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On the Law of Nations.

On the Law of Nations On the Law of Nations. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Harvard University Press, $22.50. The swift and merciful end of the Cold War has left many policymakers and intellectuals asking, like Robert Redford's dumbfounded, victorious candidate, "What the hell do we do now?" Understandably, most find themselves discussing alterations to existing structures--take in NATO a few inches here, let out the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe a bit on the inseam. Leave it to the senior senator from New York, whose career has been one long and exhilarating assault on conventional wisdom, to bring order to the chaos with an old but still provocative ideaf let there be law.

In this richly textured, idiosyncratically written (no ghostwriters here), but compelling book, Senator Moynihan argues that international law, often regarded as our century's answer to alchemy, is in fact a powerful tool for stability and justice, notwithstanding the many perversions and humiliations it has suffered over the years. Paraphrasing Chesterton, Moynihan might say, international law has never really failed, because it's never really been tried. In his rococo early chapters, he recounts America's sometime commitment to international law through Wilson, FDR, and the early days of the Cold War. Later in the book, he traces some of our more notable foreign policy debacles, specifically the hostage crisis and Iran-contra, to our unwillingness to take advantage of, or heed, the dictates of international law.

The bedrock principle of international law is that any government that controls territory and abides by its international obligations qualifies as sovereign and is immune to intervention in its internal affairs. In this light, the recent invasion of Panama, the Reagan Doctrine's last hurrah, was in violation of international law, odious though Noriega was. "The United States," Moynihan writes, "has every right to try to bring about regimes it approves, especially in places we consider important. But there are rules."

Why abide by these hamstringing rules? Because, proponents of international law argue, it is in our long-term interest for there to be some kind of international order based on respect for borders and even some basic human rights. For example, had we played by the rules, Moynihan argues, and held off on the Iranian-hostage rescue mission until the International Court of Justice ruled in our favor on the hostage taking, which it did a month later, we would have been entitled to go to war with Iran. "International law is not a scheme for surrender," he writes, but "a framework for deciding how and when to use force."

Classical liberalism, the revolutionary ideology of the 18th century, has triumphed and is now firmly embedded in the economic and political logic of the word (thanks, in some measure, to the often-ridiculed efforts of Woodrow Wilson, the hero of Moynihan's argument). This in turn makes it meaningful to talk about transnational law in a way not seen since the Christian empires of the pre-modern world. At the same time, the end of the Cold War is cause for some jitters too. Nervous though the world has been for the past 45 years, it has been stable. While conflicts in Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere were agonizing for those who endured them, they were held in check by the superpowers, who didn't let them threaten the ruin of civilization. John Lewis Gaddis has ruefully suggested that future generations may refer to the past 45 years not as "The Cold War" but "The Long Peace." But perhaps law can take the place of one of the Cold War's more reassuring aspects, what Gaddis calls "the paradox of order in the absence of hierarchy."

What would a renewed American commitment to international law mean in practice? Moynihan is a little short on specifics, but for starters, it would mean considering international law a prime factor in foreign policy decisions and accepting the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and other institutions--something we simply refused to do when the court declared our mining of Nicaragua's harbors illegal. Practicing what he preaches. Moynihan introduced a resolution in the Senate last April urging the U.S. government to seek an opinion from the International Court of Justice on Lithuania's right to self-determination.

But hold on a second. Is this the same Daniel Patrick Moynihan who spent his memorable tenure as United Nations ambassador denouncing the institution as a pack of scoundrels? You bet. The UN, he maintains, was in violation of international law then, most of its members pledging their troth, out of convenience, ideology, or both, to a totalitarian empire that had little use for law, international or otherwise. The nadir of UN lawlessness, in Moynihan's view, was its 1975 resolution equating Zionism with racism.

A recurring theme in the democratic revolutions of 1989 was an urgent call for the rule of law. Never having attended Ivy League law schools, the leaders of the new democracies believe that laws democratically enacted, rooted in principle, and faithfully executed can indeed make their societies, if not perfect, at least safer--you guessed it--for democracy.

Moynihan concludes. "these most extraordinary events of the year--of the century--argue that the United States, which inspired so many of them, might well pause to consider that this inspiration was authentic, a legacy not to be frittered away by forgetfulness of our own past, or by frustration with the behavior of others." Amen.
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Author:Mirsky, Yehudah
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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