Americans’ knowledge of international law, the military conquest of the Crimea, and proper dental floss use

  1. Developing

“Thirty-eight percent of Americans do not know that dental floss is used between the teeth, not between the tongue and lips.”
–Joe Queenan, “Grungy and Unkempt; America’s Grooming Crisis” Wall Street Journal July 14-15, 2018.

Dental Floss

Once in a while a story or a statistic brings vague, inchoate impressions into sharp relief, with a lightning flash of recognition.

38%% of Americans don’t know dental floss is to be used between the teeth, not between the tongue and the lips.

The 38% of the population is the same size as, or slightly larger than, Donald Trump’s base.

“Are they the same people?”

While Trump critics may be quick to assert the probability that the answer is “Yes”, they have advanced no evidence to support this proposition.

The Crimea

But let’s shift our focus a little bit. Probably 38% or more of the American people don’t know why it would be wrong to recognize Russian sovereignty over the Crimea, or to readmit Russia to the Group of 7, as Trump has urged. He didn’t really explain the issue at or after the G-7 meeting in Quebec. “Something happened in 2014”,  he said, and Russia was expelled from the group.

38% of Americans probably don’t know what that “something” was, and chances are that these individuals are from Trump’s base. What they know is that whatever Trump says is right.

That “something”is important, however. Russia invaded the Ukrainian peninsula known as the Crimea in February and March, 2014. Russia seized the Crimea by the use of military force, and they killed a lot of people, particularly any Crimeans who opposed their intervention. In March, 2014 Russia purported to “annex”the Crimea as part of the sovereign territory of Russia.

During that summer, and particularly beginning in August, 2014, Russia also invaded the eastern Ukraine region known as the Donbas, consisting of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. Since that invasion, over 10,000 people have been killed in the eastern Ukraine, as a direct result of the Russian military intervention.

Why is this wrong?

Since 1945, the United Nations Charter and international law have prohibited the international use of force (Article 2 paragraph 4 of the Charter). International law also stipulates that territory acquired by the illegal use of force cannot be recognized. When the Soviet Union invaded and annexed the Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia in 1940, the United States and other countries refused to recognize the “annexations”,  all the way up to 1989 and afterwards when these countries regained their independence after the Berlin Wall came down.

See “REPRISE: Russia’s utter and continuing violation of international law in the Ukraine: U.N. General Assembly Resolution A/RES/25/2625 (1970) on Principles of International Law and Friendly Relations Among States, “The Trenchant Observer, February 26, 2017.

So, the “something” that happened in 2014 was that Vladimir Putin and Russia violated the most fundamental norms of international law, upon which the maintenance of international peace and security depend.

Does Donald Trump understand these facts? Does he support Article 2 paragraph 4 of the U.N. Charter? Does he understand how critical it is to not recognize the Russian military occupation of the Crimea, in order to uphold international law and the prohibition of the use of force across international frontiers?

Reporters should ask him pointed questions on these issues.

His base doesn’t seem to appreciate these facts.

They must be educated. This is even more important than understanding dental floss is not used between the tongue and the lips.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an 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. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), 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, The Observer 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. The Observer 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.), 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, The Observer 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 the best articles that have appeared in the blog.