Ukraine, International Law, and the Perfect Compliance Fallacy
Eric Posner on international law and Ukraine (“exhaustively”, in his own description):
The international law commentariat has been pretty quiet about the most important geopolitical event so far this year. Hello? Anyone want to offer an opinion? Let me fill in the silence:
1. Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine violates international law.
2. No one is going to do anything about it.
International law is chimera, QED. (FWIW, the international law commentariat is starting to pipe up. In addition to Chris’ post below, see this primer from Ashley Deeks on Lawfare.) The move — a standard one among the anti-internationalists — implicitly idealizes other forms of law accepted as such. No system of law achieves perfect compliance; why should international law be any different?
not terribly persuasive. Surely we would question a domestic legal system in which a select set of powerful actors can confidently and predictably ignore legal rules while insisting that these nonetheless apply to everyone else.
While pleading the 140-character defense, I take the point, at least as applied to common criminals who get away with it. But there are better analogies. I’m not in the corporate law world, but I’m willing to bet that there are some laws that big players get away with ignoring on a predictable basis. In the context of constitutional law, there are many contexts in which law isn’t enforceable against institutional players. One example: notwithstanding the Chadha decision, which declared the legislative veto unconstitutional, Congress and the President blithely persist with the practice. This 2009 Harvard Law Review article by Jack Goldsmith and Daryl Levinson does a good job exploding the argument that international law is somehow distinctive in facing an enforcement deficit.
Of course corporate and constitutional actors will never say they’re violating the law. They interpret it to achieve the appearance (plausible or not) of conformity with a set of norms that is accepted as law. Same with Putin, whose MFA will at some point offer a fuller-dress international law justification for its Ukraine moves. (Posner himself offers up some protips to the Russians here.) So it’s not like jaywalking. Russia will face penalties as a result of its illegal action here, penalties that themselves will be framed in law terms.