Sunday, September 20, 2009

Excellent Article on International Law

Eric Posner has an article at Foreign Policy that serves as a useful corrective for those who take international law too seriously. As the subtitle states, "Governments respect international law only when it suits their national interests. Don't expect that to change any time soon." And that's a good thing. International law that doesn't serve our national interests should be interpreted in a way that does, or ignored if necessary.

Posner takes on common arguments/myths about international law and refutes them. The entire article is outstanding and I'd highly recommend it to anyone. I'd like to highlight his final point. Emphases are mine.

"International Law Is a Worthy Goal."

Not at all. Some might argue that even if international law is not currently effective, improving it is nonetheless a worthwhile aspiration for the international community. But international law should be looked at as a worthy means, not an end in itself. In some circumstances, it can be useful to build international cooperation on key issues. But the view that international law is an end in itself -- which I have dubbed "global legalism" -- is based on a false picture of international relations and can lead to wasted time and effort devoted to constructing legal institutions that won't work. Although many academics are global legalists, state leaders, of all ideological persuasions, are not.

The Nuremberg trials -- ironically one of the sources of global legalism -- were thought necessary for punishing the Nazis and were surely justified, but they also violated international law, which at that time did not hold leaders criminally responsible for launching invasions of other countries or even for crimes against humanity. The illegal military intervention in Kosovo stopped ethnic cleansing and, for a time, the wars that racked the Balkans. Not all violations of international law are good, of course. But the tendency of global legalists to treat international law as a talisman, more often than not, interferes with the kinds of international cooperation that actually advance the global good.
I've attacked blind legalism countless times. It's nice to see someone writing for Foreign Policy that understands that international law is a mere tool, not an inviolate diktat from heaven.

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