Principles, Etched into Thin Air
From my own limited schooling in International Law, what I took away was that there was no “international law” as such, as a single codified corpus of laws that all nations could or would agree with, or helped to formulate, and then remained permanent. Instead, like current forms of “world governance,” or attempts at such, “international law” is diffuse, flexible, constantly being renegotiated, and consists of many disparate sources: disputes heard and resolved before the International Court of Justice, which then set precedents; treaties between nations; various Vienna, Geneva and other UN conventions; and, quite critical, customary practice and certain peremptory norms known as jus cogens, overriding principles that “nations” (which ones? how many? who can say) generally (mostly? more than half? always? who knows) agree (how do they show agreement?) are the principles which bar any derogation. The “prohibition” against slavery is thus jus cogens, and of course it can be found in a number of domestic laws and international treaties of the past. There is no definite and comprehensive “list” setting out the contents of jus cogens, because as you learn from international lawyers they are quite clever: lists exclude, and they imply coherence and stability. In order to have an evolving body of “law”, it is vital to not etch anything into stone when it comes to principles.
One of those principles has been that force should not be a regular instrument in the conduct of international affairs. What has the customary practice been, however? When the U.S. conducts a scandalous “preemptive strike” which is actually an invasion, occupation, and de facto annexation of two other nations; when the U.S. captures, tries, and executes a foreign head of state (Saddam Hussein), while holding another in its domestic prisons (Manuel Noriega); when the U.S. has a long history of working to overthrow democratically elected governments — then this all goes into shaping customary practice.
Russia: Covering All Bases
So the first weapon in Russia’s political arsenal is one handed to it by the U.S.: strike at will, if your national interest is at stake. The fact that Russia is also able to claim that they went in to South Ossetia to prevent ethnic cleansing, and that the attack was — and few contradict this, though many try to slip past it — initiated by Georgia, is yet another weapon. After all, Russia had warned very sternly that what is good for Kosovo — being broken away from Serbia by the same foreign powers that had promised the opposite — is also good for South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The results of U.S. actions could best be put to music now, as part of a new Marine cadence:
I don’t know, but I’ve been told,
That international law is manifold.
Violence between states is here to stay,
Gonna gun ’em down no matter what you say.
Good for you!
Good for me!
Making an Example of America
So whatever can be said about Russia’s “disproportionate response” by hypocrites such as Condoleeza Rice who ought to know well enough to shut her mouth, what cannot be said with any ease is that Russia has not “broken international law.” What Russia has done is to serve notice that the world has now reached a turning point, and that the world the U.S. helped to create is one that will bite it back, and watch at how Russia stomps all over a U.S. ally, and listen to the “stern words” from Washington.
And watch an unhinged Georgian President Saaskashvili make the mistake of complaining that there was no support from the European Union, NATO, or the Security Council — as if in taking leave of his senses when provoking a world power, he also took leave of the fact that Russia sits on that Security Council and will of course veto any resolutions against itself. That is yet another weapon in Russia’s arsenal, and it’s showing the U.S. exactly how the world can work when you follow the American example.
Georgia is learning the American example. After getting all puffed up and cocky thinking it had big, rich, powerful new friends that would cover for anything one of Bush’s co-megalomaniacs would do, it is instead learning the truth about imperial power in recession: it has been hung out to dry. Of course the Georgian President, facing intense humiliation, would prefer to draw in U.S. forces and risk a third world war to save his face.
In the meantime, the Bush regime is struggling to rearticulate a colonial principle in new language, and it is trying it out and hoping for an attentive audience. While the world may stop to listen to Condoleeza Rice, pause, and then laugh raucously (or drop their jaws in amazement), she is trying to make the case that the Russian response is wrong because you should not invade a neighbouring country, a sovereign nation, that is also a democracy. That’s a lot of conditions, a serious parsing of the principle that force must never be used as a normal instrument of foreign affairs. What the concession masks is racism: the only “invadable” nations are the “lawless,” “uncivilized” ones, read: brown-skinned Muslim and socialist Latin and Oriental nations.
A Lesson About Hegemony
When it comes to geopolitical hegemony, Russia is teaching America a lesson that it should understand by now. The U.S. is dependent on the support, or tacit consent, or fear, of a great many states in order to just survive to the next day as a world superpower. When powerful states withdraw consent, refuse support, and show fear no longer — and that is a few now, besides Russia and China, but also Iran, Cuba, and Venezuela — then the lesson to be learned about hegemony is that it’s the one little moment that is experienced just before the steep decline begins. The other lesson, of course, is that Russia has “learned” from the U.S., which freely bullied, invaded and occupied two sovereign nations during this decade, and which stood by and applauded the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon, while civilians were shelled. Of course this is hardly a new lesson for Russia, but what it is doing is signaling back to the U.S. and its sycophants, “this is the world you created, this is the world you will live with.”
The Brookings Institution in the meantime works to assuage and delay any growing sense of American self doubt, by asserting that Russian military spending is only about 1/15th that of the U.S. How misguided. The first sign of overreach, of mounting structural fatigue, of that hegemonic moment before inevitable decline, is the massive defense budget precisely when a state can no longer afford it. The U.S.S.R. discovered that — it had a massive military budget that ensured the burial of the state. The fact that Russians are not making the same mistake twice, and have a lean, mean, and constantly updated military machine, for a fraction of the price, when it can most afford it, should have given Brookings staff some pause. But no, they reflect two of the ills of their culture: more and bigger is better, and they ignore reality. Every bullet fired by an American soldier is purchased on foreign credit, and while the U.S. has the most massive foreign debt in history, Russia has paid off its own.