The U.S. presents itself as the builder and enforcer of an international order defined by the rules and institutions created in the wake of WWII. While the U.S. frequently violates those rules, international law still constrains how the U.S. has operated in the world. Even when pursuing regime change, the U.S. has felt constrained by the principle of nonintervention to conceal its role in toppling foreign governments when there is no legal excuse readily available. That is the core argument of Michael Poznansky’s “In the Shadow of International Law: Secrecy and Regime Change in the Postwar World.”
Poznansky’s focus is four case studies of U.S. regime change policies in Latin America during the Cold War, but his study is relevant for post-Cold War foreign policy as well. His findings can help inform a foreign policy of peace and restraint by emphasizing the importance of international law as an impediment to wars for regime change, and his case studies show how the most cynical unilateralists have felt constrained by the need to appear to be adhering to the rules.
Poznansky proves his argument by studying two cases of attempted covert regime change in Cuba in 1961 and Chile from 1970-73 and complementing them with his study of two overt regime change interventions that the U.S. undertook in the Dominican Republic and Grenada. He demonstrates that the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and Nixon administrations were concerned to avoid the appearance of violating U.S. commitments to nonintervention in the affairs of our neighbors while looking for ways to trample on those commitments for the sake of overthrowing leaders that they opposed.
The desire to avoid being directly implicated in the effort to invade Cuba was so great, that Kennedy famously scaled down the operation to minimize the chances of it being linked to the U.S. The U.S. preferred to keep its regime change goals under wraps with greater risk of failure rather than openly play the hypocrite.
He selected cases in Latin America specifically because this is the region where the U.S. is supposed to have the freest hand and should be able to get away with brazen violations more easily, and he shows that the U.S. opted for overt and direct intervention only when there was a legal pretext that excused U.S. interference in the internal affairs of other countries. In both the Dominican Republic and Grenada interventions, the U.S. could claim to be carrying out a rescue of American nationals caught up in the upheaval in these countries, and then once the interventions were underway the U.S. was able to wrap itself in the mantle of supporting regional organizations to provide stability.
Poznansky’s book does a good job of reconstructing how top policymakers in each administration viewed the issues, and he proves that even someone as cynical and unscrupulous as Kissinger felt somewhat constrained by U.S. commitments under the U.N. and OAS Charters. The U.S. government had no problem trampling on its international commitments, but it did feel the need to pay tribute to those commitments by keeping the violations secret as much as possible.
There is one post-Cold War example of a U.S. regime change policy that doesn’t fit very well with Poznansky’s argument, and that is the Iraq war. As he acknowledges in the book, the Iraq war may show the limits of his argument. Despite having no legal justification under international law and no Security Council authorization, the U.S. and its allies launched a war to overthrow the Iraqi government. In the absence of any legal cover for their action, Poznansky’s argument suggests that we should have expected the Bush administration to seek regime change in Iraq covertly. The fact that they pressed ahead with the invasion when there was no international authorization tells us that there are occasions when our government is so dead-set on intervention and regime change that there is nothing that will discourage them from attacking.
However, the aftermath of the invasion tends to back up the rest of Poznansky’s explanation for why states resort to covert regime change policies. The U.S. government has preferred to avoid the costs that come with flagrant, overt violations of international law and the principle of nonintervention. The U.S. often behaves hypocritically and in violation of the rules that it preaches to others, but its brazen violations are relatively few because the government doesn’t want the backlash that comes with openly flouting the rules.
The Libya and Syria cases under the Obama administration deserve some additional discussion. While they are addressed only briefly in the book, the U.S.-led Libyan intervention and U.S. support for regime change efforts in Syria provide some interesting test cases for Poznansky’s thesis. The U.S. obtained Security Council authorization for military action in Libya, but it was supposed to be a limited mission focused on civilian protection in eastern Libya. It quickly morphed into a war for regime change, and many of the governments that had allowed the resolution to pass objected that the U.S., British, and French governments had exceeded their mandate by continuing the war until the Libyan government collapsed and Gaddafi was killed.
Had the U.S. and its allies expressed their intention to bring down the Libyan government from the start, there would have been no U.N. authorization of the intervention. Would the Libyan intervention have gone ahead anyway in the absence of Security Council approval? It’s impossible to know how the counterfactual would have worked out, but it seems likely that the U.S. and its allies would have relied on the precedent of the illegal Kosovo war as a model for going ahead without U.N. support. The conceit that the Kosovo war was “illegal but legitimate” in the eyes of its supporters was part of the debate over intervention in Libya at the time.
The Syria case is intriguing because U.S. involvement in regime change efforts there was never very covert and concern about international law never seemed to be an issue. In order to placate interventionists at home, the Obama administration had to publicize its support for anti-government rebels. Reluctance to intervene openly in Syria seems to have had more to do with not wanting to repeat the Iraq debacle and escalation fears involving Russia and Iran than with respecting the principle of nonintervention. Obama appeared to be willing to launch attacks on the Syrian government at the end of the summer of 2013. That wouldn’t have been aimed at bringing down the Syrian government, but it also shows that the Obama administration was not very worried about violating the U.N. Charter.
The U.S. seems even less constrained by international law since the end of the Cold War than it was during it, and that has manifested itself in many more overt, direct military interventions in other states’ internal affairs. Some of the interventions in the last thirty years have not been wars for regime change, but they do show a U.S. government that is far less worried about being perceived as a violator of the rules than it used to be. Instead of choosing between covert or overt regime change policies, the U.S. should be scaling back its foreign policy ambitions and renouncing interference in the affairs of other nations altogether.
Daniel Larison is a regular columnist at Responsible Statecraft, contributing editor at Antiwar.com, and a former senior editor at The American Conservative magazine. He has a Ph.D. in History from the University of Chicago. He writes regularly for his newsletter, Eunomia, on Substack.
President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy stand in open car to greet members of the Cuban Invasion Brigade (Bay of Pigs) at the Orange Bowl Stadium in Miami, Florida, Dec. 29, 1962. (JFK Library/public domain)
Please credit "Cecil Stoughton. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston"
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.
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Handout photo shows US President Joe Biden (C-R) and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (C-L) take part in a bilateral meeting, on the final day of a three-day G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, on May 21, 2023. The final day of the three-day of the Group of Seven leaders' summit is under way in the western Japan city of Hiroshima, with focus on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his talks with international leaders. Photo by Ukrainian Presidency via ABACAPRESS.COM
Roughly 70% of Americans want the Biden administration to push Ukraine toward a negotiated peace with Russia as soon as possible, according to a new survey from the Harris Poll and the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
Support for negotiations remained high when respondents were told such a move would include compromises by all parties, with two out of three respondents saying the U.S. should still pursue talks despite potential downsides. The survey shows a nine-point jump from a poll in late 2022 that surveyed likely voters. In that poll, 57% of respondents said they backed talks that would involve compromises.
The new data suggests that U.S. government policy toward the Ukraine war is increasingly out of step with public opinion on the eve of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Americans’ strong support for U.S. diplomatic efforts to end Russia’s invasion of Ukraine stands in stark contrast to Washington’s reluctance to use its considerable leverage to get Kyiv and Moscow to the negotiating table and end this war,” said George Beebe, the director of grand strategy at the Quincy Institute.
The Biden administration has publicly rejected the idea of negotiating an end to the war with Russia, with U.S. officials saying that they are prepared to back Ukraine “as long as it takes” to achieve the country’s goal of ejecting Russian troops from all of its territory, including Crimea.
Just this week, Russian sources told Reuters that the U.S. declined a Kremlin offer to pursue a ceasefire along the current frontlines in conversations held in late 2023 and early 2024, including a round of unofficial talks in Turkey.
U.S. officials denied the claim, saying there was no “official contact” between Moscow and Washington on the issue and that the U.S. would only agree to negotiations involving Ukraine. Reuters’ Russian sources claimed that American officials said they did not want to pressure Kyiv into talks.
The Harris/Quincy Institute poll involved an online survey of 2,090 American adults from Feb. 8 to 12. The results are weighted to ensure a representative sample of the U.S. population. The margin of error is 2.5% using a 95% confidence level.
As the House weighs whether to approve new aid for Ukraine, 48% of respondents said they support new funding as long as it is conditioned on progress toward a diplomatic solution to the war. Others disagreed over whether the U.S. should halt all aid (30%) or continue funding without specific conditions (22%).
This question revealed a sharp partisan divide on whether to continue Ukraine funding in any form. Fully 46% of Republicans favor an immediate shutoff of the aid spigot, as compared to 17% of Democrats.
Meanwhile, 54% of Democrats and 40% of Republicans favored conditioning aid on diplomatic talks. “The American people seem more clear-eyed than Washington in recognizing the urgent need to pair aid for Ukraine’s defense with a diplomatic offensive,” Beebe argued.
The poll also showed that most Americans expect the war to drag into at least 2025. Only 16% of respondents thought the war would end this year. Others were evenly split on how long the war might last, with 46% expecting it to be resolved before the end of 2026 and 38% saying there is no end in sight.
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Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
Diplomacy Watch: Domestic politics continue to challenge Ukraine’s allies
As Russia’s war in Ukraine approaches its two-year anniversary, President Vladimir Putin has reportedly had his suggestions of ceasefire rejected by Washington.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Russia had approached the United States through intermediaries in late 2023 and early 2024 to propose freezing the conflict along the current lines. Washington reportedly turned down the suggestion, saying that they were not willing to engage in talks if Ukraine was not a participant.
“Putin was proposing to freeze the conflict at the current lines and was unwilling to cede any of the Ukrainian territory controlled by Russia, but the signal offered what some in the Kremlin saw as the best path towards a peace of some kind,” according to Reuters, which cites three anonymous Russian sources.
The plan, one of the sources told Reuters, was for national security adviser Jake Sullivan to meet with the Russian counterpart to hash out the details. But after meeting with other senior officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and CIA Director Bill Burns, “Sullivan told Ushakov that Washington was willing to talk about other aspects of the relationship but would not speak about a ceasefire without Ukraine, said one of the Russian sources,” according to Reuters.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly said that there is no point in negotiating with Putin and has maintained that he will never accept Russia controlling any part of Ukraine.
"Everything fell apart with the Americans," one of the sources told Reuters, saying that Washington did not want to pressure Kyiv into reaching an agreement. The sources also added that given the U.S. reaction to a potential ceasefire, Moscow saw little reason to reach out again.
Both Washington and Moscow have denied the reporting.
The Kremlin “never made any kind of proposal to us nor have we seen any signs that Putin is sincerely interested in ending the war,” an unnamed U.S. official told Politico’s NatSec daily on Tuesday. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that the report that Russia had made such an offer was “not true.”
Despite Washington’s insistence, this is the latest piece of evidence that Putin may have pursued a ceasefire in recent months. The New York Times reported late in 2023 that the Russian president had quietly been sending signals to the West that he was prepared to freeze the conflict.
“The signals come through multiple channels, including via foreign governments with ties to both the United States and Russia,” the Times reported. “Unofficial Russian emissaries have spoken to interlocutors about the contours of a potential deal that Mr. Putin would accept, American officials and others said.” The report also revealed that Putin had been interested in a potential ceasefire as far back as the fall of 2022, following Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive.
As journalist Leonid Ragozin explained in al-Jazeera earlier this week, this may be an effort to pressure the West to negotiate on Putin’s terms.
“What Putin is trying to achieve is making the West face its moral dilemma which boils down to the cost and benefit of resisting his aggression,” Ragozin writes. “The continued support for Ukraine’s military effort will cost thousands of lives and devastate Ukraine even further, while success is hardly guaranteed.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— The prospects for the next tranche of U.S. aid for Ukraine saw the first glimmer of optimism in months, but the chances that it becomes law remain murky. After a tumultuous negotiation, the Senate passed the $95 billion national security supplemental, which includes approximately $60 billion for Kyiv. The legislation next goes to the House of Representatives, which has been more skeptical of sending aid, and where leadership so far appears unwilling to bring the bill to the floor. Supporters believe that if the House voted on the package, it would pass overwhelmingly, and some have floated pursuing legislative maneuvers that would allow them to supersede leadership and bring the legislation to a vote.
— Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Paul Whelan, the U.S. Marine currently detained in Russia, on Monday, according toCNN. Blinken provided few details on his conversation with Whelan, who has been detained since December 2018. When asked about a possible prisoner exchange involving Whelan or detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, the Kremlin said that such matters could only be resolved, “in silence.”
— French President Emmanuel Macron announced in a statement that he will sign a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine on Friday. Macron did not specify what exactly the agreement will look like, but he said earlier this year that he was expecting to model an agreement after the 10-year deal that the United Kingdom and Ukraine signed earlier this year.
— The Netherlands will join a coalition of countries that is providing Ukraine with advanced drones, according toReuters.
“Ukraine intends to manufacture thousands of long-range drones capable of deep strikes into Russia in 2024 and already has up to 10 companies working on production, Ukraine's digital minister, Mykhailo Fedorov, said in a Reuters interview on Monday.”
U.S. State Department news:
In a Wednesday press briefing, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller reiterated the importance of Congress passing the supplemental, stressing that it was in the national security interest of Ukraine, Europe, and the United States.
“A lot of that money is spent here, helps develop the manufacturing base here in the United States. And so we will continue to push for the passage of the supplemental bill, and ultimately we think – as the President said, the world is watching,” Miller said. “And certainly I’m sure that when we are in Munich we will hear directly from foreign leaders that they are watching very much what Congress does. We know the Ukrainian people are watching. And as the President said, history is watching as well.”