Moral Principles and International Law

But attention to Pol Pot’s crimes, while a worthy enterprise (if done honestly, which was

rarely the case), had little if any moral significance because there was no hint of a

proposal as to what to do about them — and when they were terminated, the US was

infuriated and severely punished the criminals (the Vietnamese) who carried out the

clearest case of "humanitarian intervention" since World War II.

We understand these truisms very well when we are thinking of others. Thus no one in

the U.S. was impressed when Soviet commissars railed about U.S. crimes; we were much

impressed, however, when dissidents in the USSR condemned Soviet crimes. The reasons were

the two moral truisms just mentioned (which, as is commonly the case, coincided in their


At this point it is useful to recall a psychological truism. One of the hardest things

to do is to look into the mirror. It is also often the most important thing to do, because

of the moral truisms. And there are very powerful institutions (the entire doctrinal

system, in all of its aspects) that seek to protect people from engaging in this difficult

and crucially important task. Every society has its dissidents and its commissars, and

it’s close to a historical law that the commissars are highly praised and the dissidents

bitterly condemned — within the society, that is; o the other hand for official enemies

the situation is reversed.

It’s also worthwhile to recall other psychological truisms. Focussing attention on the

crimes of others often gives us a nice warm feeling of being "good people," so

different from those "bad people." That’s particularly true when there is

nothing much we can do about the crimes of others except to help make them far worse, from

a distance. Then we can simply wail without cost to ourselves. Looking at our own crimes

is much harder, and for those willing to do it, often carries costs, sometimes very severe

costs. That’s typically been true of dissidents in US client states, like the murdered

Jesuit intellectuals in El Salvador. A useful experiment is to ask your friends to tell

you their names, or to ask them how much they have read of what they have written, and

then to compare the results with the same questions concerning Soviet dissidents, who were

not treated anywhere near as harshly in the post-Stalin period. That’s a way of looking in

the mirror that can teach a lot, about ourselves, and about our institutions.

These are matters that have been endlessly discussed (see, e.g., the introduction to

Herman’s and my "Political Economy of Human Rights"). They are so trivial that

it is kind of embarrassing to keep reiterating them. But perhaps that is useful as well.

The application of these truisms is extremely broad. I think that you will easily find


That the bombings are in gross violation of

international law and the founding documents of NATO itself (which subordinate NATO to the

UN Charter) is not seriously denied. About a legal challenge, one has brought to the World

Court by Yugoslavia. Similarly, the Indian commission of jurists has brought to the World

Court a legal challenge to US/UK bombing of Iraq, also in gross violation of international

law. Sudan has demanded a Security Council inquiry on the US destruction of half of its

pharmaceutical and fertilizer supplies by terrorist bombing (also transparently illegal),

but US pressure has succeeded in keeping the matter off the agenda.

As for reactions here, they are interesting. The U.S. has been radically opposed to

international law since its modern foundations were established under U.S. initiative in

1945. In the early days, that was kept to internal (now declassified) documents, such as

the first Memorandum of the newly-formed National Security Council (NSC 1/3), calling for

military action in Italy if the left won the election (I’ve written about this in Z,

reprinted and extended in "Deterring Democracy"). With the Kennedy

Administration, disdain for international law became quite public, in particular, in

speeches by senior Kennedy adviser Dean Acheson. The main innovation of the Clinton/Reagan

years is that it has become entirely open. In fact, the US is the only country to have

vetoed a Security Council resolution calling on all states to observe international law –

mentioning no one, but everyone understood who was meant. There’s a brief review of these

matters in an article of mine in Z in May.

It’s entirely obvious why the powerful should have contempt for international law, and

why the weak (particularly the former colonies) should generally favor it. The powerful do

what they want anyway; treaties and systems of world order don’t offer them any

protection. They do, however, offer at least some limited protection for the weak. That is

why the real "international community" is quite commonly opposed to the resort

to violence by the US/UK (and now their NATO partners). In the U.S. the term

"international community" is used to refer to NATO, but we can surely dispense

with that racist/imperialist jargon ourselves.

An intriguing aspect of the post-Cold War scene is that the US attack on the UN (which

has been going on since Washington lost control in the ’60s, with decolonization), the

World Court, treaty obligations, etc., has become far more extensive. The reason is

straightforward: the old pretexts ("the Russians are coming") had lost their

utility, and in the absence of a deterrent, the U.S. was much more free to resort to

violence than before. That was evident at once. And it is entirely obvious now — even

called a marvellous "new paradigm."

It’s important to bear in mind something that even much of the left prefers to ignore.

There is only one "really existing alternative" to the weak, fragile, and in

many ways very defective system of world order: the powerful will do as they wish.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn is not exactly my favorite commentator on world affairs, but he

does have it basically right this time: "NATO is imposing on the whole world and the

next century an ancient law…whoever is strongest is right." Hardly surprising,

then, that the strongest are the most enthusiastic cheerleaders for the "new


We need only add another virtual truism: the task of the respectable intellectuals, as

always, is to portray whatever happens as angelic, or maybe an understandable

"mistake," if the consequences become too hard to suppress. That’s as old as

recorded history.

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