The International Criminal Court has charged Russian President Vladimir Putin with war crimes and issued an arrest warrant. U.S. President Joe Biden endorsed the action, saying that Putin has “clearly committed war crimes.” The State Department called on Russian officials to be held responsible for atrocities committed by Moscow’s forces. Observed Secretary of State Antony Blinken: “Anyone who is a party to the court and has obligations should fulfill their obligations.”
There is only one problem. Biden went on to admit that “the question is — [the ICC is] not recognized internationally by us either.” Indeed, Washington is impeding investigations of Russian battlefield behavior. As the New York Times reported: “The Pentagon is blocking the Biden administration from sharing evidence with the International Criminal Court in The Hague gathered by American intelligence agencies about Russian atrocities in Ukraine.”
Why would they do that? “American military leaders oppose helping the court investigate Russians because they fear setting a precedent that might help pave the way for it to prosecute Americans,” the Times explained.
Yet this is mild compared to the Trump administration’s reaction to the ICC. Led by then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a likely Republican presidential candidate, the previous administration imposed sanctions on two ICC prosecutors along with their families, for daring to “investigate US personnel.” Washington treated them like Chinese, Iranian, and Russian violators of human rights.
The West’s Artificial Lack of War Crimes
Apparently trying to square the circle of backing human rights trials while exempting the U.S., the State Department recently proposed the creation of “an internationalized national court” backed by allies to try Russians. Conveniently, such a court would conduct no embarrassing investigations of Americans. According to the State Department’s Beth Van Schaack, ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice, “We are committed to working with Ukraine, and peace-loving countries around the world, to stand up, staff and resource such a tribunal in a way that will achieve comprehensive accountability for the international crimes being committed in Ukraine.” But nowhere else, shielding Washington and its allies from liability.
Indeed, Van Schaack admitted that the administration feared setting a precedent that could be used to target Americans.
The Biden administration has good reason to worry about Washington’s potential liability. U.S. forces are active around the world, droning, bombing, invading, and occupying other nations with minimal accountability. Washington’s promiscuous use of military force has resulted in hundreds of thousands of needless civilian deaths, most dramatically in Iraq and Yemen. Neither of these wars can be justified, with the first based on a convenient lie and the second derived from a dictator’s whim.
Economic sanctions, too, have killed. They are currently being used to impoverish Syria, whose people are in desperate need. Three decades ago, UN ambassador Madeleine Albright dismissed concerns over sanctions causing mass death of children with the chilling statement that, “We think the price is worth it.”
Europe, often complicit in American wars, is likely to go along with Washington’s proposal to sit in judgment over Russia’s aggression while refusing to subject itself to similar international oversight. The Global South, however, might not be so compliant. African governments have previously noted that international tribunals such as the ICC rarely addressed crimes committed anywhere but Africa. Moreover, after a long history of self-serving wars and sanctimonious moral posturing, the U.S. and its allies have left developing states unwilling to join the West’s campaign against Russia.
Rules Should Be Rules
The Biden administration should offer to make American officials liable for trial if Moscow does the same. Let Washington’s leaders also be subject to review. There should be no special treatment for those who piously claim moral leadership of the world.
To assuage concerns over possible unfair prosecution of U.S. service personnel, this process could be applied only to senior decision-makers, military and political. Let both Vladimir Putin and George W. Bush stand in the dock over their respective invasions of Ukraine and Iraq. Let Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and, yes, Joe Biden be judged for their aid to Saudi Arabia as it devastated Yemen. Let congressional leaders face the world for using privation and starvation as political tools, ravaging the peoples of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and elsewhere.
If the West won’t live by the same standards that it seeks to impose on Russia, what moral authority does it possess to sit in judgment of others? This isn’t whataboutism that downplays Moscow’s criminal responsibility — Russian officials should be held accountable for war crimes. But so should leaders of other nations, whether Ukraine or America, if appropriate. As the Global South has recognized, Western nations routinely commit murder and mayhem and then move on, acting like nothing happened while leaving humanitarian disasters behind. These governments should be judged accordingly.
The one constant of the much-remarked rules-based order is that its creators routinely exempt themselves from its requirements. This behavior continues with Washington’s proposal for a special tribunal for Russia. If the U.S. is going to pose as the world’s moral guardian, it should accept what that actually means.
Author Expertise and Experience
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire. Bandow is also a 19FortyFive Contributing Editor.