The great powers and the rule of law

23 July 2016/ Tommy Koh / Straitstimes /

Professor Graham Allison is a brilliant scholar. He is currently the director of the Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Harvard University. He had served previously as the dean of the Kennedy School. On July 16, this newspaper published an article by him entitled “Heresy to say great powers don’t bow to international courts?

He concluded that: “It is hard to disagree with the realists’ claims that the Law of the Sea tribunals, the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court are only for small powers. Great powers do not recognise the jurisdiction of these courts – except in particular cases where they believe it is in their interest to do so.”

Prof Allison also quoted, with approval, Thucydides’ summary of the Melian mantra – “The strong do as they will; the weak suffer as they must…”

NO LONGER THUCYDIDES’ WORLD

Thucydides lived in Athens in the 5th century BC or about 2,500 years ago. He wrote masterfully about the Peloponnesian War (431-404BC) between Athens and Sparta. His conclusion that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspires in Sparta that made war inevitable” is often referred to as the Thucydides Trap.

The first point I want to make in response to Prof Allison is to point out that we do not live in Thucydides’ world. We live in the 21st century. The world in which we live is fundamentally different from the world of the ancient Greeks.

My second point is to refer to an event which has brought about revolutionary changes in the world. I refer to the Peace of Westphalia which took place in 1648. The peace treaties concluded in Westphalia brought an end to 30 years of war in the Holy Roman Empire and 80 years of war between Spain and the Dutch Republic.

NO LONGER THUCYDIDES’ WORLD

Thucydides lived in Athens in the 5th century BC or about 2,500 years ago. He wrote masterfully about the Peloponnesian War (431-404BC) between Athens and Sparta. His conclusion that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this inspires in Sparta that made war inevitable” is often referred to as the Thucydides Trap.

The first point I want to make in response to Prof Allison is to point out that we do not live in Thucydides’ world. We live in the 21st century. The world in which we live is fundamentally different from the world of the ancient Greeks.

My second point is to refer to an event which has brought about revolutionary changes in the world. I refer to the Peace of Westphalia which took place in 1648. The peace treaties concluded in Westphalia brought an end to 30 years of war in the Holy Roman Empire and 80 years of war between Spain and the Dutch Republic. Read more…

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