denial isn’t an opinion, its a business deal with oil. Democrats already know Climate change is real and at least partially anthropogenic.

    • Hmmm, let’s see … in recent times (end of cold war), leaving out Afghanistan since I would argue that was a defensive response to 9/11, and ignoring all the little brush wars we have SOCOM troops in like Yemen, sub-Saharan Africa, Central America, and Ukraine:

      Gulf War I: Bush I (R)
      Bosnia/Kosovo: Clinton (D)
      Gulf War II: Bush II (R)
      Libya: Obama (D)
      Syria: Obama (D)

      Looks like 3:2. But in fairness most (D) and (R) supported all of those interventions, at least at the time, so I’d argue the real number is 5:5 and there is NO practical difference between them in this respect. Now, I do believe the Democratic base is far more internationalist and pacifist than the party, but that is a different issue.

      As for flouting international law, I’m sorry but they both do it. The difference is that yes, the D’s pay lip service to it while the R’s generally don’t. Practically? Little difference.

      Trump doesn’t have a coherent foreign policy that I can see. He’s a populist, not sure he’s an isolationist (certainly not a “true” one, maybe in speeches but certainly not in practice). Not sure who you mean specifically by “friends” and “enemies”; I can find examples where he has pissed off both, often when he didn’t need to.

      The only thing I agree with are your last three sentences. But while the D’s know it is real and anthropogenic, the policies they propose are more about their social and economic agenda than about actually solving the problem.

  2. Would you mind recommending books, articles, etc, where I could learn more?
    Also something common sense on climate change? There’s so much out there, all willy-nilly, and I need some good science to anchor myself.
    Thank you and thank you for always making me want to think and learn more.

  3. Pingback: Frustration with data and politics; updated charts (15 April 2020) | Enki Research

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.