Going to court -- sometimes

THE United States' decision to back away from its strong support of the World Court is both understandable and unfortunate. Understandable, because Nicaragua's case against the US, which the court is now hearing, may in fact be better suited for consideration by the United Nations Security Council. Nicaragua is accusing the US of illegally mining its harbors and leading the ``contras.'' This case does have strong political aspects, as the US says. The World Court is an imperfect instrument, without power of enforcement and subject in part to international political pressures.

Washington's move is understandable, too, because few major nations have followed the US lead of 40 years ago in fully accepting the court's jurisdiction over international disputes. The court has not become the significant factor in international relations that the US once hoped.

Yet the Reagan administration has made an unfortunate decision -- that from now on it will accept the court's jurisdiction only in those cases the US considers ``appropriate'' for the court to judge. Although this puts Washington in line with most other major nations, the US is moving in the wrong direction.

Rather, the US should strongly support the concept and application of the rule of international law. It should be moving to strengthen, not weaken, that principle. Washington ought to be trying to build a world in which legal argument is used to settle conflicts.

Instead, the decision gives the world the impression that the US itself intends to choose those issues on which it will accept the rule of international law, as expressed by the court, and those on which it will not. Washington should be careful not to signal that it will abide by the rule of law only when its purposes are served.

Holding the higher ground on international law does not jeopardize national autonomy. The risks of abiding by law in the international arena are more nearly akin to the potential pitfalls of acceding to it in domestic courts: A party may lose a suit, or be embarrassed by the result. Yet if the United States is to support the idea of resolving disputes through legal channels rather than fighting or economic retaliation, it should be very careful what it says -- and does.

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