In the second month of Donald Trump’s presidency, we still know little about his foreign policy agenda. He regularly said things during the campaign that suggested a radical departure from longstanding tenets of U.S. foreign policy. And during his first month in office, he caused more than his fair share of diplomatic offense and confusion. But as the New York Times has reported, Trump’s foreign policy has already become more centrist. It’s fair to say, then, that we don’t really know what Trump will do on the international stage.
Still, there’s good reason to believe that the Trump administration will pose unprecedented challenges to international law. In this post, I’ll discuss the three principal ways in which the administration is likely to undercut the existing international legal order. My goal is simply to outline the distinct risks so that we can better appreciate them. I don’t at this point propose any solutions.
- Corroding Legal Norms
The first possibility is the most obvious one and has already received some attention: the United States might more readily violate substantive rules of international law or disregard accepted processes for making legally relevant decisions. International legal theorists sometimes claim that legal violations—particularly, high-profile violations by one of the most powerful countries—risk unraveling the entire enterprise of international law. For example, this is how Thomas Franck expressed his concerns about the George W. Bush administration in 2006: “When a community loses faith in law’s power to restrain and channel conduct, this perception propels the descent into anarchy.”
Even if that rhetoric is hyperbolic (and I think it is), repeat violations might corrode specific legal norms. After all, any interaction that puts a particular norm at issue communicates not only whether the norm was effective in the case at hand but also what the norm requires going forward and to what extent it reflects an operative commitment. If the United States repeatedly and blatantly violates a norm, and suffers little repercussion, it will, if nothing else, weaken that norm. In my view, this process of normative evolution is not necessarily bad. Eroded norms might be replaced by new ones that better reflect current problems or expectations. Even so, the transition could be destabilizing. And it would be undesirable if its effect is to increase the threats to global security or human lives.
To be sure, the United States has violated international law before. Reasonable people can disagree about the frequency of those violations, but they are all but certain to accelerate under the Trump administration. President Trump has made clear that he intends to put “America first.” He has also indicated that he defines America’s interests very differently than his predecessors. It’s not a stretch, then, to assume that putting America first means exploiting U.S. power to evade legal rules and processes that the United States has long accepted. Moreover, while other global actors might at times push back against the United States—while they might use international law to try to condemn or constrain it—its raw power could well frustrate these efforts. Read the rest of this entry…