Times change. Let's see if I can begin with a couple of quotes. Here's a statesman speaking on behalf of his government in the midst of a major international crisis:
"[We stand for] adjustment of problems in international
relations by processes of peaceful negotiation and agreement. We advocate faithful observance of
international agreements. Upholding the
principle of the sanctity of treaties, we believe in modification of provisions
of treaties. . .by orderly processes carried out in a spirit of mutual
helpfulness and accommodation."
Here is the same man three years later in the midst of a considerably more serious situation.
"The United States,
together with most other nations, has stood firmly for the basic principles
underlying civilized international relations—peace, law, justice, treaty
observance, non-intervention, peaceful settlement of disputes, and fair
dealing,” he said.. “The advocacy of
these principles has won for us the friendship of all nations, except those
which, vaguely describing themselves as the “have-nots” and claiming a superior
right to rule over other peoples, are today on the march with great armies, air
fleets and navies to take by force what they say they need or want."
Here is another statesman commenting on another crisis.
"We need to use the United Nations Security Council and believe that
preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one
of the few ways to keep international relations from sliding into chaos.
The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or
not. Under current international law, force is permitted only in
self-defense or by the decision of the Security Council. Anything else
is unacceptable under the United Nations Charter and would constitute an
act of aggression."
The first two statements came from Cordell Hull, Roosevelt's Secretary of State from 1933 until 1944, one in 1937 and one in 1940. As readers of my forthcoming new book will discover, I could have added literally dozens of similar quotes from Henry M. Stimson, Hoover's Secretary of State and Roosevelt's Secretary of War, and from Roosevelt himself. I could also have found similar statements from Woodrow Wilson, who had tried and failed to bring the rule of law to the world in the midst of the First World War. In the first half of the twentieth century the vast majority of Americans believed deeply that their country observed international law and treaty obligations, and that the trouble in the world was that other nations did not. They differed on how much the US should do to make other nations behave, but not on the proper principles of international relations.
The third quote, of course, comes from President Vladimir Putin's op-ed in today's New York Times. I learned many years ago not to endorse or dismiss statements based upon the identity of the person who made them. Vladimir Putin is most unlikely, in my opinion, to go down as a credit to the history of his country or to the world. He has made sure that the spirit of the KGB, which was itself a direct descendant of Tsarist suspicion of dissent, would shape the politics of the new Russia, standing in the way of genuine democracy or the growth of the kind of civic virtue that Russia has so rarely experienced. Like the Communists and Tsarists of old, he reflexively blames his country's troubles on foreign interference. He presides over a nation in which dissent is dangerous, particularly if the dissenter is powerful enough to make a difference, and he has manipulated its constitution to stay in power indefinitely. His op-ed includes at least one highly dubious statement--the assertion that the Syrian opposition unleashed the chemical attack that reportedly killed more than 1000 people. But for all that, the thrust of his column was right, and I am glad that he wrote it. We should not have had to be reminded of our own principles by a Russian authoritarian, but that was better than not being reminded at all.
Let us now set side by side a passage from President Obama's televised address from earlier in the week, and Putin's direct response.
"My fellow Americans, for nearly seven decades,
the United States has been the anchor of global security. This has
meant doing more than forging international agreements -- it has meant
enforcing them. The burdens of leadership are often heavy, but the world
is a better place because we have borne them.. . . .
"America is not the world's policeman. Terrible
things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right
every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children
from being gassed to death, and thereby make our own children safer
over the long run, I believe we should act. That's what makes America
different. That's what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with
resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth"
To which Putin replied today:
"It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as
exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small
countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and
those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too.
We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must
not forget that God created us equal."
Once again I can only say that I think Putin is right. We still live in a world of sovereign states, so defined by the charter of the United Nations. For a pre-eminent nation like the US, the opinion of other countries can serve as a check on the arrogance of power--and had Washington observed that rule during the Cold War we would have avoided some terrible mistakes. In the Korean War the US enjoyed the support of all its major allies because the European powers agreed that that attack might be a preview for a similar attack across the border of divided Germany. In Vietnam we got no active support from any major ally because they did not regard the war as important--and we ignored their views, with tragic consequences. In the post-cold war era, George H. W. Bush built an enormous coalition to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, but his son could secure only a few partners for his own enterprise of overthrowing the Ba'ath regime. In that case, too, world opinion turned out to be right.
For a former law professor, Obama's idea of international law strikes me as quite extraordinary, and very similar to that of his predecessor. Bush II argued that we could go to war with Saddam because he had disregarded various UN resolutions, even though none of those resolutions threatened war and the Security Council would not approve it. Obama argues that Syria has violated international law even though it is not yet a party to the international treaty on chemical weapons. And, as Putin points out, he asserts a unilateral right to enforce his view of international law by force, just as Bush claimed the right to decide which nations should possess which weapons. And let there be no mistake--Iran did not sign away its right to build nuclear weapons forever when it signed the nuclear Non-proliferation treaty. The government of Iran promised not to develop nuclear weapons, but any party to that treaty can withdraw from it as it pleases, as the North Koreans already did.
My main objection to a strike on Syria remains the same: it makes so little sense. The President, seeking to undo the impact of his Secretary of State's words, boasted that "the United States military does not do pinpricks," but how could his military strike fundamentally change the situation? It will be like the strikes the Israelis make in Gaza and Lebanon, but on a somewhat larger scale--strikes that weaken or punish an adversary but which hold out no hope of a political solution. Administration spokesmen are now tripping all over themselves responding to Putin's proposals for peace. Kerry has suggested that Syria's promise to turn over its weapons will take too long to implement. Does that really make it better to unleash a strike which will surely take that offer off the table once and for all?
Obama, like Putin, is from a Nomad generation. (Putin was born one year before Stalin's death, and the Soviet Awakening began within two years after that. In the same way, Obama's first memories must date from the exciting era of the mid-1960s, not from the deep Cold War into which he was born.) Nomads have little commitment to principle for its own sake--they care only about results. That makes them effective executives but leaves them with little ability to define new visions. Obama's vision of the US role in the world, sadly, is very similar to that of his Boomer predecessor, despite his greater reluctance to use ground troops. It is no accident that it has not resonated either with the world at large or with the American people. Putin has, indeed, offered Obama a way out. I hope he takes it.