The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Putin’s violence undermines centuries of international law and norms

Even cynical readings of the international law tradition speak to its power to shape norms and change behavior

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, attends the Immortal Regiment march through Moscow’s Red Square on May 9, the anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Soviet Union during World War II. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)
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To the extent that Vladimir Putin has a philosophy, it is that only the strong deserve to survive. As he told one of his biographers, he learned from an early age that “in every situation — whether I was right or wrong — I had to be strong.”

In Ukraine today, just as in Syria in 2016 and Chechnya in 1999-2000, Putin’s armed forces act with a similar disdain for organized morality. Since the Russian forces demonstrate no larger framework for judging right from wrong, all that appears to matter to Putin’s forces is who can subdue whom through raw killing power.

Putin’s vision of a global thunder-dome conceals the fact that Russia isn’t half as strong as it lets on, even in military terms. But it is also a serious attack on a very old code of international conduct that Western democracies should be proud of, even when they don’t live up to it.

When European nations in their modern form emerged around the time of the Reformation, they all claimed to represent God and godliness. This led them to slaughter one another on a colossal scale during the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), as Protestants and Catholics both insisted that God was on their side.

The carnage depopulated huge swaths of modern-day Germany, and even the Protestant English, looking on from their relatively peaceful island, had to admit that both sides — all sides — were guilty of extreme violence on civilians.

After that calamity, however, major European powers like France and England as well as smaller states such as Switzerland and Denmark began to recognize a “law of nations,” the forerunner to international law. This code required all legitimate countries to respect their neighbors’ external borders and internal affairs. Even in war, they were to treat their enemies as temporary foes rather than ungodly monsters, never forgetting, as Swiss theorist Emer de Vattel wrote in 1758, that nations as well as men were “naturally equal.”

“A dwarf is as much a man as a giant,” Vattel continued in his classic bestseller, “The Law of Nations.” “A small republic is no less a sovereign state than the most powerful kingdom.” Even as they vied for global supremacy during the 18th century, the British and French paid their respects to this code, by, for example, treating each other’s POWs increasingly well.

The new United States carried on this European tradition. In fact, early Americans had a special interest in the principles of national equality and international law. In military terms, they were a “small republic” and an easy target. Unable to intimidate the British or French superpowers, they promoted a world order based on law rather than force.

On this point at least, the Founders agreed: America would be a “nation of laws” that obeyed the law of nations. James Wilson, the leading legal mind in the new country, stressed that international law was binding in America. “The law of nations is the law of the people,” he intoned. Congress said much the same thing in one of its first acts, the Alien Tort Statute of 1789, which allowed (and still allows) foreign nationals to bring suit in U.S. courts for violations of international law.

Thirty years later, during a passionate debate about Andrew Jackson’s invasion of Spanish Florida, both pro- and anti-Jackson congressmen based their arguments on the law of nations. One of Jackson’s most rabid fans cited Vattel 22 times to establish the legitimacy of the attack; one of Old Hickory’s fiercest critics reminded everyone that “we belong to the family of enlightened nations,” and should thus renounce aggressive war.

Of course, Vattel’s book never stopped Euro-Americans from waging war without mercy on Indian nations. Indeed, “The Law of Nations” authorized “rigorous” punishments of any member of a “savage nation.” Evidently, only White people belonged within “the family of enlightened nations.”

And so, the Western tradition of international law often became a rhetorical cover for the greed for land and markets that drove Western imperialism. U.S. officials (especially Jacksonians) argued that since Indian nations could not control their warriors, as the law of nations required, the United States could take their lands; the British Empire eagerly forced treaties on African peoples to gain access to natural resources.

But the Western law of nations could also halt colonial violence. The best example here is the Anglo-American turn against the Atlantic slave trade just after the American Revolution. In direct opposition to crude self-interest, the U.S. and British governments outlawed the grotesquely profitable trade in 1807 as a grave violation of human dignity and the rule of law. (Vattel denounced selling people as a “disgrace to humanity.”) The British used their mighty fleet to repress the trade and then abolished slavery itself in 1834.

Perhaps the British simply wanted to “look good,” showing up the hypocritically slaveholding United States while distracting their own working classes from the miseries of industrialization. Perhaps they used abolitionism as an excuse for the Royal Navy to rule the waves.

Yet even such cynical readings of the international law tradition speak to its power to shape norms and change behavior. Whether they were moved by sympathy for the enslaved or concern for their own reputation, the point is that the British acted as if they respected an international code. And in behaving as though someone — God, history, justice — was watching, they became better, especially in comparison to the few nations in modern history (think Germany in the 1930s) that openly disdained international rules.

It matters what you pretend to be. For nations as for people, ideals such as international law call us to our better angels and call us out when we fall short of them. Against nihilistic thugs like Putin, they offer faith that a better world, however unlikely, is always possible.