A remarkable diplomatic intervention has been published by United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who, along with the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, declares that “International Law Backs The Trump Golan Policy.” The opinion justifies President Donald Trump’s recent proclamation that the United States will recognize the Golan Heights, acquired from Syria by Israeli military force in 1967, as “part of the State of Israel.” The U.S. legal claims are incomprehensible in terms of any recognized methods and sources of international law. But they demonstrate the logic of a fragmenting international legal order, increasingly structured around spheres of geopolitical power.
Israel’s long occupation of the Golan Heights has consolidated control over a formerly undisputed part of Syrian territory – contrary to the UN Charter’s most basic prohibition against acquiring territory by the threat or use of force. Yet Pompeo appears to sweep aside this cornerstone of the international legal order with a novel interpretation of a UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolution from 1967, Resolution 242, which affirmed that all states in the region have a right “to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.” The United States asserts that Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, to the exclusion of any hostile power, is “the only secure and recognized boundary that can exist under the circumstances—the objective of Resolution 242.”
This constitutes an entirely self-judging and political calculation fixed to a single clause of the UNSC resolution – to the disregard of a well-understood hierarchy of legal obligations long agreed between states, and indeed confirmation within Resolution 242 itself of “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Seizing upon fragments of legal language to build a vindicating narrative is familiar to any lawyer who has witnessed pro se legal arguments in a court of law – where untrained litigants construct idiosyncratic meanings out of legal rules without regard to agreed interpretative methods that are crucial for ensuring certainty and stability in the rule of law.
The conception of international law being propagated by the United States is not drawn from any commitment to a “rules based” or “liberal international order” applying equally to all, but instead from a strategy to fragment the rules of global order into exclusionary zones of security and geopolitical power. The Trump proclamation on the Golan Heights is guided by the particularistic military imperatives of “Israel’s need to protect itself from Syria and other regional threats.” In so arguing, the United States transposes onto the region its own long-standing subjection of international legal rules to a buffer zone of exceptional rights in the Western hemisphere. In effect it internationalizes the administration’s declaration that: “The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well.”
President James Monroe’s eponymous doctrine announced that any attempts by European states to colonize the Western hemisphere would represent “a manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.” Although not a legal rule or regime, the claimed right to expel foreign powers from its own hemisphere long shaped distinctive U.S. interpretation and application of international law throughout Latin America. Notwithstanding President Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 “Good Neighbor” policy, expansive U.S. applications of the Monroe Doctrine continued to provide a framework for engaging in the kinds of use of force that the International Court of Justice famously ruled illegal in the 1986 Nicaragua Case.
The historical reality of imperialistic U.S. policies led the Obama administration to finally declare in 2013 that the “era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” Yet, U.S. legal policy now bears the vision of national security advisor John Bolton, who has committed his career to recalibrating the interpretation and role of international law in U.S. foreign policy. In 2018 Bolton labelled Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua the “Troika of Tyranny in this Hemisphere,” stating the United States “is taking direct action against all three regimes to defend the rule of law, liberty, and basic human decency in our region.” Pushed on the legitimacy of possible intervention in Venezuela, Bolton stated: “In this administration, we’re not afraid to use the phrase ‘Monroe Doctrine,’ … it’s been the objective of presidents going back to Ronald Reagan to have a completely democratic hemisphere.”
The problem with these statements is that they invoke rights of intervention unrecognized by international law. There is particular disquiet among some Latin American states that the United States may soon apply to them the legal standards used to justify military intervention in Syria. Pompeo has made the claim that Hezbollah, designated a terrorist organization by the United States, has “active cells” backed by Iran that are “impacting the people of Venezuela and throughout South America … We have an obligation to take down that risk for America.” Such circumstances provide no credible legal grounds for the United States to intervene in Venezuela – even under its controversial doctrine justifying force against a state “unwilling or unable” to prevent terrorism spreading beyond its own borders. Yet merging of the expansive legal and political doctrines becomes increasingly plausible when the meaning and use of law is imposed within distinct spheres of geopolitical power.
The rise of regional orders of “geolegal” power is already evident in other regions of the world, where the competitive logic of territorially bounded leading states is restructuring the interpretation and development of rules and institutions into enclaves of fragmented legality. Such an order is conspicuously emerging around Chinese claims for a zone of security in the South China Sea, and to a lesser extent around distinctive Russian claims in Crimea reminiscent of the Soviet “Brezhnev Doctrine.” United States legal strategy in the Golan Heights and Latin America is embedding and normalizing equivalent logic within international law, such that the interpretation and practical operation of rules designated as “law” is increasingly dependent on geographical configurations of power and interest.
The allure of a fragmented international legal order illuminates why the Trump administration, supposedly dominated by international law skeptics, is not content merely to defend policy on political merit, but purposefully seeks the mantel of legal legitimacy. Insufficient political will among leading states to seek or enforce common norms for legal reconciliation points toward the restructuring of global order into spheres of geolegal power. Such an order transforms international law from a common language for arbitrating between competing national claims into a domain for amplifying and entrenching underlying conflict.