International Law or the Law of the Jungle?

Ukraine update

by Jeff Klein

first published in the Dorchester People for Peace Update, February 25, 2022

There is no doubt that the Russian attack on Ukraine, which amplifies the already tense and dangerous situation in eastern Europe, is a blatant violation of international law. Unilateral military intervention across international borders, unless in response to an attack or the immediate threat of one, is criminal, no matter what led up to it. But if that is as far as analysis goes, which is almost universal in our mainstream media and among US foreign policy pundits, then we will miss the roots of the current very dangerous crisisJust look, for example at the editorial page of today’s Boston Globe as a good example.

Contrary to what you have been hearing lately, Russia happens to be a country, not a person. Vladimir Putin is Russia’s president, elected by a much larger margin than our own. So, it’s not just evil “Putin” menacing the world, but a large nation of 144 million people, with its own interests, fears and aspirations, including the right not to be threatened on its borders by a hostile military alliance. Putin remains significantly more popular in his country than President Biden is in the US. Even so, there have been anti-war protests in Russia and more than 300,000 Russians have signed an international petition against the attack on Ukraine.

In fact, the US and its allies bear a lot of responsibility for this situation, not only from their increasingly threatening behavior toward Russia and their intervention within Ukraine, but also for the decades-long undermining of international law.

There is a story that a journalist once asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought about “European civilization.” Gandhi  famously replied: “I think it would be a good idea.” Likewise, the “rules-based order” that US leaders often advocate would be a good idea, but not in the way they use the term. In fact, there is and has been since at least 1945, a rules-based international order. It’s called international law and the United Nations is supposed to be its arbiter.  Despite self-interested finger pointing at the actions of Russia, it might be a good idea to look at how the US has been unilaterally undermining the concept of international law for a very long time.

The list of unilateral US military or CIA interventions since World War 2 is very long. And, instead of taking advantage of the dissolution of the Soviet-led Warsaw pact after 1989 to dissolve NATO and establish a region of peace and cooperation spanning all of Europe, the US seized the opportunity to expand its anti-Russian military alliance to the borders of Russia and used NATO to attack Yugoslavia, Iraq and Libya, while maintaining the  occupation of Afghanistan. Today, the US maintains troops in dozens of countries, sometimes willingly and sometimes illegally, as in Syria. It maintains one of the largest US military bases (and a CIA “black site”) in Europe illegally at Camp Bondsteel in the Kosovo region of Serbia, after bombing the former Yugoslavia out of existence.

Going back much further, in an analogy that is seldom noted in comparison to the Russian recognition of separatist regions in Ukraine, in 1949 the US facilitated retreat of the “Nationalist” forces to China’s province of Taiwan and deployed military force to defend the breakaway province since then.

This is not “whataboutism” or an excuse for Russia’s equally lawless recognition of the Donbass republics or its invasion of Ukraine. It is only to point out that to achieve a peaceful world we have to hold our own government equally accountable and not apply a double standard to our supposed adversaries alone. The choice is between a “might makes right” law of the jungle and a world of international law and the sovereignty of nations.

As US citizens, our first responsibility is to call for a commitment to that principle from our own government. And, meanwhile, we should also demand that US and its allies stop facilitating the money laundering by kleptocrats around the world – especially in Ukraine and Russia – which is enormously profitable to international banks, law firms and real estate interests.

As the poet W.H. Auden wrote at the outbreak of the Second World War on September 1, 1939:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.