HOW RIGHT-WING POPULISM UNDERMINES INTERNATIONAL LAW

by Jason Sibert

Humankind rediscovered the power of reason when leaving the Dark Ages for the Renaissance. The rediscovery of classical Greek philosophy played a role in the accomplishments of this era. Greek philosopher Pythagoras said, “man is the measure of all things” and his idea played a key role in bringing reason back to address human problems. The Renaissance proved to be a revolution in many intellectual pursuits, chief among which was the rebirth of Humanism – the reliance of reason in solving problems. Hugo Grotius, a Dutch Humanist, was one of the great thinkers of the Renaissance. He laid the foundations for international law, based on the idea of natural law. Natural law theorists, like Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero and St. Thomas Aquinas, believed that certain laws are embedded in nature and can be discovered by reason alone without the help of divine intervention. Grotius wrote two books on international law, On the Law of War and Peace and The Free Seas, that contributed to the evolution of rights. Prior to Grotius, rights were attached to objects and did not belong to human beings. Now, human beings had rights to defend, or at least an increased amount of dignity.

International relations theorist Hedley Bull said Grotius was not the first to formulate an international society doctrine, but he was the first to define a society of states –  a society governed not by force but by laws and an agreement to enforce those laws. His ideas were present in the first peace agreement of modern times – the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. The agreement ended both the Thirty Years War and the Eighty Years War. The Thirty Years’ War pitted the Hapsburg-ruled Spain and Austria and their Catholic allies on one side and Protestant Denmark and Sweden on the other side. Catholic France was on the side of Denmark and Sweden because the country was anti-Hapsburg. The Eighty Years War was between Spain and the Dutch Republic, and the Dutch earned independence at the conclusion of the war. The Treaty of Westphalia brought about the peaceful coexistence of individual nation-states in Europe. Interstate aggression was held in check by the balance of power of European nation-states. The ideas of one man, Grotius, lead to a peace that lasted until World War I, although small amounts of fighting still existed in Europe after the Treaty of Westphalia. The whole savagery of the war between Protestants and Catholics created a long-lasting revulsion of war amongst Europeans and many were willing to accept a solution.

In his book The Law of Nations: and Introduction to the International Law of Peace, J.L. Bierly wrote that the rise of international law meant “an abandonment of the medieval idea of a world-state and took instead as its fundamental postulate the existence of a number of states, secular, national and territorial; but it denied their absolute separateness and irresponsibility, and claimed they were bound together by the supremacy of law.” The United States emerged from a period of thought called the Enlightenment, an outgrowth of the Renaissance. President (and Former Secretary of State) Thomas Jefferson was influenced by Grotius’ thought, as he felt treaties made between nations were valid. Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson’s rival, used the concept of the law of nations when he was a lawyer and argued that the Trespass Act, passed by the New York state legislature to punish loyalists after the Revolutionary War, was a violation of the Treaty of Paris.

Our country’s history is filled with examples of embracing the idea of international law to prevent war. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said in his book On the Law of Nations that America at one time had the tendency to see the world as a court of law and that this was not a bad thing considering the expense of militaries.  At our Constitutional Convention, it was agreed that the law of nations was a part of our law. In 1890 the First Pan-American Congress established an arbitration system which Secretary of State James G. Blaine called a “new Magna Carta”. In 1897 Secretary of State Richard Only negotiated a five-year arbitration agreement with Great Britain to settle differences that were not previously settled with diplomacy. President Teddy Roosevelt negotiated the Treaty of Portsmouth which ended the Russo-Japanese War, making him the first American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1899, Czar Nicholas II of Russia assembled a peace conference at the Hague and our country attended. Roosevelt proposed another conference in 1907 and 44 nations attended. President Woodrow Wilson proposed a League of Nations to keep the peace after World War I. Our country did not enter the League, but the United Nations has been with us since the end of World War II.    

Our country has been creeping away from Hedley Bull’s idea of a society of states as of late. The foreign policy of President Donald Trump is a case in point. He has removed our country from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, the Open Skies Treaty, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and the Paris Climate Accords. There were legitimate complaints about Russian compliance with the INF Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty. However, both treaties gave us a mechanism to control Russian behavior, a mechanism we have lost. The blame cannot totally be laid at Trump’s feet. The George W. Bush Administration invaded a sovereign country (Iraq) in violation of international law and the Barack Obama Administration did likewise in Libya. Bush also left the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and withdrew from negotiations over the International Criminal Court and the United Nation’s Small Arms Treaty. In his aforementioned book, Moynihan denounced the mining of Nicaraguan harbors by President Ronald Reagan’s administration in the 1980s as a violation of international law.

The right-wing populism of Donald Trump magnifies the trend. When he is coherent, he sees the world, as well as the US, as a place that is naturally divided. Trump feels that other nation-states, friend and foe, are trying to do ill to our country. He recently called a reporter “politically correct” for wearing a mask, a measure taken to fight Covid-19. Trump also said “when the looting starts the shooting starts” after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. This language further inflames a country that is already divided about race, policing, and the current pandemic. If we can’t solve our own domestic problems, our country will be hard-pressed to turn its attention to foreign affairs and embrace a vision that would make Grotius proud.

Forms of right-wing populism have been creeping into political systems around the world. It usually combines a belief that individual nation-states are under attack from internal forces that do not contribute to the culture of that nation and a belief that other nation-states are an equally hostile force. It does not totally reject a certain amount of state involvement in the economy, as these movements support some parts of the welfare state and even nationalization of certain industries.  Narendra Modi’s right-wing populism in India is based around the predominately Hindu culture in the country and it sees Muslims as being hostile to that culture. Recep Erdogan’s right-wing populism in Turkey is based around Islam and sees foreign influences as hostile. Marine LePen’s politics in France are based around hostility to Muslims and racial minorities. Trump’s politics are uncomfortable with the demographic changes that have occurred in America since changes to immigration laws in the 1960s – it’s really about race. 

Grotius thought the nation-states of the world as being bound together in the world of law.  By contrast, right-wing populism sees the world as a place of hostility and makes little attempt to understand it. This is more dangerous than ever before because the technology for killing has become greater and greater. The possibility of nuclear war has been with us since the 1940s, but now there are other new, powerful.  Writer Michael T. Klare outlined these new technologies in his story “The Challenges of Emerging Technologies”. The future of warfare means using artificial intelligence, autonomous weapons systems, hypersonic weapons and cyberattack. Hypersonic weapons are vehicles that travel five times the speed of sound. This presents challenges to the idea of arms control. Anti-missile systems that work against conventional missiles will not work against hypersonic versions, and any country that possesses hypersonic weapons has a first-attack advantage. Cyberattacks allow one country to disable another’s command and control systems and this would give it a first-attack advantage. Artificial intelligence can be embedded in machines, like robotic soldiers, with the ability to respond to stimuli. Some worry that machines will incorrectly respond to stimuli and take actions that escalate hostilities. Such machines are not totally capable of distinguishing between combatants and civilians, threatening international humanitarian law which requires armed personnel to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants.

Continuing to move in the direction of lawlessness will do us no good if we continue to develop more and more weapons of mass destruction. The United States has at times engaged in actions via treaties to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons and we did it with a geopolitical foe – Russia in its Soviet and post-Soviet forms. President John F. Kennedy signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty that banned the testing of nuclear weapons above ground, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Treaty of the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons that bounds all treaty signers to work for the limitation of nuclear weapons. President Richard Nixon signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty that limited the number of such missiles both Soviet Russia and the United States could possess. President Ronald Reagan signed the INF Treaty that banned ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and missile launchers with a range of 500 to 1,000 kilometers, President George HW  Bush signed the START I Treaty that limited both the U.S. and Soviet Russia to 6,000 nuclear warheads atop 1,600 intercontinental ballistic missiles and bombers, President George W. Bush signed the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty that reduced the operationally deployed strategic nuclear warheads from 2,200 to 1,700 of the U.S. and Russia by the year 2012, and President Barack Obama signed the New Start Treaty that halved the number of strategic nuclear missile launchers.  

In all of these treaties, two or more powers chose to treat the world like a courtroom and not a battlefield. President Kennedy provided a vision of a world governed by law in the American University Speech that occurred on the heels of the Cuban Missile Crises. He stated the central goal of the speech was a vision of world peace. President Kennedy said: “I realize that the pursuit of peace is not as dramatic as the pursuit of war – and frequently the words of the pursuer fall on deaf ears. But we have no more urgent task. Some say that it is useless to speak of world peace or world law or world disarmament – and that it will be useless until the leaders of the Soviet Union adopt a more enlightened attitude. I hope they do. I believe we can help them do it. But I also believe that we must reexamine our own attitude – as individuals and as a nation – for our attitude is as essential as theirs.”

Kennedy called on students of American University and the citizens of the U.S. to take action in saying: “and every graduate of this school, every thoughtful citizen who despairs of war and wishes to bring peace, should begin by looking inward – by examining his own attitude toward the possibilities of peace, toward the Soviet Union, toward the course of the Cold War and toward freedom and peace here at home. First, let us examine our attitude toward peace itself. Too many of us think it is impossible. Too many think it unreal. But that is a dangerous, defeatist belief. It leads to the conclusion that war is inevitable – that mankind is doomed – that we are gripped by forces we cannot control.”  The president also said “both the United States and its allies, and the Soviet Union and its allies, have a mutually deep interest in a just and genuine peace and in halting the arms race” and “for, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.” Kennedy understood that an ideological war was raging in the world, but this ideological war had to be kept within limits. Otherwise, humanity would pay a large penalty. While the Soviet Union collapsed without a shooting war with the U.S., the current rise of authoritarianism represents a challenge to Grotius’ vision embodied in Kennedy’s speech. It also means more bloated military budgets, as various nation-states engage in a power-balancing act in an absence of quality arms control. Our country can not afford such bloat in light of the challenges of Covid-19, a crumbling infrastructure, the greenhouse effect, and the need to reform public safety.

The war against authoritarianism in various forms will have to be won by our country being a light and a beacon for the democratic ideal. Social democrats believe in the idea of democracy and that it can be applied to the economic realm to lift people from the lower economic stratum into the middle class. Therefore, social democrats should be on the front lines on the war to protect democracy and in the establishment of the peace crucial in maintaining it. If we as a country live up to these ideals, authoritarian movements around the world will be weakened by our example. We cannot do this if authoritarian movements have a significant amount of pull in the U.S. The defeat of Donald Trump in the election of 2020 will be a significant win for democratic values, but Trump’s defeat will not mean the end of authoritarianism. Those who are committed to the idea of the democratic republic will have to continue to defend those values as we move further into the future. Let us hope the spirit of Grotius and the Renaissance survives!

Jason Sibert is the executive director of the Peace Economy Project in St Louis.

2 thoughts on “HOW RIGHT-WING POPULISM UNDERMINES INTERNATIONAL LAW

  1. As I see it the greatest single problem with being a Social Democrat is being a democrat. We all know the accomplishments of the New Deal and the labor movement in this country. We have also seen many of these advancements torn apart by the right wing in the years since Reagan and his successors convinced a minority of the population to vote against their own best interests leading up to the current political misfit we are living with. Note: Reagan never got more than 25% of the eligible voters to vote for him as did neither of the Bushes and, of course, Trump lost by 3 million votes. This is the fake democracy set up by the founding oligarchs and our tolerance of it has to come to an end. JMO

  2. The recently published “How We Prevailed, and What the Future May Hold for Us” by Jim Byrne, promotes the progressive cause; the more people that read it, the better will be the chances for promoting the socialist cause in November and beyond. The book is available on Amazon.

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