Since the attacks of September 11, 2001, many Americans are becoming interested in international law for the first time. When wars are begun on the claim that another country has violated international law, or that the United States must defend international standards, international law changes from an abstract, distant concept to an intimately important field of knowledge. Yet international law receives little mention in the mainstream media, and the few discussions of UN rules or international treaties make the entire concept sound alien, as though some foreign entity were trying to usurp American politics.
But author and lawyer Philippe Sands demonstrates that international law is a long preoccupation of the American government. Indeed, America has been one of the chief architects of international law, along with Great Britain. In Lawless World, Sands illustrates the construction of those laws, examines the national impulses that led America to create them, and finally examines why the country that helped created an international sense of order is now turning against the very organizations it built.
Despite an often complex topic, Lawless World is an easy and engaging read. Sands is aware of the intricacies of legal language and does his best to translate it into useful terms. Using dramatic cases to illustrate dry legal precedent, Sands examines the Geneva accords, the Kyoto protocols, international trade agreements, the International Criminal Court, and NAFTA. In every case, one fact emerges: the United States, even when not directly involved, sets precedent for the behavior of other countries. Coalitions form and fail based on the behavior of the U.S. Laws are enforceable, or not, depending on U.S. financial and military support. The insiderís view of international courts and UN rule show that America is not the only voice in determining law, but it is also no outsider to the process. International law is, by and large, American law. The question of why American governments have so often suborned the laws they helped make is examined, but answers are hard to find.
Though Sands, as a lawyer, is understandably on the side of maintaining international law, he spends ample time examining the arguments against it, and explaining the many shortcomings and difficulties of applying one law to multiple cultures and economies. He allows the benefits of such standards to speak for themselves through the medium of history. By the end of Lawless World, itís clear that the order and general peace of the current world scene are not just an historical anomaly but a careful creation resulting from generations of planning. As ongoing struggles make clear, that creation is not yet complete. Americans need to study our past if we hope to avoid a Lawless World in our future.Considering the potential for abuse inherent in any bureaucracy, ďAmericaís founders divided government power among executive, legislative and judicial branches in order to prevent abuses.Ē This critical balance is what must be protected at all costs, the well-oiled democratic machine that will be irreversibly damaged if not kept in check by such checks and balances.