Nations are mankind's largest teams. And, when big nations play beyond their borders like touring teams, they want rules and referees. That's the famous "level playing field."
But look closely. What many big powers seek is referees that protect their interests - not refs that may unexpectedly accuse and penalize them.
So it has been with trade and product dumping, investment protection, border disputes, patents and copyrights - even global policing.
So it is now in Rome, where delegates from 156 nations are trying to create a long-sought international criminal court.
The court's role would be to investigate and punish "crimes against humanity." That would regularize the work the Nuremburg and Tokyo war crimes trials performed after World War II. It would centralize and make permanent the ad hoc role of current war crimes tribunals for Bosnia and Rwanda.
Four UN Security Council veto powers - the US, China, Russia, and France - want to retain a veto over what cases such a court could handle.
This reluctance should not have surprised some 800 human rights-related groups that are prodding the four recalcitrants to accept a no-strings court and prosecutors. They are understandably indignant that the US and others want to control the court's reach. But they should have seen the signs and portents in the sovereign wrangling over previously launched global bodies.
There is a whole spectrum of such bodies. National reactions to them are in rough proportion to their ability to affect national leaders' power.
Global regulatory bodies dealing with such workaday subjects as postal, telecom, maritime, civil aviation, health, and weather matters work quietly and uncontroversially.
Global organs with bigger financial impact, like the World Trade Organization (WTO) and International Monetary Fund (IMF), are more often embroiled in dispute. And powerful politicians have not always given them the full trust they generally deserve.
The World Court in The Hague, created to settle disputes between states, bears an escape clause. States can spurn its jurisdiction. So it has only sporadically solved important cases, as in dividing the North Sea oil patch or confirming UN control over Namibia's birth. The system of selecting its judges has sometimes seemed tinged by nationalist aims.
Which brings us back to the proposed international criminal court. In Jack Benny terms ("your money or your life"), some key US senators who see the WTO and IMF as "your money" now see a world criminal court as "your life." More specifically, those senators and the Clinton administration fear that US troops taking part in a policing action in some world trouble spot could be investigated and tried as criminals because of whipped-up world opinion.
Most of the delegates in Rome have long considered this argument and other problems a new criminal court would face. They assert that any nation with established courts that tries its own citizens for war crimes such as the My Lai massacre in Vietnam would not face preemption by the proposed international court.
The doubting big four powers want to make sure that is the case by giving the UN Security Council (where they have a veto) jurisdiction over the court's docket. Some, like France, argue that a target state would have to give its consent before the court could investigate and try a case.
That approach would have scuttled any hope of trying massive crimes against humanity - those of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Idi Amin - during their rule.
Realistically, it may turn out that the Rome conference will have to start the proposed court's life with a jurisdictional compromise proposed by Singapore. That would allow the court and its prosecutors to investigate accusations of war crimes and genocide but would permit the Security Council to postpone or halt a case.
If such a compromise gains signatories, it may still fail to win vital ratifications, such as that of the US Senate.
Way back in the anguished 1960s Richard Nixon, then a private citizen and lawyer, proposed a way to win more respect for, and use of, the World Court. He urged major nations to add to ordinary commercial treaties clauses stipulating that disputes be adjudicated by the World Court. That way, he argued, both political leaders and publics would get used to, and see the benefit of, court judgments over time.
Then, having come to trust decisions on lesser matters, they would be more ready to entrust the court with major matters.
Perhaps something like that process is needed in several important areas: Global trade rulings, global antitrust matters, and, in time, global criminal prosecution.