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Putin’s violence undermines centuries of international law and norms

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To the extent that Vladimir Putin has a philosophy, it is that only the strong deserve to survive. As he told one of his cinemas, he learned from an early age that “in any situation – whether I was right or wrong – I should be strong.”

In Ukraine today, as in Syria in 2016 and Chechnya in 1999-2000, Putin’s armed forces are acting with a similar contempt for organized morality. Since there is no major framework for judging right from wrong, the only thing that matters is who can oppress whom through raw killing power.

Putin’s vision of a global thunder dome hides the fact that Russia is not half as strong as it seems, even militarily. But it is also a serious attack on a very old code of international conduct that Western democracies should be proud of, even when they do not live up to it.

When European nations in their modern form emerged around the time of the Reformation, they all claimed to represent God and godliness. This led to them slaughtering each other on a colossal scale during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), when Protestants and Catholics both insisted that God was on their side.

The blood depopulated huge parts of modern Germany, and even the Protestant English, watching from their relatively peaceful island, had to admit that both sides – all sides – tortured and killed their enemies.

After this accident, however, major European powers such as France and England as well as smaller states such as Switzerland and Denmark began to recognize a “law of nations”, the forerunner of international law. This code required all legitimate countries to respect the external borders and internal affairs of their neighbors. Even in war, they were to treat their enemies as temporary enemies rather than wicked monsters and never forget, as the Swiss theorist Emer de Vattel wrote in 1758, that nations as well as humans 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 fought for global supremacy in the 18th century, the British and the French showed their respect for this code, by, for example, treating each other’s prisoners of war increasingly well.

The new United States continued this European tradition. In fact, early Americans had a particular 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 power.

At least on this point, the founders agreed: America would be a “nation of laws” that obeyed the law of nations. James Wilson, the leading legal mind in the new country, stressed that international law was binding in America. “The law of the nations is the law of the people,” he said. Congress said much the same thing in one of its first acts, the 1789 Alien Tort Statute, which allowed (and still allows) foreign nationals to sue in U.S. courts for violations of international law.

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

Of course, Vattel’s book never stopped Euro-Americans from waging war without mercy on Indian nations. In fact, “The Law of Nations” allowed “severe” punishments by any member of a “wild nation.” It is obvious that only white people belonged to the “family of enlightened nations”.

And therefore, the Western tradition of international law often became a rhetorical cover for the greed for land and markets that drove Western imperialism. U.S. officials (especially Jacksonians) argued that since Indian nations could not control their warriors as the law of the nations required, the United States could take their land; the British Empire eagerly forced treaties on African peoples to access natural resources.

But the law of the western nation could also stop colonial violence. The best example here is the Anglo-American turn towards 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 trade of 1807 as a serious violation of human dignity and the rule of law. (Vattel condemned the sale of human beings as a “disgrace to humanity.”) The British used their mighty fleet to suppress trade and then abolished slavery itself in 1834.

Perhaps the British would simply “look good” and show off the hypocritical slave-holding United States, while distracting their own working classes from the misery of industrialization. Perhaps they used abolitionism as an excuse for the Royal Navy to steer the waves.

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

It matters what you pretend to be. For nations as for humans, ideals like international law call us our better angels and call us out when we lack them. Against nihilistic thugs like Putin, they believe that a better world, no matter how unlikely, is always possible.

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