• Celebration Tinged with Trepidation: The EU Turns 60

    Everyone tried to put a good face on it, but the celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome that created the organization that would become the European Union (EU) were marked by deep concerns about the future of the union.

    Most striking was the absence of the United Kingdom. The British had voted to leave the EU 9 months ago and the formal request to leave is expected shortly. The British had never been enthusiastic members of the EU, but the choice to formally withdraw is a significant blow to the idea that the union is destined to grow ever closer.

    Other concerns also vex EU leaders. The Eurozone faces serious economic problems and is in need of real institutional reforms if it is to continue to manage a single currency for a diverse group of countries. Brexit was only one sign of a growing anti-EU movement in Europe. No other country appears on the verge of leaving, but in uncertain times things can be surprising.

    Despite its problems, the EU remains a spectacular success as a vehicle for global governance. Created in the ashes of the Second World War as a tool to promote integration and cooperation, the European Coal and Steel Community (the original name for the organization that would become the EU) was meant to make a future major power war in Europe impossible. The idea was to bring states together to promote common interests and to resolve problems peacefully. With two world wars and the Great Depression fresh in people’s minds, this was a significant matter.

    The EU has become a powerful international actor, in spite of the oddity of an international organization acting somewhat like a nation-state. For years, the EU moved towards an erosion of sovereignty in favor of integration and transnationalism. While that process has largely halted with Brexit, it remains one of the only examples where nation-states have ceded significant part of what had been sovereign decision-making.

    The EU has been widely copied, but few of the imitators have managed to duplicate its success. The struggles of the African Union, MERCOSUR, and numerous other regional groupings shows how powerful the sovereign impulse can be. The EU’s success is exceptional.

    So, as the EU turns 60, we can look at its struggles (as reporting in RT, Russian state media likes to do) or we can sit back and marvel at how an organization built on the rubble of war has managed to keep the peace while making many of its members fat and happy. Through turbulent decades, the EU did its job reasonably well. And that deserves a celebration.




    1. Why have other regional organizations struggled to overcome the cooperation and coordination problems that the EU has overcome? What aspects of the EU members and the process of EU integration influence this?
    2. The EU was successful as an economic union and single market, but faced growing opposition as it got deeper into the daily lives of citizens. Are there limits on the aspects of sovereignty that people in member states are willing to give up? Do some parts of our lives fit more happily with transnational integration than others?
    3. The EU is often criticized for suffering from a “democratic deficit” because many decisions are made by a professional bureaucracy in Brussels. Yet most rules in most nation-states are created by bureaucrats and not national legislatures. Why does bureaucratic rule-making seem different when it takes place in a transnational organization?
  • From Terrorist to Statesman? Martin McGuinness dies at age 66

    Strangely, the terrorist campaign of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) is largely seen as ancient history outside of the United Kingdom and Ireland in spite of having ended only two decades ago. A conflict that dragged on for decades has left lasting wounds that still fester in Northern Ireland and among the victims of violence on all sides. But the end of the violent conflict came with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 when all sides agreed to abandon violent struggle and shift to a political process.

    Martin McGuinness was a key player in the peace process that led to the Agreement. A commander in the IRA with blood on his hands from several terrorist attacks, McGuinness decided that violent struggle was ultimately futile and became an integral part of the peace process, eventually working with his long-time enemies to form the first post-Agreement government in Northern Ireland.

    The death of Mr. McGuinness reminds us that intractable conflicts can be brought to an end. A struggle that lasted from the establishment of English rule and endured for centuries eventually ended when all sides determined that the violent struggle no longer offered the chance of victory. The IRA abandoned armed struggle and moved to a political process. At the same time, the British and Irish governments agreed to work with terrorists and to accept people with blood on their hands into government. Both sides accepted the necessity of compromise to work out a peaceful settlement.

    In a world where protracted conflicts are regrettably common, the Irish case offers some hope, and a few potential lessons. One is that it is easier to work with groups that don’t have maximalist demands. The IRA wanted a free, united Irish state on the whole of the island of Ireland. They were fine with leaving England to the English. That such a goal is not pursued through politics, as opposed to violence, is a shift in tactics, but not in aims.

    Another lesson is that you can talk to some terrorists, but they have to be willing to talk to you. A hurting stalemate helps both sides see that there is value to abandoning violence. The IRA could not gain their goals through violence, but the UK government could not defeat the IRA. In the end, compromise suited both sides.

    There are more lessons, of course, but as we look at other conflicts, the willingness of groups to compromise is a key part of bringing a conflict to an end. In negotiations, peace is possible, but only when it is seen as preferable to endless conflict.



    1. Under what kinds of conditions are terrorist organizations likely to seek a negotiated end to the conflict? Are terrorist organizations with specific, political, ends easier to work with than ones with broad, global agendas? What does this imply about the tendency to treat all terrorist organizations in the same manner in the post-9/11 period?
    2. There is an axiom among many leaders that goes “Never negotiate with terrorists.” In the case of the IRA, negotiating with terrorists ended the conflict. Was the IRA a special case, or does this case offer lessons for other conflicts?
    3. The Good Friday Agreement ended the conflict. At the same time, this was achieved by allowing terrorists to escape justice for their crimes. Is the idea of allowing terrorists amnesty for their crimes compatible with international legal requirements that those who target civilians be held accountable for their crimes? Would the Good Friday Agreement have been compatible with the International Criminal Court if the ICC had existed at the time?
  • When Norms Fail: ISIS deploys chemical weapons in Mosul

    The fight against the group that call itself the Islamic State (ISIS) is not known for sharing globally recognized values. Their actions in the past have shown a degree of brutality that has made it a byword for barbarism around the world. The violation of international norms of behavior brings with it harsh criticism, but does it matter if ISIS does not care?

    Chemical weapons have been banned by international treaty: the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) bans the possession or use of such weapons. The use of chemical weapons is considered a war crime. There are few aspects of the laws of war that are clearer than these prohibitions. In spite of this, the use of chemical weapons has become more frequent in the wars in Iraq and Syria that include ISIS among the combatants.

    When Syria used chemical weapons against its civilian population, this was seen as a gross violation of international norms, a violation of international humanitarian law, a war crime, and a sign that the regime was especially desperate to sow fear in its opponents. In spite of this, the Syrian government has suffered no real consequences for its actions, with Russia and Chine vetoing the latest attempt to impose penalties at the United Nations Security Council.

    If a nation state can get away with such a gross break from international norms, what about a non-state actor like ISIS. In spite of its grandiose name, ISIS is not a state. It controls territory, but it is not recognized by any other government. As a non-state actor, ISIS cannot sign the CWC. Only states can sign treaties.

    Does this mean that ISIS can act with impunity? The answer is: No. Well, maybe.

    In international law there is the doctrine of “jus cogens” which is a fancy Latin term for the concept that there are some norms that simply cannot be set aside. These norms are called “peremptory norms” and they apply to everyone, regardless of the circumstances. The prohibition of the use of chemical weapons is not a peremptory norm. Enough countries have agreed to the CWC that it is pretty close, but there is no clear red line that gets crossed in order to be considered a peremptory norm.

    Norms are funny things. They depend on the assumed belief that they reflect the right thing to do in the eyes of the community. This is hard to define and it depends on actions, not just on talk. While it was generally thought that chemical weapons use was across the line, the lack of action against Syria seems to suggest that it is not.

    ISIS, as a non-state group, is not accepted as a state, but it is a party to a civil war. As such, the laws of war do apply to it. The expectation is that ISIS will follow the rules of war in its conduct of the conflict. But ISIS explicitly rejects these concepts as Western impositions. The deliberate use of a blistering agent (most likely mustard gas, although this has not been proven definitively) against civilian populations violates several areas of war law.

    But this is not new. The Syrian government used chemical weapons against its civilian population. ISIS has used chemical weapons in the past against both civilian and military targets.

    But does this matter? While the conflict rages, it is hard to tell. The perpetrators are engaged in the conflict and the world community has no stomach for a major intervention. But there will be an “After the War” time when people seek to return to normal. In this time, there will be calls for justice. Then, the world will have another chance to show whether or not the use of chemical weapons against civilian populations rises to the level of jus cogens.



    1. ISIS is a non-state actor dedicated to a radical overthrow of the international system. As such, violating the norms of that system is not a big leap. Does the violation of norms by such a group matter? Or is the measure of commitment to the norms measured in the international community’s response?
    2. Under international law, is it possible to hold a group that has not signed an international treaty accountable for breaking that treaty’s terms? Can an actor be held accountable for breaking rules they did not agree to in an anarchic international system?
    3. Does the failure to hold a state actor (Syria) accountable for chemical weapons use undermine the case for holding a non-state actor (ISIS) accountable for doing the same thing? In international law, how does the distinction between states and non-state actors impact this?