Donald Trump and international law

Some of Donald Trump’s cabinet-level officials have invoked international law in criticizing the actions of other states. To her credit, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nicki Haley has forcefully invoked international law in criticizing the actions of Russia in the Ukraine and in Syria.

In fact, Haley and others have pushed the U.S. to adopt positions based on international law that are much stronger than those Barack Obama took during his time in office.

Generally, Obama studiously avoided the use of the words “international law”,  speaking instead of things like “international norms”,  within a framework laid out in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo in December 2009 which reserved to him the unilateral power to observe such norms or not, if necssary in his view to defend the interests of the country.

A remnant of Obama’s influence can be found in all the talk by Western leaders of the importance of upholding a “rules-based international order”.  Importantly, international law and the U.N. Charter don’t give individual states the option to follow the rules or not, which Obama in his formulation reserved to himself.

Fortunately, President Trump has officials on his national security team, including military men, who appreciate the importance of international law.

Yet it is too early to breathe a sigh of relief on that score, because it is unclear whether and the extent to which Trump has learned about international law, and its binding nature. It’s one thing for Nikki Haley to assert the Russian sanctions will remain in place until Russia gives up the Crimea and withdraws from the eastern Ukraine, and quite another to assume that Donald Trump would not throw the principles the sanctions seek to uphold to the wind, in some “deal” with the Russians.

Significantly, President Trump seems to chafe at the constraints the Constitution and domestic laws impose on his own freedom of action.

Indeed, in office he has appeared so far to have an authoritarian character which is neither respectful of the truth, nor of the separation of powers and constitutional and other domestic legal restraints on his behavior.

It is precisely because of his character and attitude toward domestic legal constraints that it is important to pay very close attention to his actions, as they unfold each day during his presidency.

It is difficult to imagine the Trump administration supporting international law in an enduring manner so long as the President’s own attitudes toward domestic legal limitations remain so in doubt.

He is not likely to be persuasive with other nations in invoking international law in justification of U.S. actions, or in criticizing the actions of other states, so long as his veracity and credibility are fundamentally in doubt.

To construct new international norms and regimes to deal with new situations (e.g., cyber warfare or cyber intervention in the elections of other countries), the president’s veracity and credibility, and the trust by foreign leaders he engenders, will be indispensable.

Without illusions, one can only hope that he will evolve in a positive direction, or that whoever replaces Trump — whether through elections or after his removal from office — will have a deep understanding and appreciation of international law, and use both to build a more hopeful and safer world.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.