The rule of law makes America stronger

It is a mistake to think that military force, alone, will preserve America's role in the global order.  "Soft power," a phrase coined by Joseph Nye to describe how countries can influence international relations in ways other than through force, remains an important source of America's global strength. 

Soft power advocates are in short supply these days. This is not good. Power, like anything of value, is an investment. When a country chooses to invest only in hard power, and not in soft power, it puts all its eggs in one basket. It make enemies too quickly. It lives only by the sword, which means, it risks dying by the sword.

Sometimes, the pen is truly mightier

Sometimes, the pen is truly mightier

The aspiration to freedom and democracy, and the defense of human rights, was once a credible form of American soft power. Label these values under a larger umbrella called "the rule of law."

America needs to reinvest in soft power, and the rule of law. By defending the rule of law, the US increases its global authority and its power. It makes the US stronger.

The defense of the rule of law is not a handcuff. It is a powerful weapon against genuine despots. Here are some things the US can do to strengthen the rule of law, and in so doing, strengthen itself:

End unlawful wars and drone strikes. This is an easy one because it is so obvious. The US should honor the rule of law with respect to war and peace. This means US foreign policy should stop invading other countries if doing so would be illegal. This means working with international partners to maintain the global peace. And it means ending the use of drones as instruments of terror and assassination, particularly when such drone attacks may constitute illegal acts of war, or crimes against humanity. 

Prosecute Bush-era crimes related to torture and aggression. US standing in the world was irreparably and dramatically damaged by the crimes of the Bush Administration. Conduct that used to be the hallmark of America's enemies -- torture, for example -- became accepted practice by government officials. Innocent people were and continue to be detained indefinitely without trial, an affront to common law principles enshrined in Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights. And the supreme crime of aggression was committed by President Bush and others, when they planned and executed the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In truth, these crimes are as dark and as brutal as those of any other rights-offending regime. These are heinous crimes, and they must be prosecuted.

Support the International Criminal Court. The International Criminal Court is in deep trouble. Once hailed as a triumph of the global rule of law, the court today is plagued by accusations of bias in that its docket is filled with black African leaders -- and no one from anywhere else. African countries are leaving the court in droves. The court has precious few allies and a growing list of enemies who wish to see it fail.

The US can and should support the effort of the International Criminal Court. It should ratify the Rome treaty, join the court, and play a role in advancing global accountability for crimes such as torture and aggression. 

Permit federal courts to hear and adjudicate global human rights cases.  Human rights litigation in the US used to be robust. This changed in 2013, when the US Supreme Court limited the jurisdiction of a primary human rights law, requiring a connection with the United States. After that decision, the majority of human rights cases being litigated were thrown out because of a lack of such connection.  Congress should reverse that decision and permit US federal courts to act as a forum for global human rights abuses, as they were for many decades.

Take the lead on global climate change remediation. The world is only going to get hotter, the science will only become more pronounced, and the devastation will only become more obvious -- that much is certain. Climate change is here, it is a reality, and if nothing is done, it will lead to tremendous changes in the international order. The US must take the lead in building a global coalition of governments that are willing to face this stark truth and do something about it.

Promote economic, social and cultural rights. International human rights law doesn't just defend due process and free speech. It also insists that people have access to economic, social and cultural rights -- things like health care and education. Health care and affordable education are not just domestic issues, they are human rights issues. They ought to be treated as such. The US should thus invest in economic, social and cultural rights to ensure that Americans have access to opportunities and resources that will permit them to lead better lives. This is not just a quality of life issue -- it is a human rights issue as well. 

The grave threat to the rule of law

Chatter about the rise of populism and far-right leaders is now common place. It is good that this is being discussed, as this is a real phenomenon and has serious implications for the world.

But overlooked in these discussions is what the rise of populism means for the rule of law. 


The rule of law is the idea that all people, even leaders, are restricted by rules that govern their conduct.

The rule of law is what keeps leaders from becoming dictators.

The promise of the rule of law is that all people, no matter their position, are potentially subject to oversight and scrutiny by a neutral judge. 

After 9/11, the rule of law has withered. Governments have used terrorism as an excuse to restrict civil liberties and justify wars.

It is hard to remember, but there was a time when the government had to do a lot of leg work to tap someone's phone.

There was a time when torture was prohibited, without exception.

There was a time when suspected terrorists were charged with crimes, given lawyers, and subject to a trial by jury. 

Those times are gone.

If there is one rallying cry for the 21st century, it must include a cry for the rule of law. This is a dangerous time, where leaders, everywhere, will stop at nothing to fulfill personal ambition, even if it means lives are destroyed or lost in the process. Courts and judges, all over the world, must take brave stands against executive power. And people of all stripes must not buy into the false and distortive messaging of fear and oppression that is now the hallmark of nearly every major Western government. 

At a time of such dramatic globalization and interconnection, the answer cannot by tyranny. It must be the establishment of global norms that are moored, permanently, indelibly, unstoppably, in the rule of law.

If leaders will not remember this, and will not honor this, then the crisis facing democracy is far more dire than we would like to believe. And the necessity of action to restore the rule of law becomes far more urgent and pressing than any thing else. Without the rule of law, there is only dictatorship. And if the whole world falls into dictatorship, humanity is truly lost.

Rising nationalism threatens more conflict and war

There should be no mistake: nationalism is on the rise. And as countries become more nationalist, we should assume and expect global tensions to rise, and perhaps more wars.

Global security used to be based on something called "collective security": the idea that countries would work together to solve their problems.

With the invasion in Iraq in 2003, against the will of the United Nations, the myth of collective security gave way to the reality of US-imposed governance. 

The US is a powerful country, but as time goes on, its power is challenged by other countries like China (globally), Russia (regionally) and even Iran (subregionally). 

Collective security, whatever its flaws, has the chief benefit of making countries talk about their problems to ease tension.

With nationalism on the rise, we should expect there to be a lot less talking and probably a lot more saber rattling. And, perhaps, a lot more shooting.

Why is the West pivoting to nationalism?

It's not a difficult thing to piece together. People are upset and tired with the way things currently work, and in particular, they are upset and tired with the political class that is charged with fixing problems. There is fatigue in every major democracy with a political system that bestows monopoly power on a handful of political parties which have been fully captured by powerful interests. 

I suspect that as the economic system continues to chug along without significant changes, and as people's lives continue to get mostly worse, this political fatigue will worsen and you will soon see some real characters in power. The US is already witnessing this. But it is chilling to think that what we are seeing today is not the end, but merely the beginning; that we are not near the conclusion, but are writing the prologue. And in such an environment, we should expect to see nationalism worsen and eventually metastasize into compromised and destructive forms of government where fundamental rights have no meaning. 

Dialogue is the only way out of this mess. It seems easy, but sometimes messy problems have simple solutions. Hand-washing cured a lot of disease. Dialogue is basic hygiene in international relations. Its absence is not just sad; it will, one day, turn deadly.

American social impact: potentially giant

Perhaps the best place in the world to produce significant social impact is the United States. It is one of the richest countries in the world, and its cultural, economic, and political influence around the world is dominant. 



In every area, social impact in America would be a giant step in the right direction for the entire world. For example, if Americans changed their attitudes towards energy, they could be the driving force of the next-stage in alternative energy, and in solving the climate crisis. 

A more enlightened foreign policy would see American developing the global rule of law, enforcing human rights treaties, and making the world a safer place for the poor and the weak.

Enforcement of genuine American principles within the country -- non-discrimination, due process, freedom of speech and religious belief, and equality of opportunity -- would produce a society less divided, more tolerant, and with genuine economic access for all people regardless of their individual backgrounds like race, gender, color or creed.

It is this truth that can make the current state of affairs in America frustrating. It is frustrating because it takes just a little bit of thinking to see the great potential for human betterment that is potentially capable by American society. Instead, the country is divided more than ever, more economically unequal then ever, and appears charmed by "solutions" peddled by powerful interests that will cause more harm than good, and take the country backwards, and not forwards.

America is the country that put a person on the moon. It is not possible for America to get a free pass from stunning social achievements. 

Want to have a significant social impact on the planet? Starting with America might be the best place to start.

Handling attention thieves in the modern world

It's interesting, in the U.S. at least there is definitely a battle going on for our attention every day. Advertisers, media, the news, and government all seem to be jockeying for our eyes and ears, and in particular, jockeying for influence in how and what we think.

Hannah Arendt noted that what differentiated the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century was their fascination with controlling thoughts not just action. The state didn't just want you to conform, they wanted you to believe it was for the greater good. They wanted to make true believers.

In the 21st century, it seems to me that this is the case not just with governments, but also with advertisers, media, the news, and government. They are all pushing narratives, and they are keen that we live and believe those narratives.

Given the amount of messaging that is out there, this strikes me as a form of pollution: message pollution. In fighting to make us believe certain things, our inner dialogues, sense of being, and consciousness itself becomes manipulated.

There is a way to manage message pollution -- I call it creating an internal narrative

An internal narrative is an inner point of view that lets you look at the world, and that tries to be as free of unconscious influence as much as possible. 

My theory is that without attention to our own consciousness, we permit outside forces to dictate what our thoughts are and should be. It's like holding a magnet to iron shards -- they all get into place. The outside programming is the magnet, and we can be like iron shards when we give up our ability to engage in critical thinking, when we give up our attention. And today is a time when it is easier than ever to just not have any attention, or to give it to something else. 

Here are some steps to creating an internal narrative:

1. Try and minimize mental pollution and addicting online habits. We are all surrounded by so much messaging. Take the time to look at your intake of news, television programming, podcasts, and in particular, social media like FB, Twitter and Instagram. Start to identify things that feel more like addictions. Start to minimize addicting habits. One thing I noticed recently is that I check my news feed way too often. Social media is not something I need to be constantly checking either. It's tough because our phones are so ubiquitous now, but even at least acknowledging that you're on your phone, or this is the 15th time today you're looking at FB, can at least start to give you some insight into your daily habits. When you're on the internet, be conscious about what it is you're doing, and why.

2. Draw your own independent conclusions from facts, even if it is not conventional wisdom. Much of what is broadcast today is packaged and sold with a pre-existing agenda that is given a thin veneer of neutrality, when it is anything but neutral. With the rise of the internet, we are slowly witnessing people picking and choosing which "reality" they want to be a part of, and connecting with other people who share that reality, even if that reality has no basis in fact. This is true of all sides of the political spectrum.

It's incumbent on thinking people to draw their own conclusions from facts that are uncontested (or based in some type of theory that can be tested and disproven). This goes hand-in-hand with point 1 above: try and minimize the messaging you entertain to just a few, trusted, factual sources, and then, do your best to draw your own conclusions from those facts. Be open minded and change your mind if you learn new facts: but don't just think about something someone else told you to do that.

3. Meditate. Meditation is a technology that is thousands of years old, and I believe that it is a potential key towards liberating all of us from this increasingly unending battle for our attention. Meditation trains the mind to be pointed and sharp; it develops concentration; and, at a certain point, it permits someone to obtain deeper insight into the nature of the mind itself. A mind that has meditated is a mind that can withstand a significant amount of message pollution.

4. Connect with others in real life as much as you can. The internet lets us connect with others electronically, but we need to prioritize and engage with other human beings as much as we can in real life. We have to get off our phones more and do the hard work of organizing and developing real life social communities that provide for friendship, a free exchange of ideas, respect, and relationships. We are a social species and our need for social interaction is baked into our genome. We can reverse stress, alienation, anxiety and unhappiness if we just connect with each other more often in real life.

5. Express yourself as much as you can. Like anything, an internal narrative gets strength with practice. Practice expressing yourself as much as you in whatever formats you can. Play music with others, draw, speak at conferences and lectures; discuss your internal narrative with others so that it becomes battle hardened and able to withstanding criticism. Refine it, so that it becomes a useful way to navigate life. 

Foreign policy without principle is dead on arrival

Most of the big problems that define the world today -- international terrorism, international relations between states, nuclear weapons, runaway climate change -- are really problems of principle, or really, lack of principle.

When was the last time that a politician in a major country wanted something done because it was tied to a larger principle? I don't mean religious pandering, which is usually identified by its empty gestures and platitudes. I mean a genuine, civilized principle about how the world should work. 

In the 2000s, Americans got a lot of "principle-based" foreign policy based on the ridiculous notion that "democracy" and "freedom" were worth undertaking various invasions of sovereign states, including Iraq. So it could be the case that Americans are sick of principle-based policies. 

But maybe the problem is that we need better principles. Any political principle that justifies invading another country in violation of law is not really a principle. It is more like an excuse, and a rather horrible one. 

For example, when it comes to terrorism, one principle would be "the rule of law": we should treat terrorism as a crime, and put in place international rules designed to police and interdict international terrorists. Terrorists ought to be captured where possible, charged with an offense, given a lawyer and a legitimate opportunity to mount a defense before a neutral judge, and then sentenced accordingly.

The moment you find a principle, solutions start to present themselves. If terrorism is a crime, then civilized countries should be building a framework to allow for honest and rules-based prosecutions of suspected terrorists. Information and intelligence can be shared between governments. Courts (perhaps the International Criminal Court) can be identified as possible locales for international crimes. A body of law can develop.

When it comes to nuclear weapons, one principle could be "inevitable disarmament." Nuclear weapons are too dangerous to have around any more. It might be just a matter of time before an accident flattens a major world power, or a trigger happy general decides a smaller-scale "tactical" weapon is worth using in the battle field. This would be an unmitigated disaster. Scholars can debate whether "mutually assured destruction" was appropriate during the Cold War, but in a multi-polar world where smaller states like Pakistan, Israel, Iran and North Korea all flirt with the technology, the risks go the other way. Instead, civilized countries should go back to thinking about how we can control, manage, and eventually get rid of the weapons.

When it comes to climate change, my favored principle would be "21st century leadership." There are significant, perhaps unparalleled, economic, political, and social benefits associated with implementing the infrastructure that can cut carbon and produce the new technologies for the 21st century. Countries like Germany are leading the way; meanwhile, the U.S. goes backwards, embracing 19th century technologies. 

The real tragedy with not having any principle is that policies are made without any real thought, changing with the wind, unmoored from any strategy. The policy is dead on arrival, and usually with significant cost and/or body counts. It forecloses leadership based on ideas, and leads to a diminution in power, since a country can no longer lead with its ideals. 

Time to get back to principle in foreign policy.