Unless Russia changes course – which seems unlikely anytime soon – the global consequences are apt to be grave. The US and the European Union will impose sanctions, weakening Russia’s economy and the world economy – and stoking even more tension and nationalism. Mistakes on one side or the other could lead to violent disaster. We need only to recall the spiral of hubris and miscalculation that led to the outbreak of World War I, a century ago this year.
As frightening as the Ukraine crisis is, the more general disregard of international law in recent years must not be overlooked. Without diminishing the seriousness of Russia’s recent actions, we should note that they come in the context of repeated violations of international law by the US, the EU, and NATO. Every such violation undermines the fragile edifice of international law, and risks throwing the world into a lawless war of all against all.
The US and its allies have also launched a series of military interventions in recent years in contravention of the United Nations Charter and without the support of the UN Security Council. The US-led NATO bombing of Serbia in 1999 lacked the sanction of international law, and occurred despite the strong objections of Russia, a Serbian ally. Kosovo’s subsequent declaration of independence from Serbia, recognized by the US and most EU members, is a precedent that Russia eagerly cites for its actions in Crimea. The ironies are obvious.
The Kosovo War was followed by the US-led wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which occurred without the support of the Security Council, and in the case of Iraq, despite vigorous objections within it. The results for both Afghanistan and Iraq have been utterly devastating…
One can add many other US actions, including drone strikes on the territory of sovereign states without their governments’ permission; covert military operations; renditions and torture of terror suspects; and massive spying by the US National Security Agency. When challenged by other countries or UN organizations, the US has brushed aside their objections.
International law itself is at a crossroads. The US, Russia, the EU, and NATO cite it when it is to their advantage and disregard it when they deem it a nuisance. Again, this is not to justify Russia’s unacceptable actions; rather, it is to add them to the sequence of actions contrary to international law.
The point of this post is not to endorse Jeffrey Sachs’ particular analysis of any piece of history. Though I often agree — I sometimes disagree. The man has spent a creative political life in a quest for regional and global solutions to the problems politicians continue to create, re-invent.
His understanding of the benefits of International Law is one that isn’t challenged by anyone short of the sort of self-assured maniacs we have managed to throw up from one or another crisis-demented country every couple of generations. Some are obvious threats from the beginning of their political careers. Some – unfortunately – have spent sufficient time in academia, finance or the upper strata of class society to ooze calm and deadly solutions worthy of Solomon or Kissinger or Churchill. Butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths.
We continue to die to satisfy their vision of political economy, nationalism and this week’s omelet.