International Law and Popular Culture Symposium: Superman and International Law

International Law and Popular Culture Symposium: Superman and International Law

[Ankit Malhotra is reading Law at O.P. Jindal Global Law and has a Bachelor of Arts Degree in International Affairs. He is also the President of the Jindal Society of International Law.]


On 27 February 1940 the Look magazine published “How Superman Would End the War”. The creators, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, co-creator of Superman, published a short story. In this story, Superman zooms off to Germany and Stalin, where he picks up Hitler and Stalin, by the scruff of his neck. He takes the two dictators to Geneva, Switzerland, where he delivers them to the League of Nations’ World Court for trial. The League of Nations was first proposed by President Woodrow Wilson as part of his Fourteen Points plan for equitable peace in Europe. It was dissolved after the war, in 1946, to make room for the United Nations, The League’s World Court in Geneva was succeeded by the United Nations International Court of Justice/ World Court in The Hague. It is important to highlight that “How Superman Would End the War” is a fragment of the American imagination of war, uprising, and emancipation. It remains a vestige of time and imagination of a super-heroic/ hegemonic intervention against dictators. In other words, Superman’s intervention was based on nationalism or patriotism. This article seeks to highlight hegemony and its application through Superman’s actions in the comic strip and international hegemonic law.

In the recent past, the United States of America has interfered in domestic politics through igniting and continuing civil wars and unrest for personal gains. This trend began in the 1970s at the height of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, when the Nixon Administration started shipping weapons to counter Soviet expansion. The policy was called the Nixon Doctrine the aim was to substitute American weapons for American boots- send weapons instead of troops to their lands. In the comic strip, Superman submits the dictators for trial in the Hague. In practice, American intervention has adopted other measures. See here.

On Superman and Imagination

Superman, one can safely assume, would allow dominators to dictate. After all, he is one of them. It can also be argued that the underlying motivation would be to seek order in our institutions that shall not oppress, nor bequeath any of precedence to commonplace. Superman would hold dearly ambition and greed as carriages of inspiration and aspiration to save humanity from the fatheaded stagnation of the accursed Victorian snobbery and the verge of ruin it carries. Dictators, Superman would argue, must be curbed by social institutions. But our institutions are not adequate to the purpose, the whole population must be brought to understand and accept the responsibility for politics. Only then can the values of dictators operate for the benefit of the race without endangering the race in the process. To this end it is valuable to quote the Preface to Geneva: “The rule of vast commonwealths is beyond the political capacity of mankind at its best”.

International Hegemonic Law (HIL)

In Geneva, the dictators are disposed of along with all the rest of the characters and mankind in general as helplessly inept politically. What one accrues is the trust in the hope of a future evolutionary leap for the development of homo sapiens into a competent political animal. At the center of this, one may refer to the colossuses of Yuval Harrari who would argue that the contention of homo sapiens is the most successful human being, supplanting rivals such as Neanderthals, was our ability to believe in shared fictions. Hence, Geneva is no paean to dictators. As an academic study of a framework, HIL severely undervalues the formal and de facto equality of states, replacing pacts between equals grounded in reciprocity, with patron-client relationships in which clients pledge loyalty to the hegemon in exchange for security or economic security. In this real-world application of the comic strip, state(s) act like Superman. The State(s)/hegemon promotes, by word and deed, new rules of international law. These can either be acts of realization or detente but ingrained in treaty and custom. It is generally averse to limiting its scope of action via treaty; avoids being constrained by those treaties to which it has adhered; and disregards, when inconvenient, customary international law, confident that its breach will be hailed as a new rule.

Substantively, HIL is characterized by indeterminate rules whose vagueness benefits primarily (if not solely) the hegemon. As I note earlier, recurrent projections of military force and interventions in the internal affairs of other nations are character traits of hegemon states. While Superman operates from a benign perspective, the United States has used international organizations to magnify its authority by a judicious combination of voting power and leadership. Placing both subjects of this note side-by-side one realizes that forms and expressions of hegemony are capable of winning praise or condemnation from all points on the political spectrum. As an application of authority and raison d’etre of their power, examples below are of global hegemonic law, and not (or not merely) of hegemony. Global HIL results from the privileged position accorded to the hegemon under the existing rules and institutions of international law. Diverse lessons are to be drawn from these examples of global HIL. The first is that, from a policy perspective, not all forms of hegemony are bad or equally so. Actions of the Security Council (Council) counterterrorism efforts respond to the international community’s continuing inability to agree on a single global definition of the crime of terrorism, as well as the piecemeal, incomplete nature of the existing counterterrorism conventions. Resolution 1373‘s affirmation of self-defense avoids unproductive debates in a context in which the United States was bound to respond unilaterally. Resolution 1483‘s continuing interventions in what would normally be considered to fall under a state’s domestic jurisdiction can be justified as a vital part of rebuilding a stable and viable Iraq and, like Resolution 687, as “necessary” to restore the peace. Nor are the resolutions addressed here manifestly illegitimate in a political sense; all were adopted unanimously or nearly so.

The United States cannot and should not be barred from securing the Council’s cooperation in the pursuit of the common good and the collective can hardly be blamed for using the Council to avoid the potentially greater harm of unilateral HIL. Although global HIL is characterized by demonstrable power disparity, it may preclude the exercise of even greater power disparities. As defenders of the Council-generated ad hoc war crimes tribunals would be the first to argue, it may sometimes be necessary for Council members to use their exclusive legislative capacity to short-circuit arduous international treaty negotiations. But the troubling features and risks posed by Council-generated HIL lead to a second lesson: it is not enough to urge the hegemon to use the United Nations. Those concerned about the risks of hegemony need to worry about how the hegemon uses the Organization, especially the Council. The risks that unilateral HIL poses to international law and its formal principles, such as sovereign equality, are grave, but they are obvious. The comparable challenges posed by global HIL, potentially no less serious, are unclear and novel. When acting with the Council, the hegemon, like Superman, can do almost anything. While still appearing to be acting consistently with the Charter’s and moral P(p)rinciples. If the Council and the hegemon decide jointly to revise the rules relating to due process rights of individuals, defensive force, the rights of occupiers, or the jurisdiction of the ICC, the Council’s legitimacy may be undermined.


Continuity between superheroes and countries has grown much tighter by then, and one character changing the world meant those changes would have to be reflected in other titles. All the characters, designed for wide-scale licensing and exploitation, would increasingly inhabit an unrecognizable world. Such mechanisms are also essential to securing continued multilateral cooperation in the future, whenever the hegemon and others require such cooperation. The Council will remain a legitimate body for collective action if it is perceived as acting in accord with the essence of the Council. Recognizing global HIL also urges caution concerning recipes for reform that might make the Council only more subject to hegemonic capture. The Council’s actions surveyed here remain works in progress. The briefness of the story only enhances its effect. Look how quickly Superman saves the world with all the effortless grace so trademark of Siegel and Shuster’s creation. Observe how readily the super-hero changes everything when placed at last in the real world.

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