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Home EJIL Analysis House of Cards and International Law

House of Cards and International Law

Published on March 11, 2015        Author: 

I just finished watching season 3 of Netflix’s House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright as your modern-day Lord and Lady Macbeth. I love watching great bad guys, and season 3 did not disappoint, even if I thought it wasn’t as good as the previous ones. (warning: some minor spoilers follow). Interestingly, one major plotline had a strong international legal element. To wit, although President Underwood had been superb in his climb to ultimate power, his domestic and foreign policies range from the remotely plausible to the utterly preposterous. One such idea is a half-baked and never really explained peace plan for Israel and Palestine which involves the deployment of international peacekeepers in the Jordan Valley.

This obviously involves much toing and froing in the UN Security Council, and to do that effectively President Underwood appoints his wife as US Ambassador to the UN (despite the fact that she has zero foreign policy experience, causing her confirmation to be denied by the Senate, which leads the President to give her a recess appointment – seriously). This policy is opposed on and off by Russia, leading to quite a bit of direct negotiations between President Underwood and his Russian counterpart, Viktor Petrov (a Vladimir Putin impersonator played infernally well by Lars Mikkelsen). We even have a spectacularly implausible state dinner for Petrov at the White House, to which Underwood’s people inexplicably invite three members of the Pussy Riot band (actually playing themselves!). As you can imagine, things don’t end well.

Amusingly, in order to overcome the Russian veto in the Security Council, President Underwood and his better half decide to invoke the Uniting for Peace Resolution.  I certainly did not see that old chestnut coming, and I’m also pretty sure that this is the first time the words ‘Uniting for Peace Resolution’ were uttered in a major Hollywood production. Honestly, all I now need is for Kevin Spacey to do a menacing soliloquy distinguishing between the jus ad bellum and the jus in bello and my life will be complete.

So that was fun. Dear readers, any other hot movies/series out there with international law-related plots? Feel free to display your nerddom in the comments.

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13 Responses

  1. Patricia

    You should add a spoiler alert.

  2. Arman Sarvarian Arman Sarvarian

    Thanks Marko – nice to know that one is not alone in one’s nerddom.

    As a fan of UFP, I was thrilled by the reference – I even invoked House of Cards in a lecture on collective security, so a useful popular culture hook. A couple of howlers nonetheless: 1) ‘there is precedent with the UFP Resolution – we used it to get around the Russians for the Korean War’; and 2) ‘Going around the Security Council is a radical move. It’s not radical, it’s justified. You dust off some 60-year-old precedent and think you’re justified? The Uniting for Peace resolution was used to start a war. To end North Korea’s aggression. Semantics.’

    Even if historically wrong, it is nevertheless useful as a knowledge-check teaching aid with students. Of course, 1) UFP had nothing to do with the Korean War, which in this respect is about the interpretation of ‘concurring votes’ under Article 27(3) of the Charter; and 2) ‘dusting off some 60 year old precedent’ ignores the fact that UFP has been applied on 10 occasions, most recently in 2003 in relation to Palestine. Possibly the scriptwriters sought to spare Britain and France’s blushes in relation to Suez, plus avoid confusing the average viewer.

  3. Thanks Marko!

    Homeland, Hatufim, South Park, Game of Thrones, Columbo, Scandal, and many other films…

    It’s here: http://cdi.ulb.ac.be/category/cinema/

  4. Stian Øby Johansen

    I actually tried to compile a list of international law/IR-related movies I wanted to see at one point. At least a couple of them seem to fit the bill:

    – The Whistleblower
    Based on the experiences of Nebraska cop Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) who discovers a deadly sex trafficking ring while serving as a U.N. peacekeeper in post-war Bosnia. Risking her own life to save the lives of others, she uncovers an international conspiracy that is determined to stop her, no matter the cost.

    – Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)
    An American film based on the trials of 4 Nazi judges in Nuremberg Germany in 1948 by an American court.

    – The Interpreter
    A thriller about an interpreter who has overheard plans of an assassination at United Nations headquarters. An American Secret Service agent is sent to investigate as Silvia Broome, the interpreter, is in danger of being killed by the assassins.

  5. Jordan

    Judgment in Berlin — from the book by U.S. Dist. Ct. Judge Herbert J. Stern re: the Tiede case in the U.S. Ct. for Berlin.

  6. Ralph Janik

    The Simpsons: Krusty at the ICJ
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elementary_School_Musical_%28The_Simpsons%29

    The Simpsons: Operation Nifty Package (Noriega):
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steal_This_Episode

  7. Jelena Obradovic

    Lord of the Rings.

  8. Helmut Aust

    “Yes, Prime Minister” has an excellent episode called “A diplomatic incident” which makes for very good teaching material on the topic of jurisdiction. Sir Humphrey is at his best testing Jim Hacker on the question of who would have jurisdiction over what parts of the Channel tunnel.

  9. Caterina

    I loved this post, thank you Marko.
    Relating to other TV shows and international law: last year, the Good Wife had a couple of very interesting episodes with some international law flavor, mixing the question of protection of a State’s nationals in a foreign country (in that case Syria), humanitarian assistance, and some other aspects that were really exciting.

    But, most interestingly, TGW (as we aficionados call it) is the only TV show I know that ever touched on the issues of counterterrorism legislation and the impact on humanitarian action. There is one whole episode revolving around an interpreter working for a humanitarian agency who is under trial for allegedly helping the Taliban in Afghanistan, and they even invoke treasury order 13224 to freeze the organisation’s assets. Pure delight!

    Caterina

  10. Hajro Husic

    Great post, Marko.
    I believe that your next project should focus on making an international law-related movie.

  11. White Collar, which is otherwise excellent, had a international law-wise disappointing episode 5 in Season 2, in which Neal and Peter have to go a couple extra miles to save the son of a US Diplomat jailed in Burma. Fun stuff as usual, but the concepts of diplomatic immunity and diplomatic pouch are quite stretched, to say the very least. Still enjoyable though!

  12. apples

    Lest WTO law be given “fragmentary”, step-sisterly, treatment, there’s an entire House of Cards episode centered around currency manipulation by China and a possible case at the WTO by the US against China. They even got some of the details right.