Why Don't International Laws Matter?

By Xander Snyder


Imagine: You’re afraid. Fidgeting, you rub your fingers against the palm of your hand and feel the clammy coolness of half-evaporated sweat. You’ve done something wrong, and they’re after you. The penalty for your crime will be forfeiting a great portion of your life spent staring through a tiny window on one side of your claustrophobic hole and the spaces between metal bars on the other. The only freedom from your cell will be spent surrounded by dangerous characters that have done even worse than you.

And so you run, from them. From the police. From the authorities. From the strong hand of the law: the unchallengeable power of the sovereign.

Sovereign power

The ability to compel action, force punishment, and administer it with force and, if necessary, violence, is how a state maintains its laws and, thereby, social order. Those laws vary depending on the country, as do the enforcement mechanisms. But ultimately there is something more powerful than you, and if you step over red lines set by your society the state will direct its force at you, and you will feel the powerlessness of your situation.

But what about states themselves? Are there red lines across which, should they step, a greater international force will come to bear down on it? The short answer is: no. There is no greater sovereign than the nation state. We often pretend there is because it’s comforting to believe that there is justice in the world outside of naked power. But, ultimately, there isn’t. International laws don’t matter.

There are norms and traditions that can be developed through routine that codify some sense of order and legality to countries’ behaviors. Erik and I discussed these ordering mechanisms in greater detail on a podcast episode where we interviewed RAND researcher Michael Mazarr. They exist, and they can influence state action to a degree. But if following norms conflicts with a state’s interests, and it is powerful enough to disobey without great penalty, it will, much as the United States has done when the rules set out by multilateral institutions it helped create like the UN do not suit its interests. (Erik's notes--states follow international rules from multinational institutions when carrots and sticks or domestic pressure make it in their self interest.)

It would be a mistake to think that this is a quality unique to the United States. All states powerful enough to pursue their own interests will do so. Usually, nations are far weaker than the United States, so encouraging other states to play by some predictable set of international norms may in be in a country’s interest. But without enforcement mechanisms these norms have no teeth. Take the UN: it has no real military force with which to impose its policies, so violating its rules come with little if any real punishment. Sure, the UN has peacekeepers, and it can - with the consent of the most powerful countries - impose economic sanctions. But in reality the only country that could even come closer to having the ability to enforce any international law is the US. (Erik's notes--the US probably enforced the principle of deterring inter-state warfare in the first Gulf War.)

World police no longer

This begs the question of whether or not the US should be, or even should pretend to be, the world police - the supra-sovereign that uses its massive military and economic might to impose penalties on other states for breaking the rules. The popular mood in the country, after the US failed its last major attempt at intervention, is that it's not such a great idea. People are recognizing that the US, contrary to the neoconservative ideology that dominated the country in the early 2000s and helped lead the it into Iraq yet again, is not omnipotent. It is preponderantly powerful, but not powerful enough to force all corners of the world bend to its every wishes. And certainly not powerful to democratize parts of the world that are less amenable to liberal forms of government.

It’s taken 15 years of an increasingly unpopular war to learn this lesson, but it appears the US is finally beginning to rethink its role in the world and figure out how to deploy force in a way that’s more congenial to its interests. Domestically, this dialogue takes the oversimplified form of isolationism versus interventionism. But this re-evaluation is far more nuanced: the US is trying to understand how to use its vast but nonetheless limited resources to accomplish objectives in a world that it has learned it cannot completely control.

However, this first requires an understanding of what those objectives are. At the end of the Cold War many thought it was just a matter of time before the rest of the world saw the light and converted to liberal democracy. Therefore, the US strategy that emerged was encouraging and speeding along these conversions. Having recognized that this was not a correct interpretation, the US is now trying to figure out what’s utterly critical and what would simply be nice to have.

Reconsider: the efficacy of multilateral institutions

International laws are not useless, but because they are ultimately unenforceable, they only function if they fulfill the interests of all countries that have to follow them. Such a broad alignment of international interests almost never exists.

Realism, the foreign policy framework, is a misnomer that sounds more pretentious than it really is. It doesn’t claim that all other schools are unrealistic. All it asserts is that relative power imbalances influence state actions. Power relationships are not all that matter, but without understanding them international events will seem to unfold in ways that are incomprehensible. And so they are interpreted day to day as surprising, even shocking, and most news outlets will therefore sensationalize them, call them unprecedented, and fail entirely to understand their causes.

Further Reading: Internationalism and Solo Policy


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.