In December 1934, Arthur Henderson, a leader of the British Labour Party, declared in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize that the immense human suffering caused by World War I “led to the very clear realization that international anarchy must be abandoned if civilization was to survive.”
Unfortunately, that realization did not go very far or very deep. Although, since that time, international law has been refined, nations remain far from adhering to its provisions or accepting its enforcement by the United Nations.
The lengthy, bloody conflict between the Israelis and their Arab neighbors provides a dramatic illustration of this point.
On November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted a plan to replace the British Mandate in Palestine with a partition of that land between a Jewish state and a Palestinian state. The UN decision was fiercely resented by the surrounding Arab nations, which launched a war against the new Jewish state, Israel—a war from which Israel emerged victorious in 1948.
This victory did not end the violence, however, or the violations of international law. Having fled abroad from the fighting in 1948, over 700,000 Palestinians, in contravention of international law, were denied the right to return to their homes in Israel. Egypt, which, in 1956, had agreed under UN pressure to the demilitarization of the Sinai Peninsula, expelled UN observers in 1967, massed its troops on Israel’s border, and together with Jordan, readied itself to invade Israel. In turn, Israel launched devastating attacks on Egyptian, Jordanian, Syrian, and Iraqi military forces. Victorious in this Six-Day War, Israel gained control of the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.
Over the ensuing decades, numerous violent clashes followed, with Israel, now the dominant military power in the region, defeating Arab and Palestinian resistance. Meanwhile, Israel defied international law by continuing to occupy the territory conquered in 1967, colonizing it with Jewish settlements, and violating the human rights of its Palestinian residents. For their part, Hamas terrorists, dedicated to unremitting war against Israel, committed horrendous war crimes against noncombatants in clear violation of the 1949 Geneva Conventions. When the Israeli government deprived Gaza’s civilian population of food, water, and other essentials of survival, it, too, defied international law.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine provides another clear example of flouting international law. Article 2, Section 4 of the UN Charter prohibits the “use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Ukraine had been an independent, sovereign nation since 1991, when the Soviet Union authorized a referendum on whether it wanted to become part of the new Russian Federation or to become independent. In the balloting, 90 percent voted for independence, which was formally accepted. Three years later, in the Budapest Memorandum, the Russian government pledged to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine” and to “refrain from the threat or use of force” against that nation.
Nevertheless, in 2014 the Putin regime drew upon Russian military power to seize and annex Crimea in southern Ukraine and to arm pro-Russian separatists and unleash its own thinly-disguised military forces in eastern Ukraine. In February 2022, the Russian government, determined to seize full control of Ukraine, launched a massive military invasion. Although fierce resistance by the Ukrainians prevented a complete Russian takeover, that September Putin announced the annexation of four additional regions of Ukraine, declaring that Russia would never surrender them.
Most of the world’s nations assailed this behavior as a flagrant violation of international law. In March 2014, after a Russian veto blocked a UN Security Council rebuke, the UN General Assembly voted by an overwhelming margin to condemn the Russian action that year. In March 2022, amid a new Russian veto of UN Security Council action, the UN General Assembly roundly condemned the full-scale Russian invasion by a vote of 141 to 5 (with 35 abstentions), while the International Court of Justice, the world’s highest judicial authority, voted by 13 to 2 (with Russia’s judge casting one of the negative votes) that Russia should “immediately suspend” its invasion. That October, the UN General Assembly, by a vote of 143 nations to 5 (with 35 abstentions), called on all nations to refuse recognition of Russia’s “attempted illegal annexation” of Ukrainian territory.
Perhaps the most chilling manifestation of international anarchy is the renewed nuclear arms race. Recognizing the potential for worldwide destruction in a nuclear war and pressed for action by an uneasy public, the nations of the world did, eventually, sign nuclear arms control treaties. Among these agreements was the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968, in which non-nuclear nations pledged to forgo building nuclear weapons, while the nuclear nations agreed to divest themselves of their nuclear arsenals. Nevertheless, in recent decades, additional nations have become nuclear powers, while existing nuclear powers have scrapped previous nuclear disarmament agreements. Symptomatically, the nuclear powers oppose the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which became international law in 2021.
Indeed, all the nuclear nations are currently engaged in nuclear weapons buildups―planning and developing new, more efficient weapons of mass destruction. Some government officials, among them Vladimir Putin, publicly threaten to launch nuclear war against nations opposing their international policies.
Against this backdrop, it’s tempting to conclude that, thanks to the apparently ungovernable nature of the world, the annihilation of civilization is inevitable. But is the world ungovernable―or merely lacking an effective government?
Given the fact that the United Nations was created to guarantee international security, a logical solution to the problem of effective governance is to strengthen the ability of the world organization to enforce international law. By curbing international anarchy, this action would prevent marauding nations and armed bands alike from indulging their worst impulses. It would also significantly enhance the prospects for peace, justice, and human survival.