The decline of international law and the fear of war

The decline of international law and the fear of war

NATO’s relationship with Russia is more difficult than it has been at any point since the end of the Cold War, according to Western defense alliance NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

In an interview with CNN International on Aug. 3, Stoltenberg also said the strain in relations was due to Russia’s “destabilization” of Ukraine. Despite the military build-up between Russia and NATO countries in the Baltic region, Eastern Europe along the Polish border and in the Black Sea, with the key importance of the Turkish straits, Stoltenberg said NATO was committed to avoiding further escalation in tension by pursuing a double-track approach of “defense deterrence and dialog.”

U.S. President Donald Trump recently unwillingly approved sanctions against Russia, as approved by Congress, because of the Ukraine crisis, which started and reached a zenith in 2014 with the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by Russia. In a first retaliatory step, Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to the sanctions approval by asking 755 U.S. diplomats to leave the country. 

On Aug. 2, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said in Montenegro that Russia wanted to seize territory from Eastern European countries. Moscow responded harshly against what it called a “primitive, ideological” approach reminiscent of Cold War times. The next day, a similar Cold War analogy was made by NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg.

Ukraine is an example of the failure of international law prompting the use of military force. After U.S. President Barack Obama made it clear that he would not make a counter move against Russian advances in Ukraine, the balance of international power started to change. In fact, before Ukraine there was the example of Syria. Obama’s backpedaling from his earlier ultimatum to the Russia-backed Bashar al-Assad regime over the use of chemical weapons gave Moscow an idea. 

In a sense, Ukraine was a double check. After all, Syria is not in Europe and is beyond the reach of NATO responsibility. Ukraine was. What’s more, Ukraine is also a member of the European Security and Cooperation Organization (OSCE), just like Russia, but that doesn’t help the situation either.

The irony is that the U.S. and Russia, which are in confrontation in the Ukraine crisis, are cooperating in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Turkey’s position as a NATO member is also unique. While Ankara is in full solidarity with the U.S. and other NATO forces in the Black Sea and Baltic regions against Russian moves in Ukraine, it is in contradiction with the U.S. in Syria because of Washington’s choice of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), an affiliate of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), as a partner against ISIL, even though Turkey is also a member of the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIL.

Iran, which is also the subject of U.S. sanctions, recently declared that the new sanctions are a breach of the nuclear deal reached after Obama shook hands with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in 2015. Iran is also a major actor in both Syria and Iraq, like the U.S.

While all this is going on, the crisis in the Pacific is also on the rise. The U.S. is in tense relations with China over territorial waters, in addition to the missile threat from North Korea against South Korea, Japan, and even U.S. territory.

The weakening of international law further weakens the power of the United Nations in preventing crises from turning into wars. 

As governments in both East and West are asking their parliaments for more spending on arms, the weakening of international law makes our common future ever more uncertain.