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Stephen M. Walt

Do I believe in international law?

In another corner of the vast FP media empire, David Bosco wants to know if "in some secret chamber of [my] heart, [I am] a believer in international law and institutions." He was writing in response to my post earlier this week, where I argued that NATO’s decision to conduct "regime change" in Libya under ...

LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images
LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

In another corner of the vast FP media empire, David Bosco wants to know if "in some secret chamber of [my] heart, [I am] a believer in international law and institutions." He was writing in response to my post earlier this week, where I argued that NATO’s decision to conduct "regime change" in Libya under the auspices of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973, even though the resolution did not authorize this act, may have contributed to Russia and China’s decision to veto a proposed resolution on Syria. He finds it surprising that a realist such as myself could take the niceties of international law — and in this case, the text of a Security Council resolution — so seriously.

In fact, Bosco’s query betrays a common misconception about realism, as well as a misunderstanding of my original position. Of course realists "believe in" international law and institutions": they exist, and we’d have to be blind to deny that basic fact. Moreover, realists have long acknowledged that international law and international institutions can be useful tools of statecraft, which states can use to achieve their national interests. In particular, law and institutions can help states coordinate their behavior so as to reap greater gains or avoid various problems (think of the rules that regulate air traffic, some forms of pollution, or global communications), and they can also provide mechanisms to facilitate international trade and to resolve various disputes. Where realists part company with some (but not all) liberal idealists is in their emphasis on the limits of institutions: they cannot force powerful states to act against their own interests and they usually reflect the underlying balance of power in important ways.

Thus, a realist like me isn’t surprised when a powerful country like the United States ignores the fine details of a U.N. resolution, and proceeds to undertake unauthorized regime change. Nor are we surprised when the U.S. and some of its allies invaded Iraq without any U.N. authorization at all. It was a surprising decision because it was so stupid, but it was apparent by late 2002 that U.S. foreign policy was in the hands of serial blunderers. Sadly, there was nothing international law or the U.N. could do about that fact.

The central point in my post, however, was not that Russia and China were necessarily upset by the fact that the U.S. and its allies had trod all over the text of Resolution 1973. Rather, they were upset because they didn’t like the United States and its allies saying one thing and doing another, and they were upset by the precedent that the Libya case appeared to set. Put differently, they think they got snookered over Libya, and they weren’t about to get snookered again. Realists understand that institutions are weak constraints on state behavior (which is why the U.S. could act as it did), but realists also understand that when you take advantage of others, they are going to take notice and make it harder for you to exploit them again. And that appears to be part of the tragic story that is unfolding in Syria.

In short, the puzzle isn’t why a realist might point out that we are now paying a price for our earlier high-handedness. The real puzzle is why advocates of intervention are so fond of invoking multilateralism, institutions, and the importance of international law, and then so quick to ignore it when it gets in the way of today’s pet project. Realists aren’t always right, but at least we’re not hypocrites.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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