Why I care about the war in Ukraine

From the “Trenchant Observations” newsletter on Substack, June 26, 2022.


A reader has asked me to explain why I care so much about the war in Ukraine, and why others should also care. My answer follows.

When I was in college at Stanford, I wrote a senior honors thesis on the Germans’ reexamination of their past during 1945-1949. The central issue was that of individual responsibility for the actions of one’s government. The Vietnam war was raging, so the issue was of more than purely academic interest.

I had majored in modern European history and had learned a lot about what had happened in Europe in the twentieth century, particularly in Germany and Russia.

I had also spent two summers in Germany, one on a summer exchange program in which I lived with families in different cities and stayed with other people who I met along the way. One was a German war veteran who had lost his leg in WWII, and who took me home to his humble apartment one night in Heidelberg when I couldn’t find a room within my student budget. Knowing him brought home on a deep emotional level the great tragedy of war.

I had, you might say, some familiarity with the subjects of my senior honors thesis and their history. The central theme that emerged in the thesis was that of individual moral responsibility. The thesis, which won a prize for being the best senior honors thesis in history at Stanford that year, marked me for life.

So, the answer to the question of why I care about the war in Ukraine is complicated, but it has as its starting point a sense of individual moral responsibility for the actions of my government.

The thesis influenced the course of my career—and my life.

I went to law school to study international law and how it can be used to prevent and stop wars, and also to protect individuals against torture, execution, and other human rights abuses such as those practiced by the Germans against the Jews and other subject populations. In my third year, I wrote a book about how diplomats and international officials used international law to bring a war to a halt.

The summer before that third year I was a summer intern in Washington in the office of the assistant director for Europe of the U.S. Information Agency. Part of my job was to follow the Prague Spring and the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968.

This is a long answer to the question of why I care about the war in Ukraine. But I want to share my experience and give a full answer to this question.

Other elements of my answer include my work as a senior staff attorney at the human rights commission of the Organization of American States, where I learned how my own actions writing diplomatic notes to foreign ministers in individual cases could save the lives or end the torture of specific human beings, and how reports to which I contributed could change policies in entire countries. In this work I met victims of torture and family members of “the disappeared” in countries like Argentina.

Then I went to Harvard Law School where I obtained an advanced doctoral degree in international law, working with one of the great international lawyers of his generation. He had been the State Department Legal Adviser (the senior international lawyer in the government) under John F. Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

As an international development expert working on judicial reform, human rights, and access to justice, I came to know people in many different countries and to care about what happened to them. My range of empathy was greatly expanded.

Having studied Arabic and done some work in the Middle East, I cared about the atrocities committed by Bashar al-Assad and the Russians in putting down a revolution in Syria, destroying the ancient city of Aleppo in much they same way the Russians destroyed Mariupol earlier this year. I watched in dismay as the West did nothing to stop al-Assad or Putin.

In 2014 I chronicled the Russian invasions of the Crimea and the eastern Ukraine in my blog The Trenchant Observer. In doing so, I developed strong sympathies for the Ukrainian people and their democratic aspirations.

Beyond the purely personal factors outlined above, I have been a constant student of international law and politics and also history throughout my career, which has included teaching international law courses at Harvard, Brandeis, and other universities. Since 2009, I have analyzed international developments in my blog The Trenchant Observer—from Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Syria, Ukraine (2014) to Kazakhstan (2022) and Ukraine (since 2021).

With this background, I think I have a good idea of what is at stake in Russia’s war against Ukraine and the West.

I see the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an assault on civilization, and the U.N. Charter and international law which I view as its crowning achievements.

The United Nations Charter was drafted in 1945 after two world wars had devastated Europe and other parts of the world. Adolf Hitler had overthrown the existing international legal order with horrific results which all could see. The founders of the United Nations drafted the Charter as a kind of constitution for the organization of world affairs and an instrument to help nations maintain international peace and security.

The centerpiece was the prohibition of the use of force across international frontiers except in self-defense. For over 75 years that prohibition while sometimes violated has largely held. Until Vladimir Putin, no country rejected the principle of the prohibition of the use of force.

Now, if Putin is allowed to get away with his war of conquest in Ukraine, the whole edifice of international law based on the U.N. Charter is likely to come crumbling down. This may happen slowly at first but could accelerate quickly, particularly after an event such as the Chinese invasion of Taiwan.

As an expert in international law I appreciate how all the governing processes of the planet are organized by the U.N. Charter and tied together by international law. From international trade to the Law of the Sea, from international aviation to international telecommunications and the use of the Internet, every international activity that is regulated depends on international law. One cannot conceive of fighting global warming without the norms and institutions of international law.

So you might say I have the unusual perspective of someone with the personal experiences related above who has also devoted a lifetime to the study of how international law works in the real world.

What I try to do here in the Trenchant Observations newsletter and in The Trenchant Observer blog is to share my knowledge and experience with a broader audience of readers who are interested in international affairs.

I ask my readers not to accept what I say on my authority, but rather taking my unusual background into account to draw on the information I provide and to think carefully about the points I raise.

Ultimately it is not just my opinions and actions that count but also, and more importantly, yours.

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.