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International Law – A Heaven or Hell on Earth?

(Part 3 - Foreign Policy)


by Brian Risman, Publisher and Founder, The Law Journal UK and Consultant in International Law


International Law promised a noble world at the end of the Second World War. Was that dream realised -- or was the dream a chimera? In this third of a series of articles, The Law Journal UK examines the promise -- and reality -- of Foreign Policy.


Foreign Policy is an area which mystifies even the greatest expert.


Governments can change, generations are born, age and die, empires come and go – yet foreign policy remains somewhere between derision, protest and accolades.


The problem worsens in the light of international law, which never in fact seems to be a ‘law’ but seems to resemble a self-serving, cynical game. Or are we describing foreign policy again?


Let us look first at what International Law is supposed to be. The Law has two purposes: first, to provide procedures and order in terms of international political and economic affairs; and second, to reflect the ethical ideas of the age.


What, in turn, is foreign policy? While sometimes couched into humanitarian principles, foreign policy is largely a self-serving tool for nations.


Further, international law has evolved over time; in reality, the interests of foreign policy stay amazingly constant.


At the same time as being self-serving, foreign policy – looking outside the nation – paradoxically is influenced by trends and even stresses inside the country.


A very good example of this phenomenon is Russia. In the Czarist days, Russia’s main foreign policy goal was a year-round warm water port, particularly for its navy. This goal remained in the days of the USSR, and carries on today in modern-day Russia.


Yet there is another trend in Russian foreign policy. This trend – a very historical one – is the tension between those in the country that look to the west, and those looking to the east. Peter the Great turned an Eastern looking country into a Western European-oriented nation – even to the point of ordering his officials and courtiers into Western dress. This stress continues today, with a seemingly authoritarian government in conflict with a western-style press seeking free speech and liberty.


Tied to these stresses and strains is another aspect impacting foreign policy – namely the confidence of the nation.  Russia, to continue with the example, has always lacked confidence in dealing with the West because of its self-perceived ‘Eastern’ backwardness.


Hence many aspects of its foreign policy may seem strange, until placed in the context of the confidence of the nation. An excellent example came in the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962. Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev moved missiles into Cuba, very near the US shores. Why would Khrushchev have taken this action, given all that the missiles would have succeeded in doing – and did in fact – was to spark a crisis? Simply put, Khrushchev wanted to show US President John Kennedy that he – and the USSR – should be taken seriously by the Americans.


We mentioned the Americans. US Foreign Policy reflects many of the same times of motivations as with Russia. US Foreign Policy suffers from a combination of self-interest – like Russia – and a dose of idealism. Yet like Russia, it experiences internal stresses that influence its foreign policy.


US foreign policy’s idealism is largely tied to the creation of the country. The US likes to think of itself as the guardian of liberty and democratic values, going back to its Declaration of Independence and its Constitutional thinking as evidenced in The Federalist Papers.


At the same time, though, the United States has its self-interests – and its self-interest is largely tied to its business enterprises around the world, but particularly in its own Western Hemisphere.


Hence, there is a tension throughout US foreign policy history. The Americans will overthrow democratically elected governments if they threaten US business interests. The Dominican Republic, to mention one of many, has experienced this situation. But the most well-known example is that of Chile in the 1970s. Chileans elected a Marxist President, Salvador Allende. Allende instituted measures popular with the nation, but not popular with US business interests. The result - within a couple of years, the US overthrew Allende, imposing a brutal military dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet.


Now this is not to say that Russia and United States – both large countries – are the only example of this type of foreign policy.


Far from it.


In fact, there is another foreign policy phenomenon of self-interest that affects small nations in different regions – namely, that the nation (and of course, its megalomaniac leader) will be the saviour and leader of the region.


The best examples are that of Nasser in the Arab world and Castro in the Latin American world.


Gamal Abdel Nasser not only ruled Egypt, but by his radio broadcasts to the rest of the Arab world, dominated the region. Since his death in 1970, every Arab – or Moslem – leader wants to be the new Nasser. Hence we see Iran striving to dominate the Middle East in the same manner as Nasser.


Cuban President Fidel Castro has dominated the revolutionary scene in Latin America for decades. Now, however, we have other Latin American leaders – notably, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela – seeking to dominate the region in the manner of Castro.


Both Iran and Venezuela are utilising very similar styles of foreign policy. Dominate neighbouring countries via either a political ideology or a theology, step-by-step, until the entire region falls into the grasp of the new leader. Iran seeks to control Shiite nations in the region; Venezuela seeks to elect similarly leftist leaders in other Latin American countries.


As is clear from the above discussion, self-interest seems to be the dominant element in foreign policy, with idealistic values – whether democracy, capitalism, liberty, Communism, Marxism, or Fundamentalist Islam – simply acting as the pretext.


Given foreign policy’s self-interest bent, what does that mean for International Law?


International Law has its idealistic base. Yet the use of International Law – and even its basis – is largely tied to the self-interest of the nations involved.


An example is the situation regarding Iran and its goal of building nuclear weapons. There is little doubt of Iran’s real intentions, given its President’s oft-stated goal of wiping Israel off the map by vapourising the country. These threats are a flagrant violation of the United Nations Charter in threatening to wipe out a member state. And there have been resolutions passed condemning Iran. However, these resolutions have been watered down to allow certain permanent Security Council members – Russia and China in particular – to support action, given their foreign policy’s self-interest in large business dealings with the Iranians.


The self-interest of nations affects good actions in other arenas as well.


Take global warming, and in particular the Kyoto Treaty. This is an excellent, important goal for the world. Yet why are India and China exempt from this treaty? China, for example, is one of the largest polluters in the world. Yet both nations have been exempted from the Treaty because they are ‘developing nations’.


Really. The nation that is now the ‘factory of the world’ - China - is still a ‘developing nation’?


The real reason that China and India are exempted from Kyoto is, once again, self-interest.


It is in the interest of countries that want business deals with these countries (ignoring the human rights issue in China very conveniently).


Equally important, the self-interest of the business elite of the nations is involved, since they make huge profits off the ‘China factory’, paying lower wages than in their home countries. If Kyoto is implemented in China or India, the cost advantage of the business elite in locating their enterprises in those countries disappears.


And foreign policy takes notice.


And the rogues of the world know this, and take notice.


They know that self-interest in foreign policy will trump good intentions any time.


It is a major reason why the United Nations has been ineffective.


It is a major reason why the application of international law has been ineffective.


Can self-interest ever take second place to idealism and positive deeds?


Can international law cease to be a hostage to the self-interest of the foreign policy of nations?



Brian Risman, Publisher and Founder, The Law Journal UK and Consultant in International Law 

Your thoughts? 

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