The White House’s new attack on the international system

Sep 11 2018

BY ISHAAN THAROOR* – The Washington Post

In his first major policy address since joining the White House in April, national security adviser John Bolton offered a particularly aggressive demonstration of President Trump’s “America First” agenda. He threatened the International Criminal Court, a U.N.-mandated body based in The Hague, with punitive measures should it pursue an investigation into alleged U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan. He warned that the United States would ban ICC judges and prosecutors from entering the country, sanction their funds in the U.S. financial system and punish any company or government that complies with an ICC investigation into Americans.

In effect, Bolton declared that these officials — including respected jurists and rights activists — could receive the same treatment as certain Kremlin-linked oligarchs or shadowy financiers of extremist groups.

“We will not cooperate with the ICC. We will provide no assistance to the ICC. We will not join the ICC. We will let the ICC die on its own,” Bolton said at an event hosted by the Federalist Society, a conservative legal group. “After all, for all intents and purposes, the ICC is already dead to us.”

Bolton outright urged the collapse of the ICC, casting it as a cabal of unaccountable foreign bureaucrats — not unlike the language used by right-wing populists to tar European Union officials. Like them, Bolton explicitly attacked the “global governance dogma” of the bloc and hailed Britain’s decision to leave it.

The tough rhetoric reflected Bolton’s long-standing animosity toward the ICC, an institution he lobbied against while serving in the George W. Bush administration. Bolton and some Republican allies see the organization’s powers as an illegitimate infringement of national sovereignty and a supposed violation of American constitutional rights.

In truth, the ICC has little jurisdiction over the United States, which, like other major powers including India and China, never ratified the convention that established the court. “Then-president Bill Clinton signed the convention in 2000,” explained Buzzfeed’s Emily Tamkin, “but never presented it to Congress for ratification, and George W. Bush authorized the United States to ‘un-sign’ it in May 2002” — a move vociferously backed by Bolton.

In his remarks, Bolton poured scorn on the court for seeking to exercise “supranational” powers over the United States and mocked it as a toothless instrument of justice. “The hard men of history are not deterred by fantasies of international law such as the ICC,” he said. “The idea that faraway bureaucrats and robed judges would strike fear into the hearts of the likes of Saddam Hussein, Hitler, Stalin, and Gaddafi is preposterous, even cruel.”

Instead, Bolton extolled “the righteous might” of the United States and its allies as “the only deterrent to evil and atrocity” in the world. It was a tidy summation of his worldview, anchored by an ironclad faith in American military power and a deep suspicion of the international bodies that could check it.

Bolton also announced the shuttering of the Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization, in part because Palestinian leaders had called on the ICC to investigate Israel’s expansion of settlements in the West Bank. It’s yet another nail hammered by Trump into the coffin of the Middle East peace process.

“These people have decided to stand on the wrong side of history by protecting war criminals and destroying the two-state solution,” said chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat. “I told them if you are worried about courts, you should stop aiding and abetting crimes.”

But for Bolton and other Trump administration officials, American misdeeds — or deeds in general — are not the business of outsiders. “The new broadside against the ICC follows steps by the administration challenging international cooperation in other areas,” my colleagues reported. “This year, the administration has withdrawn from the U.N. human rights body and threatened to pull out of the World Trade Organization, in addition to halting U.S. funding for the U.N. body that aids Palestinian refugees.”

In the case of Afghanistan, the ICC’s chief prosecutor announced last November that she had “reasonable evidence” to investigate allegations regarding the abuse, torture and even rape of at least 88 Afghan detainees, allegedly carried out by U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan and at clandestine CIA interrogation centers in Europe between 2002 and 2014.

The announcement angered the Trump administration, but it was welcomed by other American practitioners of international law.

“Should an investigation go forward, the Trump administration’s best response would be to engage openly with the ICC by making a genuine and transparent domestic effort to investigate, and, where warranted, prosecute those Americans most responsible for serious crimes connected with the Afghan war,” wrote Kip Hale, an attorney who has worked at other war-crimes tribunals, in Foreign Affairs last year. “This policy would not only protect American interests by promoting the moral authority of the United States but it is also the most credible and expedient way to put the allegations to rest.”

It’s certainly true that the ICC is far from a perfect institution — critics, for example, point to its disproportionate prosecution of African officials. But it still represents a key cog in the international system, and one that could yet provide justice for the hideous crimes of those like Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Myanmar’s generals.

Instead, it may yet become another casualty of Trump’s wider war on liberal internationalism. “It is an all-out bid by Donald Trump to end the ICC, the world’s foremost criminal tribunal, and with it, the very concept of international justice,” wrote the Guardian’s Simon Tisdall. “Bolton is the man wielding the knife. And there is a strong possibility they will succeed.”

  • My colleague Adam Taylor offers some more context on the ICC and how Bolton’s speech may play out: “Some countries have threatened to back out of the court altogether: Burundi became the first state to withdraw from the ICC last year, and the Philippines is scheduled to withdraw in 2019.

“So why did these critics willingly sign on to the court’s creation in the first place? David Bosco, an international-law expert and associate professor at Indiana University, believes that Bolton’s vehement opposition to the ICC in 2002 led some countries to sign on in reaction to the U.S. government’s bluster.

“‘Surrounded as they were by alarmist rhetoric from the superpower, many smaller and weaker states may actually have come to believe that the new court was going to target major powers as often as it would focus on weak and failing states,’ Bosco wrote for Foreign Policy.

“Some of Bolton’s former colleagues appear to agree. John Bellinger, who worked as a legal adviser at the State Department during the Bush administration, wrote recently for the national-security blog Lawfare that the aggressive approach spearheaded by Bolton had been a mistake.

“‘These actions generated significant international hostility towards the United States and fed a false international narrative that the United States was hostile to international justice,’ Bellinger wrote.”

  • And my colleague Loveday Morris lays out the significance of Trump’s measures against the PLO:

“U.S. moves to pressure the Palestinian leadership over the past year have driven the relationship to a crisis point. They have chipped away at the core tenets of Palestinian aspirations — a capital in part of Jerusalem and a right of return for refugees — while ramping up financial pressure on the Palestinian Authority, which governs Palestinian territories in the West Bank.

“The Trump administration’s moves, Palestinian officials say, represent an attempt to inflict irreversible damage on their ambitions for a state, as Washington also effectively greenlights Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank…

“The order to close the PLO office comes days before the 25th anniversary of the historic Oslo Accords, when the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel mutually recognized each other and launched a peace process. That pact paved the way for the PLO to open its Washington office the following year, but as it doors close, the optimism surrounding that deal is a distant memory.

“The PLO office essentially functions as an embassy but does not officially represent “Palestine,” as the United States does not recognize a Palestinian state, although that is a stated aim of previous administrations. The Trump administration has refrained from directly calling for a two-state solution, saying it would back one if both sides agree.”

  • Mass protests in southern Iraq have reshaped the country’s political landscape. The U.S.-backed premier, Haider al-Abadi, has been blamed for the unrest, and his bid for a second term in power looks dead in the water. My colleague Tamer El-Ghobashy reports from the port city of Basra:

“Abadi visited Basra on Monday after a week of demonstrations left at least 15 people dead and government offices, political party headquarters and the Iranian consulate in sooty ruins. He discovered that a fragile calm had returned to the city over the weekend– but that his own political future had at the same time become much more uncertain.

“The protesters had fixed their frustrations on Iraq’s entire political class, chanting slogans aimed at both the government and the parties and militias aligned with Iran. But Abadi’s challengers for the post of prime minister have outmaneuvered him, seizing on the public anger to cast him as an impossible choice.

“The United States, which had cultivated few alternatives to Abadi’s leadership, now finds itself with little influence over the shape of Iraq’s new government, analysts said.

“On Monday, Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, said in a statement that the crisis in Basra underlined the need for a fresh approach to the myriad problems Iraq faces and that he would not support anyone for the prime minister’s post who has already served in a leadership position.”

  • The Chinese city of Shenzhen, perched above Hong Kong, is the gleaming, hectic hub for the vast manufacturing sector that undergirded China’s economic miracle. But now the prosperity there is forcing out the workers who were once instrumental in its creation, as The Post’s Amanda Erickson writes:

“It’s a struggle of old vs. new that echoes a broader shift across China. The irony is self-evident: the factory workers who were the backbone of China’s stunning industrial growth are now becoming victims of the country’s prosperity.

“Call them gentrification refugees, flowing out from Shenzhen, Beijing, Shanghai and other big cities…

“Forty years ago, Shenzhen was a fishing village. Then, in 1979, it became China’s first ‘special economic zone,’ with new rules to encourage free-market-style business. Factories and workers flooded in. By the mid-1990s, the city had about 3 million residents. Today, that number is closer to 20 million.

“The city’s 7 million factory workers were largely relegated to ‘urban villages,’ slum neighborhoods scrambled together in the 1990s. These places are now the prime target of developers looking to accommodate the higher-paid tech workers.”

Diplomacy games

A multiplayer chess game is now being played in Northeast Asia, revolving around North Korea. South Korea’s pro-engagement President Moon Jae-in, who will travel to Pyongyang next week, is trying to keep the momentum going in the diplomatic process he kicked off at the beginning of the year. Japan’s conservative government, meanwhile, is poised to return to a harder line if — or when, as it would say — the current denuclearization effort falls through. Meanwhile, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un knows that Beijing worries he is getting too close to President Trump, while Washington continues to fret that China is acting as a spoiler.

Despite all the ups and downs since their June meeting, Trump is hoping that Kim will make good on their agreement to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. But Trump is also holding China’s feet to the flames to make it happen by linking the North Korean problem with the trade war festering between Beijing and Washington. Trump has cited China’s role in propping up North Korea as part of the rationale for imposing punishing tariffs on China.

For his part, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has met Kim three times this year, appears to want to return to an equilibrium in which North Korea is quiet and he can concentrate on expanding China’s international economic influence. But Kim, having achieved a credible nuclear program, is now moving on to the second track in the two-track strategy he laid out in 2013: economic development.

The big question now is what happens with the sanctions China imposed last year, both unilaterally and through the United Nations, in concert with Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Now, with diplomatic talks underway, albeit in fits and starts, China has no need to continue blocking North Korean exports. Relations between Beijing and Pyongyang will continue to improve if North Korea makes progress on denuclearization. But there can be no large-scale economic cooperation between China and North Korea until the sanctions are lifted.

Indeed, said Adam Cathcart, an expert on Chinese-North Korean relations at Leeds University, there have been no indications that Xi is going to help Kim with the economic development he now desperately needs if he is going to adhere to his promise to improve the standard of living. — Anna Fifield

The big question

Swedish voters handed their nation’s crusading far-right party, the Sweden Democrats, a split decision in highly anticipated parliamentary elections on Sunday. While the party earned its best result ever — 17.6 percent — it still fell short of where it had hoped to be, finishing in third place behind two centrist parties. Nevertheless, party leader Jimmie Akesson crowed on Sunday night that the Sweden Democrats had “won” the election and would able to wield real influence. So we ask Post Brussels bureau chief Michael Birnbaum, who covered the vote: Should the results be considered a victory for the Sweden Democrats?

“It was a worse result than many opinion polls had predicted, and journalists who were at the Sweden Democrats’ election-night party said they could see the energy drain from the room as the night progressed.

“But the trends are in the far right’s favor. They have always complained about migration and crime, but the 2015 migration crisis handed them the keys to a much bigger slice of the Swedish electorate. And their opponents have largely embraced the Sweden Democrats’ basic talking points: there is too much migration, crime is rising and Sweden is under threat. The Sweden Democrats have expanded from near-nothingness a decade ago into a formidable political organization in an increasingly polarized country.

“Sweden is indeed dealing with a crisis in poor neighborhoods, where unemployment is far higher than the national average and groups of teenagers, many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants, are engaged in increasingly violent crime. But the rest of Sweden is actually getting safer by many counts, many criminologists say.

“Still, politicians from centrist parties that I talked to said they didn’t feel comfortable pointing this out to their voters — the far-right had so defined the terms of the debate that the centrist parties felt they had no choice but to follow along.

“That’s why Sunday’s result was a victory for the far-right. The Sweden Democrats will likely keep expanding, and mainstream political parties, who have pledged to bar the far right from governing coalitions, cannot keep them shut out from power forever. Pretty soon, the mainstream will be the far right — and until then, leaders like Jimmie Akesson are likely to keep framing the debate.”


*Ishaan Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor and correspondent at Time magazine, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.

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