The conflict of our time: U.S. imperialism vs the rule of law

The world faces many overlapping crises: regional political crises from Kashmir to Venezuela; brutal wars that rage on in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia; and the existential dangers of nuclear weapons, climate change, and mass extinction.

But beneath the surface of all these crises, human society faces an underlying, unresolved conflict about who or what governs our world and who must make the critical decisions about how to tackle all these problems—or whether we will tackle them at all. The underlying crisis of legitimacy and authority that makes so many of our problems almost impossible to solve is the conflict between U.S. imperialism and the rule of law.

Imperialism means that one dominant government exercises sovereignty over other countries and people across the world, and makes critical decisions about how they are to be governed and under what kind of economic system they are to live.

On the other hand, our current system of international law, based on the UN Charter and other international treaties, recognizes nations as independent and sovereign, with fundamental rights to govern themselves and to freely negotiate agreements about their political and economic relations with each other. Under international law, multilateral treaties that have been signed and ratified by large majorities of nations become part of the structure of international law that is binding on all countries, from the least to the most powerful.

In a recent article, “The Hidden Structure of U.S. Empire,” I explored some of the ways that the United States exercises imperial power over other nominally sovereign, independent countries and their citizens. I cited anthropologist Darryl Li’s ethnographic study of U.S. terrorism suspects in Bosnia, which revealed a layered system of sovereignty under which people around the world are not only subject to the national sovereignty of their own countries but also to the overarching extraterritorial sovereignty of the U.S. empire.

I described how Julian Assange, trapped in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, and Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, detained while changing planes at Vancouver Airport, are victims of the same extraterritorial U.S. imperial sovereignty as the hundreds of innocent “terrorism suspects” that U.S. forces kidnapped around the world and shipped off to indefinite, extralegal detention at Guantanamo Bay and other U.S. prisons.

While Darryl Li’s work is invaluable in what it reveals about the actually existing layers of sovereignty through which the U.S. projects its imperial power, U.S. imperialism is much more than an exercise in capturing and detaining individuals in other countries. Many of today’s international crises are the result of this same system of overarching, extraterritorial U.S. imperial sovereignty at work.

These crises all serve to demonstrate how the U.S. exercises imperial power, how this conflicts with and undermines the structure of international law that has been painstakingly developed to govern international affairs in the modern world, and how this underlying crisis of legitimacy prevents us from solving the most serious problems we face in the 21st century—and thus endangers us all.

U.S. imperial wars unleash long-term violence and chaos

The UN Charter was crafted at the end of the Second World War to prevent a repeat of the mass blood-letting and global chaos of two World Wars. The architect of the UN Charter, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, had already died, but the horrors of global war were fresh enough in the minds of other leaders to ensure that they accepted peace as the essential prerequisite for future international affairs and the founding principle of the United Nations.

The development of nuclear weapons suggested that a future world war might completely destroy human civilization, and that it must therefore never be fought. As Albert Einstein famously told an interviewer, “I do not know how the Third World War will be fought, but I can tell you what they will use in the Fourth: rocks!”

World leaders therefore put their signatures to the UN Charter, a binding treaty that prohibits the threat or use of force by any country against another. The U.S. Senate had learned the bitter lesson of its refusal to ratify the League of Nations treaty after the First World War, and it voted to ratify the UN Charter without reservation by 98 votes to two.

The horrors of the Korean and Vietnam Wars were justified in ways that skirted the UN Charter’s prohibition against the use of force, with UN or US forces fighting to “defend” new neocolonial states carved out of the ruins of Japanese and French colonialism.

But after the end of the Cold War, U.S. leaders and their advisors succumbed to what former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev now refers to as Western triumphalism,” an imperial vision of a “unipolar” world effectively ruled by a “sole superpower,” the United States. The U.S. empire expanded economically, politically and militarily into Eastern Europe and U.S. officials believed they could finally “conduct military operations in the Middle East without worrying about triggering World War Three,” as Michael Mandelbaum of the Council on Foreign Relations crowed in 1990.

A generation later, the people of the greater Middle East could be forgiven for thinking that they are in fact experiencing World War III, as endless invasions, bombing campaigns and proxy wars have reduced entire cities, towns and villages to rubble and killed millions of people across Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Lebanon, Palestine, Libya, Syria and Yemen—with no end in sight after 30 years of ever-proliferating war, violence and chaos.

Not one of the U.S.’s post-9/11 wars was authorized by the UN Security Council, as the UN Charter would require, meaning that they all either violate the UN Charter, as Secretary General Kofi Annan admitted in the case of Iraq, or violate the explicit terms of UN Security Council resolutions, such as UNSCR 1973‘s mandate for an “immediate ceasefire,” a strict arms embargo and the exclusion of “a foreign occupation force of any form” in Libya in 2011.

In reality, while U.S. imperialist leaders are often eager to use the UN Security Council as window dressing for their war plans, they presume to make the real decisions regarding war and peace themselves, using political arguments to justify wars that have no real legal basis in international law.

U.S. leaders show the same disdain for the U.S. Constitution as for the the UN Charter and UN resolutions. As James Madison wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1798, the U.S. Constitution “with studied care vested the question of war in the legislative,” precisely to prevent such dangerous abuses of war powers by the executive branch of government.

But it has taken decades of war and millions of violent deaths before the U.S. Congress has invoked the Vietnam-era War Powers Act to assert its constitutional authority to stop any of these unconstitutional, illegal wars. Congress has so far limited its efforts to the war in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and the UAE are the lead aggressors and the U.S. plays only a supporting, albeit vital role. With one of their own in the White House, most Republican Members of Congress are still resisting even this limited assertion of Congress’s constitutional authority.

Meanwhile HR 1004, Representative Cicilline’s bill to confirm that Mr. Trump has no constitutional authority to order the use of U.S. military force in Venezuela, has only 52 cosponsors (50 Democrats and 2 Republicans). Senator Merkley’s companion bill in the Senate is still waiting for its first cosponsor.

U.S. political debates over war and peace pointedly ignore the legal reality that the UN Charter, backed up by the “Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy” in the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact and the prohibition against aggression in customary international law, all prohibit the U.S. from attacking other countries. Instead U.S. politicians debate the pros and cons of a U.S. attack on any given country only in terms of U.S. interests and their own one-sided framing of the political rights and wrongs of the situation.

The U.S. uses information warfare to demonize foreign governments and economic warfare to destabilize targeted countries, to generate political, economic and humanitarian crises that can then serve as pretexts for war, as the world has now seen in country after country and as we are witnessing today in Venezuela.

These are clearly the actions and policies of an imperial power, not those of a sovereign country acting within the rule of law.

Cutting off the branch we are sitting on

Not a week goes by without new studies that reveal previously unreported aspects of the environmental crisis facing the human race and the world we live in. Every species of insect may be extinct in a century, with the possible exception of cockroaches and house-flies, triggering ecological chaos as unpollinated plants, starving birds and other creatures follow the insects into mass extinction. Half the Earth’s population of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles has already disappeared in the past 40 years.

Climate change may produce six or eight feet of sea level rise this century—or will it be 20 or 30 feet?  Nobody can be sure. By the time we are, it will be too late to prevent it. Dahr Jamail’s recent article at Truthout, titled, “We Are Destroying Our Life Support System,” is a good review of what we do know.

From a practical, technological standpoint, the necessary transition to renewable energy on which our very survival may depend is entirely achievable. So what is preventing the world from making this critical transition?

Scientists have understood the basic science of human-induced global warming or climate change since the 1970s. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) was negotiated at the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and quickly ratified by almost every country, including the United States. The 1997 Kyoto Protocol committed countries to make specific, binding cuts in carbon emissions, with greater cuts imposed on the developed countries that are most responsible for the problem. But there was one notable absentee: the United States. Only the U.S., Andorra and South Sudan failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, until Canada also withdrew from it in 2012.

Many developed countries substantially reduced their carbon emissions under the first round of the Kyoto Protocol, and the 2009 Copenhagen Summit was planned to draw up a legal framework to follow up on Kyoto. The election of Barack Obama encouraged many to believe that the United States, the country historically responsible for the greatest carbon emissions, would finally join a global plan to fix the problem.

Instead, the U.S. price for its participation was an insistence on voluntary, non-binding targets in place of a legally binding treaty. Then, while the European Union (EU), Russia and Japan set targets of 15-30% reductions from their 1990 emissions by 2020, and China aimed for a 40-45% reduction from its 2005 emissions, the U.S. and Canada aimed only to cut their emissions by 17% from their 2005 levels. This meant that the U.S. target was only a 4% cut in carbon emissions from its 1990 level, while almost every other developed country was aiming for a 15-40% cut.

The Paris Climate Accord was based on the same model of non-binding, voluntary targets as the Copenhagen Accord. With the second and now final phase of the Kyoto Protocol expiring in 2020, no country will be under any binding international obligation to reduce its carbon emissions. Countries whose people and politicians are genuinely committed to a transition to renewable energy are moving forward, while others are not. The Netherlands has passed a law to require a 95% reduction in carbon emissions from its 1990 level by 2050, and it has banned the sale of gasoline and diesel cars after 2030. Meanwhile U.S. carbon emissions have only declined by 10% since they peaked in 2005, and they actually rose by 3.4% in 2018.

As with international laws that prohibit war, the U.S. has refused to be bound by international agreements to tackle climate change. It has used its imperial power to thwart international action on climate change at every step, to preserve as much as possible of the international fossil fuel-based economy for as long as possible. Fracking and shale oil are boosting its own oil and gas production to record levels, generating even more greenhouse gases than traditional oil and gas drilling.

The U.S.’s destructive, possibly suicidal, environmental policies are rationalized by its neoliberal ideology, which elevates “the magic of the market” to a quasi-religious article of faith, shielding politics and economics in the United States from any aspect of reality that conflicts with the narrow financial interests of increasingly monopolistic corporations and the 1% ruling class represented by Trump, Obama, the Bushes and Clintons.

In the corrupt “market” of U.S. politics and media, critics of neoliberalism are derided as ignoramuses and heretics, and the 99%, the acclaimed “American people” are treated as inferior subjects to be passively herded from TV to voting booth to Walmart (or Whole Foods)—and occasionally off to war. A soaring stock market proves that everything is going well, even as the neoliberal economy destroys the natural world whose real magic sustains it and us.

U.S. imperialism is the carrier actively spreading the virus of neoliberalism to the four corners of the Earth, even as it destroys the natural world that sustains us all: the air we breathe; the water we drink; the earth that produces our food; the climate that makes our world livable; and the miraculous fellow creatures who, until now, have shared and enriched the world we live in.


As Darryl Li observed in the cases of the terrorism suspects he studied, the U.S. exercises an overarching, extraterritorial imperial sovereignty that trumps the individual sovereignty of other countries. It recognizes no permanent geographic limits to its imperial sovereignty. The only limits that the U.S. empire grudgingly accepts are the practical ones that strong countries can successfully defend against the weight of its power.

But the U.S. works tirelessly to keep expanding its imperial sovereignty and diminishing the national sovereignty of others to shift the balance of power further in its favor. It forces every country that clings to any aspect of sovereignty or independence that conflicts with U.S. commercial or geostrategic interests to fight for its sovereignty at every step of the way.

That ranges from the people of the U.K. resisting imports of U.S. hormone-fed beef and chlorinated chicken and the piecemeal privatization of their National Health Service by the U.S. “healthcare” industry, all the way up to Iran, Venezuela and North Korea’s struggles to deter explicit U.S. threats of war that flagrantly violate the UN Charter.

Wherever we turn in our troubled world, to questions of war and peace or to the environmental crisis or to other dangers we face, we find these two forces and two systems, U.S. imperialism and the rule of law, at odds with one another, contesting the right and the power to make the decisions that will shape our future. They both implicitly or explicitly claim a universality that denies the authority of the other, making them mutually incompatible and irreconcilable.

So where will this lead?  Where can it possibly lead?  One system must give way to the other if we are to solve the existential problems facing humanity in the 21st century. Time is short and getting shorter, and there is little doubt which system offers the world some chance of a peaceful, just and sustainable future.

Nicolas J S Davies is the author of Blood On Our Hands: the American Invasion and Destruction of Iraq. He is a researcher for CODEPINK and a freelance writer whose work is published by a wide range of independent, non-corporate media.

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