Will John Bolton destroy international law?
John Bolton’s screed against the International Criminal Court (the “ICC”) was repugnant, but very much in line with his nationalist, imperialist ideology.
It was reminiscent of the Bolton of the George W. Bush era — a presidential administration that was openly militant, believed heavily in the “unitary executive,” tore up international treaties, and left behind an America that would never apologize for the crime of the Iraq War or the tortured bodies in Abu Ghraib.
Bolton’s attack on the ICC speaks of a dangerous militancy within American politics, and does not bode well for peace. The fact of the matter is that the world — including the United States — very much needs international law. Here are three reasons why:
1) We need laws and judges to hold leaders accountable, otherwise, the powerful are able to walk free when they commit international crimes.
One of the major purposes of having trials for Nazi war criminals after World War II was to show that international law could evolve to better keep the peace, and to prevent grave atrocities.
But the world has never really given international law a chance — and powerful countries have been able to successfully exempt themselves from judicial scrutiny. This is a terrible mistake, and creates the framework for future international crimes.
2) Americans are not exempt from committing terrible acts. In fact, the American government has committed truly awful crimes, something that Americans need to admit and reflect on.
The Iraq War happened 15 years ago, and can be rightfully considered one of the most terrible crimes of the 21st century. That war was an American effort, through and through.
Americans are as human as any other country and government. And human beings need oversight and scrutiny, or they can be seduced into predatory, bestial conduct.
3) A world without international governance is a lawless world. If history is a guide, lawlessness at the international stage turns the world into a graveyard.
The precursor to World War II was the abandonment of the League of Nations. Countries openly embraced imperial ambitions. Mass media technologies, economic alienation and new forms of propaganda enabled totalitarian governments and industrial-scale genocides.
Are we really so blind as humans to think that we are incapable of repeating past mistakes? Are we blind to how social media technologies, artificial intelligence and drone technology, and an environmentally unsound world will open the gates of conflict yet again?
We need international law and international mechanisms as ways of keeping the peace. When the great powers — Russia, China, the U.S. — exempt themselves from such law and governance, the world slides towards instability.
We will never solve the crises of our times, including the climate crisis, without acknowledging that the world will only survive if there are limits to what leaders can do. And if leaders transgress those limits — acting as pirates, robber barons and murderers, but behind cover of a title or a crown — they must be brought before a judge and held to account.