WorId Order and its Rules
U.S. contempt for the framework of world order
by Noam Chomsky
Z magazine, October 1999
Despite the desperate efforts of ideologues to prove that
circles are square, there is no serious doubt that the NATO bombings
further undermine what remains of the fragile structure of international
law. The U.S. made that clear in the debates that led to the NATO
decision. The more closely one approached the conflicted region,
the greater in general was the opposition to Washington's insistence
on force, even within NATO (Greece and Italy). Again, that is
not an unusual phenomenon: another recent example is U.S./UK bombing
of Iraq, undertaken in December 1998 with unusually brazen gestures
of contempt for the Security Council-even the timing, coinciding
with an emergency session to deal with the crisis. Still another
illustration is Clinton's destruction of half the pharmaceutical
production of a small African country a few months earlier. It
was dismissed here as a marginal curiosity, though comparable
destruction of U.S. facilities by Islamic terrorists might evoke
a slightly different reaction. Perhaps this is an example of the
kind of "creative deterrence" advised by the U.S. Strategic
Command, 1995, aiming at what "is valued within a culture,"
such as the fate of children dying from easily curable disease.
It should be unnecessary to emphasize that there is a far
more extensive record that would be prominently reviewed right
now if facts were considered relevant to determining the "custom
and practice" that is called upon to confer upon the most
enlightened state the right "to do what it thinks right"
It could be argued, rather plausibly, that further demolition
of the rules of world order is by now of no significance, as in
the late 1930s. The contempt of the world's leading power for
the framework of world order has become so extreme that there
is little left to discuss. A review of the internal documentary
record demonstrates that the stance traces back to the earliest
days, even to the first memorandum of the newly formed National
Security Council in 1947. During the Kennedy years, the stance
began to gain overt expression, as, for example, when the eminent
statesman and Kennedy adviser Dean Acheson justified the blockade
of Cuba in 1962 by informing the American Society of International
Law that the "propriety" of a U.S. response to a "challenge...[to
the]...power, position, and prestige of the United States...is
not a legal issue." "The real purpose of talking about
international law was, for Acheson, simply 'to gild our positions
with an ethos derived from very general moral principles which
have affected legal doctrines"'-when convenient.
The main innovation of the Reagan-Clinton years is that defiance
of international law and solemn obligations has become entirely
open, even widely lauded in the West as "the new internationalism"
that heralds a wonderful new age, unique in human history. Unsurprisingly,
the developments are perceived rather differently in the traditional
domains of the enlightened states; and, for different reasons,
are of concern even to some hawkish policy analysts.
The end of the Cold War made it possible to transcend even
Achesonian cynicism. Bows to world order are unnecessary, even
to be despised, as the enlightened states do as they please without
concern for deterrence or world opinion. Doctrinal management
suffices "to gild our positions with an ethos derived from
very general moral principles," as recent developments show
with much clarity. "Innovative but justifiable extension
of international law" (Mark Weller) can be devised at will
by the powerful, to serve their special interests: "humanitarian
intervention" by bombs in Kosovo, but no withdrawal of a
huge flow of lethal arms for worthy ethnic cleansing and state
terror within NATO, to cite only the most dramatic illustration.
With "unpopular ideas silenced and inconvenient facts kept
dark" in the style described by Orwell in his (silenced)
observations on the free societies, all should proceed smoothly.
Whatever happens is "a landmark in international relations"
as the "enlightened states," led by an "idealistic
New World bent on ending inhumanity," proceed to use military
force where they "believe it to be just"-or as others
see it, to devise "rules of the game" that accord them
"the right to intervene with force to compel what seems to
them to be justified," always "cloaked in moralistic
righteousness," "as in the colonial era."
From the perspective of the enlightened, the difference of
interpretation reflects the sharp divide that separates their
"normal world" from that of the backward peoples who
lack "Western concepts of toleration" and have not yet
overcome "the human capacity for evil," to the astonishment
and dismay of the civilized world.
In this context, it is hardly surprising that "international
law is today probably less highly regarded in our country than
at any time" since the founding of the American Society of
International Law in 1908. Or that the editor of the leading professional
journal of international law should warn of the "alarming
exacerbation" of Washington's dismissal of treaty obligations.
The prevailing attitude towards institutions of world order
was illustrated in a different way when Yugoslavia brought charges
against NATO countries to the World Court, appealing to the Genocide
Convention. The Court determined that it had no jurisdiction,
while holding that "All parties must act in conformity with
their obligations under the United Nations Charter," which
clearly bars the bombing-"veiled language to say that the
bombing was breaking international law," the New York Times
reported. Of particular interest was the submission of the U.S.
government, which presented an airtight legal argument, accepted
by the Court, that its actions did not fall under Court jurisdiction.
The U.S. had indeed ratified the Genocide Convention, after a
very long delay, but with a reservation that "the specific
consent of the United States is required" if charges are
brought against it; and the United States refuses to give the
"specific consent" that the reservation stipulates.
Court rules require that both parties agree to its jurisdiction,
Counsel John Crook reminded the Court, and U.S. ratification of
the Convention was conditioned on its inapplicability to the United
It may be added that the reservation is more general. The
U.S. ratifies few enabling conventions concerning human rights
and related matters, and these few are conditioned by reservations
that render them (effectively) inapplicable to the United States.
The explanations offered for rejection of international obligations
are interesting, and would be on the front pages, and prominent
in the school and university curriculum, if honesty and human
consequences were considered significant values.
The highest authorities have made it clear that international
law and agencies had become irrelevant because they no longer
follow Washington's orders, as they did in the early postwar years,
when U.S. power was overwhelming. When the World Court was considering
what it later condemned as Washington's "unlawful use of
force" against Nicaragua, Secretary of State George Shultz-honored
as the Mr. Clean of the Reagan administration-derided those who
advocate "utopian, legalistic means like outside mediation,
the United Nations, and the World Court, while ignoring the power
element of the equation." Clear and forthright, and by no
means original. State Department Legal Adviser Abraham Sofaer
explained that members of the UN can no longer "be counted
on to share our view," and the "majority often opposes
the United States on important international questions,"
so we must "reserve to ourselves the power to determine"
how we will act and which matters fall "essentially within
the domestic jurisdiction of the United States, as determined
by the United States"-in this case, Washington's "unlawful
use of force" against Nicaragua.
It is all very well to speak abstractly of the "innovative
but justifiable extension of international law" that creates
a right of "humanitarian intervention," or to accord
to the enlightened states the right to use military force where
they "believe it to be just." But it should also be
recognized that, hardly by accident, the states that are self-qualified
as enlightened turn out to be those that can act as they please.
And that in the real world, there are two options: (1) Some kind
of framework of world order, perhaps the UN Charter, the International
Court of Justice, and other existing institutions, or perhaps
something better if it can be devised and broadly accepted; (2)
The powerful do as they wish, expecting to receive the accolades
that are the prerogative of power.
Abstract discussion may choose to consider other possible
worlds, perhaps a fit topic for graduate seminars in philosophy.
But for the present, at least, it is options (1) and (2) that
identify the real world in which decisions that affect human affairs
have to be made.
The fact that the operative choices reduce to (1) and (2)
was recognized 50 years ago by the World Court: "The Court
can only regard the alleged right of intervention as the manifestation
of a policy of force, such as has, in the past, given rise to
most serious abuses and such as cannot, whatever be the defects
in international organization, find a place in international law...;
from the nature of things, [Intervention] would be reserved for
the most powerful states, and might easily lead to perverting
the administration of justice itself."
One can adopt the stance of "intentional ignorance"
and ignore "custom and practice," or dismiss them on
some absurd grounds ("change of course," "Cold
War," and other familiar pretexts). Or we can take custom,
practice, and explicit doctrine seriously, along with the actual
history of "humanitarian intervention," departing from
respectable norms but at least opening the possibility of gaining
some understanding of what is happening in the world.
Where does that leave the specific question of what should
have been done in Kosovo? It leaves it unanswered. The answer
cannot be simply deduced from abstract principle, still less from
pious hopes, but requires careful attention to the circumstances
of the real world.
A reasonable judgment, I think, is that the U.S. chose a course
of action that-as anticipated-would escalate atrocities and violence;
that strikes yet another blow against the regime of international
order, which offers the weak at least some limited protection
from predatory states; that undermines democratic developments
within Yugoslavia, possibly Macedonia as well; and that sets back
the prospects for disarmament and for some control of nuclear
weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, indeed may leave
others with "no choice" but to "obtain weapons
of mass destruction" in self-defense. Of the three logically
possible options, it chose (I) "act to escalate the catastrophe,"
rejecting the alternatives: (II) "do nothing," (III)
"try to mitigate the catastrophe." Was option (III)
realistic? One cannot know, but there are indications that it
might have been.
For Kosovo, one plausible observation from the outset was
that "every bomb that falls on Serbia and every ethnic killing
in Kosovo suggests that it will scarcely be possible for Serbs
and Albanians to live beside each other in some sort of peace"
(Financial Times, March 27) Other possible long-term outcomes
are not pleasant to contemplate. At best, NATO's immediate institution
of its version of the official settlement leaves " staggering
problems " to be addressed, most urgently those that are
"the effect" of the bombing, as acknowledged.
A standard argument is that we had to do something: we could
not simply stand by as atrocities continued. There was no alternative
to the resort to force, Tony Blair declared, with many heads nodding
in sober agreement: "to do nothing would have been to acquiesce
in Milosevic's brutality." If option (III) ("mitigate
the catastrophe") is excluded, as tacitly assumed, and we
are left only with (I) ("escalate the catastrophe")
or (II) ("do nothing"), then we must choose (I). That
the argument can even be voiced is a tribute to the desperation
of supporters of the bombing. Suppose you see a crime in the streets,
and feel that you can't just stand by silently, so you pick up
an assault rifle and kill everyone involved: criminal, victim,
bystanders. Are we to understand that to be the rational and moral
response, in accord with Blair's principle?
One choice, always available, is to follow the Hippocratic
principle: "First, do no harm." If you can think of
no way to adhere to that elementary principle, then do nothing;
at least that is preferable to causing harm-the consequence recognized
in advance to be "predictable" in the case of Kosovo,
a prediction amply fulfilled. It may sometimes be true that the
search for peaceful means is at an end, and that there is "no
alternative" to doing nothing or causing vast harm. If so,
anyone with even a minimal claim to being a moral agent will abide
by the Hippocratic principle. That nothing constructive can be
done must, however, be demonstrated. In the case of Kosovo, diplomatic
options appeared to be open, and might have been productive and
as is coming to be acknowledged, far too late.
The right of "humanitarian intervention" is likely
to be more frequently invoked in coming years-maybe with justification,
maybe not-now that the system of deterrence has collapsed (allowing
more freedom of action) and Cold War pretexts have lost their
efficacy (requiring new ones). In such an era, it may be worthwhile
to pay attention to the views of highly respected commentators-not
forgetting the World Court, which ruled on the matter of intervention
and "humanitarian aid" in a decision rejected by the
United States, its essentials not even reported.
In the scholarly disciplines of international affairs and
international law it would be hard to find more respected voices
than Hedley Bull or Louis Henkin. Bull warned 15 years ago that
"Particular states or groups of states that set themselves
up as the authoritative judges of the world common good, in disregard
of the views of others, are in fact a menace to international
order, and thus to effective action in this field." Henkin,
in a standard work on world order, writes that the "pressures
eroding the prohibition on the use of force are deplorable, and
the arguments to legitimize the use of force in those circumstances
are unpersuasive and dangerous... Even 'humanitarian intervention'
can too readily be used as the occasion or pretext for aggression.
Violations of human rights are indeed all too common, and if it
were permissible to remedy them by external use of force, there
would be no law to forbid the use of force by almost any state
against almost any other. Human rights, I believe, will have to
be vindicated, and other injustices remedied, by other, peaceful
means, not by opening the door to aggression and destroying the
principal advance in international law, the outlawing of war and
the prohibition of force."
These are reflections that should not be lightly disregarded.
Recognized principles of international law and world order, treaty
obligations, decisions by the World Court, considered pronouncements
by respected commentators-these do not automatically yield general
principles or solutions to particular problems. Each has to be
considered on its merits. For those who do not adopt the standards
of Saddam Hussein, there is a heavy burden of proof to meet in
undertaking the threat or use of force.
Perhaps the burden can be met, but that has to be shown, not
merely proclaimed. The consequences have to be assessed carefully-in
particular, what we take to be "predictable." The reasons
for the actions also have to be assessed-on rational grounds,
with attention to historical fact and the documentary record,
not simply by adulation of our leaders and the "principles
and values" attributed to them by admirers.
Excerpted from Chomsky's The New Military Humanism (Common