A matter of upholding the law

VICE-PRESIDENT George Bush says he wants the United States to be ``the dominant force for good in the world.'' Certainly Americans like to think of their country in those terms, and over the years have had ample reason to do so, as evidenced by such endeavors as the Good Neighbor Policy, the Marshall Plan, and the reconstruction of Japan. But our most important contributions to the world have been the genius of our constitutional system and our dedication to the rule of law. Since the days of Franklin Roosevelt, the US has taken a leading role in encouraging the rule of law within the community of nations. Mr. Roosevelt envisioned the United Nations as a means to that end. Harry Truman brought the vision to reality. Up to 1981, all postwar presidents had upheld the Charter of the UN and accepted the jurisdiction of the World Court.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Bush has praised the bipartisan foreign policies of Roosevelt and Truman as a standard for others to follow. The Reagan-Bush administration, however, has departed dramatically from those standards. It is difficult to see how Bush squares his words with that departure. How can one undermine the international organizations inspired by Roosevelt and Truman, yet claim to be following in their footsteps? And how can one's policies be ``a dominant force for good'' if they defy the law?

It is not just that the Reagan-Bush administration has refused to pay its dues to the UN and the Organization of American States (OAS); it has also defied the World Court and violated the Charter itself.

In 1986, the World Court, after a careful examination of the evidence, ruled that US mining of Nicaraguan harbors was a violation of international law. Accordingly, it ordered the US to cease these and other efforts, such as military assistance to the contras, aimed at overthrowing the Nicaraguan government.

Rather than comply, the Reagan/Bush administration, for the first time in our nation's history, refused to accept the jurisdiction of the court, and in so doing violated Article 94 of the UN charter, which calls on ``each member of the United Nations ... to comply with the decision of the International Court of Justice in any case to which it is a party.'' Nor was the administration forced to choose between the law and national security. Legal measures were available to ensure the latter.

The administration might, for example, have taken its case to the OAS, charging Nicaragua with aggression against El Salvador and invoking the Rio Mutual Defense Treaty. Of course, that would have meant presenting evidence to back its charge, and the administration has never been long on evidence.

Or it might have negotiated and signed a detailed security agreement with Nicaragua under which the latter ruled out the establishment of any Soviet bases, foreswore assistance to the Salvadorean guerrillas, etc. Had Nicaragua violated the agreement, the US could then have used force with the full weight of international law on its side. And had Nicaragua respected it, US objectives would have been achieved without bloodshed.

The question here has nothing to do with what one thinks of the Sandinistas. The US may indeed have good reason to regard the Sandinistas as adversaries. That in no way changes the fact that those who lead this country ought to have the intelligence, integrity, and statesmanship to handle such a situation within the rules established by international law.

Of course, even at home this administration has shown all too little respect for the law. Ten Reagan appointees have been convicted and sentenced to prison. One hundred fifty others have been indicted, placed under investigation, or both. The greatest corruption scandal in Pentagon history now threatens to add dozens more to that list. The former chief law enforcement officer himself, the attorney general, was investigated and found culpable of unethical if not illegal conduct. And during Irangate, it became clear that in pursuit of an illegal war against Nicaragua, members of the administration had violated the law of our own land.

All this is unworthy of us. If there is ever to be that better and more just world of which we all dream, it will grow out of the UN, with all its imperfections, and out of a growing acceptance of international law. The US will not be true to its high calling if it undermines either. As John Locke so wisely noted some three centuries ago: ``Where law ends, tyranny begins.'' The US must always be on the side of the former.

Wayne S. Smith is adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a former Foreign Service officer.

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