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Protesters hold anti-war signs and Ukrainian flags in Sopot, Poland on February 26, 2022.

Protesters hold anti-war signs and Ukrainian flags in Sopot, Poland on February 26, 2022. (Photo: Michal Fludra/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The Invasion of Ukraine and the Need for Enforceable World Law

Ultimately, humanity has a choice. We can keep signing treaties and keep fighting wars when those treaties fail. Or we can work toward a democratic world federation based on proven principles.

Jane Shevtsov

On February 24, 2022, one part of the country I was born in attacked another part of the country I was born in, with potentially devastating consequences for the world.

International law is not law in the normal sense of the word. Rather, it is a collection of treaties voluntarily made by sovereign states.

I was born in the Soviet Union, in what was then the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. My family emigrated in 1989 and settled in Los Angeles. Two years later, the country we had come from dissolved itself. In its place were 15 sovereign states, including Russia and Ukraine.

Fast forward 30 years and I, along with the rest of the world, am watching the previously unimaginable—a full-on attack by Russia on Ukraine.

My Twitter feed is full of well-intentioned people asking why the world didn't stop Putin from invading Ukraine. There was even an agreement, the Budapest Memorandum, that, after Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons it inherited from the Soviet Union, Russia would respect its sovereignty and independence. The U.S. and U.K. were supposed to assure Ukraine's security. They didn't.

The truth is that the world didn't stop Putin from invading Ukraine for the same reason it didn't stop Bush from invading Iraq in 2003. (The similarities—war aimed at regime change in a nation that poses no immediate threat—are striking.) There is no mechanism, aside from sanctions and war, for doing so.

At the international level, the world is an anarchy. There are international bodies like the U.N., but if one country wants to invade another, there is little the U.N. can do about it. The General Assembly can pass resolutions that express world opinion but are completely unenforceable. Security Council resolutions have more teeth, but even they can only be enforced by economic sanctions (which are usually ineffective) or military action. On top of that, they can be vetoed by any of the permanent members: France, China, the U.K., the U.S., and Russia itself, the victors of a war that ended over 75 years ago.

The commentariat pontificates about Russia's actions violating international law, which they do. The problem is that international law is not law in the normal sense of the word. Rather, it is a collection of treaties voluntarily made by sovereign states. If you want to know how reliable treaties are, ask a Native American—or a Ukrainian.

Law as we know it in our everyday lives is made by governments and enforced by courts and police. Break the law and you might pay a fine or go to prison. On the other hand, the treaties that make up international law are unenforceable or enforced only through military means.

This is not a new insight. Alexander Hamilton, in "Federalist 15," wrote that, while treaties were widespread, they were "subject to the usual vicissitudes of peace and war, of observance and nonobservance, as the interests or passions of the contracting powers dictate."

Hamilton continued: "It is essential to the idea of a law, that it be attended with a sanction; or, in other words, a penalty or punishment for disobedience... This penalty, whatever it may be, can only be inflicted in two ways: by the agency of the courts and ministers of justice, or by military force; by the COERCION of the magistracy, or by the COERCION of arms. The first kind can evidently apply only to [individuals]; the last kind must of necessity, be employed against bodies politic, or communities, or states... Sentences may be denounced against [states] for violations of their duty; but these sentences can only be carried into execution by the sword."

Why do the Federalist Papers discuss the difference between laws and treaties? Because they were written to advocate for the adoption of the newly written U.S. Constitution, which established a federal government in place of the Articles of Confederation, which was, in essence, a treaty between 13 sovereign states. This system has proven remarkably effective at preventing war between 50 distinct political entities. Texas and California may have their differences, but there is no chance of one attacking the other. And as a Californian, I spend zero dollars defending my state from Texas. I also don't worry about Nevada entering a Texas-led alliance and becoming a threat to the security of California—as Russia worried that Ukraine might join a hostile military alliance. Among the states making up the U.S., war as an institution does not exist.

As we anxiously watch developments in Eastern Europe, let us envision a global democracy which brings us at last enduring world peace through enforceable world law.

Having a common government prevents war in other places, too. Indeed, it was the dissolution of the Soviet Union into independent states that enabled the tragic events we are seeing today. Only a common government—a federation—can abolish war as an institution.

This logic applies itself neatly to the world as a whole. If a democratic national federation, like the United States, can unite distinct political units while still allowing them to self-govern on domestic matters, why can't a democratic world federation do this at the global level? This idea goes back centuries but became popular in the U.S. after WWII, attracting intellectuals, celebrities, and ordinary people. Albert Einstein was a world federalist. So were Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and young future senators Alan Cranston and Harris Wofford.

What all these people supported was replacing unreliable treaties and undemocratic international bodies with a democratic system of law such as exists at every other level of government. At the local, state, and national levels, we have a legislature, an executive, and a system of courts and law enforcement—so why not have those things on the world level? It's an audacious idea, but compared to the repeated failures of the current system, it looks downright practical.

Ultimately, humanity has a choice. We can keep signing treaties and keep fighting wars when those treaties fail. Or we can work toward a democratic world federation based on proven principles. As we anxiously watch developments in Eastern Europe, let us envision a global democracy which brings us at last enduring world peace through enforceable world law.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Jane Shevtsov

Jane Shevtsov

Jane Shevtsov teaches mathematical biology at UCLA and is a board member of the Citizens for Global Solutions Education Fund.

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