By Alex Callinicos
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2722

International law is made for capitalism

This article is over 3 years, 6 months old
Issue 2722
Donald Trump can ignore international law because of the power of the US. Boris Johnson wishes he could do the same
Donald Trump can ignore international law because of the power of the US. Boris Johnson wishes he could do the same (Pic: The White House, Chatham House)

There is a firestorm over the government’s Internal Market Bill. At the heart of it is the admission by the Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, that it would break international law.

This brought down on his and Boris Johnson’s heads the fury of several ex-Tory leaders and assorted grandees.

This was amplified on the other side of the channel. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, tweeted a Latin tag meaning that treaties must be respected. The Commission is threatening to sue the British government over the bill.

The anger is real enough. The idea of international law has been an important part of mainstream liberal ideology since the end of the Cold War in 1989-91.

Kim Darroch was pushed out as British ambassador to the United States after he was exposed as criticising Donald Trump.

He told the Financial Times newspaper that at the start of his career, he “entered a world of British post-empire diplomacy founded on the twin pillars of the UK’s membership of the EU and its longstanding ‘special relationship’ with the US. Bodies such as the World Trade Organisation, World Bank and International Monetary Fund were revered parts of the international order.”


But long before the Brexit referendum or Trump’s election, the US and Britain showed themselves willing to ignore international law if it suited them.

The most important example is provided by their invasion of Iraq in March 2003, a war of aggression justified by lies. This hasn’t stopped one of the main architects of this war, Tony Blair, from having the effrontery to denounce Johnson for undermining “trust” in Britain.

But international law itself needs to be made the object of critical scrutiny. It isn’t just an ideological fantasy or lies.

International law helps to regulate the relations between capitalist states. It plays an increasingly important role in providing a framework for the activities of transnational corporation.

The US is powerful enough to get away with ignoring international law. Johnson’s problem is that Britain isn’t

But the basic problem that the great philosopher Thomas Hobbes pointed out in his masterpiece Leviathan in 1651 remains. Domestic laws have behind them the organised violence of the state that makes them.

Yet there is no international government with the power to coerce nation states. So how much a state respects international law depends on its interests and power.

More than 20 years ago commentators started to call the US a “rogue superpower” because of its willingness to ignore international law when it suited it.

Trump is now applying sanctions to officials of the International Criminal Court for investigating US war crimes.

But the US has always refused to participate in the court and have its soldiers and spies held accountable under international law. It’s powerful enough to get away with this. Johnson’s problem is that Britain isn’t.

The European Union (EU) makes great play of its reverence for international law. This partly reflects the fact that its greatest success has been as a major trading power.


Not only has it constructed a complex regime to regulate its single market—the biggest in the world—but other states have adopted its regulations to get access to this market.

Whether Britain continues to comply with this regime is the real core of the struggle between London and Brussels.

Also important is the influence on the construction and development of the EU of the version of neoliberalism known as ordoliberalism.

Ordoliberals argue that markets need to be constructed through rules.

They also tend to see the EU as a good source of these rules just because it’s a cartel of states. Nation states by contrast are more constrained by their people’s wishes.

This helps to explain the rigid way the EU dealt with the eurozone crisis. But this doesn’t mean that it always respects its own rules or international law. The terrible plight of the refugees on the Greek island of Lesvos (see page 20) reflects the EU’s flouting of both.

Johnson’s dreadful government must be resisted. But international law isn’t the best terrain to fight it on.

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