Hegemony: the Supreme Law of the Planet

In 1970, Professor Thomas Franck, with whom I studied international law at New York University School of Law, posed a question Who Killed Article 2(4)?

As a prominent part of the U.N. Charter, Article 2(4) declares: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” Enacted in 1945, the U.N. Charter fancied a future without threats and use of force. It imagined a world in which democracies, theocracies, monarchies, communist states, capitalist states, rich and poor states, weak and powerful states, all states will coexist with mutual respect.

In 1970, only 25 years after the proclamation of the U.N. Charter, the notion that Article 2(4) is dead was much more intriguing than who killed it. Professor Franck argued that the Article was dead since most states do not comply with its prohibitions. In law, a rule is “killed” after its compliance drops broadly – a phenomenon called desuetude.

In 2020, the murder of Article 2(4) is nearly undisputed. Instead, the law of hegemony is firmly planted as the supreme law of the planet, refuting the high-sounding notions of enlightenment, rationality, morality, religionism, and constitutionalism. Article2(4) is incompatible with the law of hegemony, which, with varying degrees of intensity and frequency, determines international relations. Now for years, the will of hegemons expressed through invasions, occupations, bombardments, drone attacks, and assassinations openly defies state sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of weak nations.

While weak nations prefer the enforcement of Article 2(4), as it promises to preserve their political independence and territorial integrity, hegemons have little interest in its enforcement, as it hinders their will to maintain domination and predation.

The law of hegemony is anything but crude; it carries numerous nuances. For example, hegemons rarely use brute force against each other. The notion of mutually assured destruction informs them to choose self-preservation over self-destruction. Consequently, the hegemons, if they need to, fight indirectly and launch battlefields in weak countries to test each other’s will and weapons. Many weak nations submit to the dictates of hegemons for self-protection. So, the hegemon builds an enclave of states to reinforce its supremacy.

The U.S. is the super hegemon with formidable economic and military power, much fiercer than Russia and China, the other two global hegemons. NATO is the U.S. enclave. As the most successful hegemon, the U.S. imposes various sorts of economic sanctions on disobedient states. States that cross the U.S. suffer a military attack. Most nations in Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America, submit, though reluctantly, to the U.S. hegemony.

Israel, too, with the U.S. sponsoring, acts as a regional hegemon in the Middle East. India aspires to be a regional hegemon, but China and Pakistan spoil India’s ambition.

The notion of victory is essential but not critical to the law of hegemony, the prime objective of which is domination through threats and use of force. Victory is elusive, but destruction is tangible. For example, regardless of victory, the devastation in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya demonstrates to the world that the U.S. can inflict massive damage on disobedient states. The argument that the U.S. did not win the war in Afghanistan fails to grasp the logic of hegemony.

Hegemony is addictogenic. During the U.S. elections, for example, the presidential candidates criticize American wars. However, the person who wins the presidency, only days after assuming the office, begins to understand that brute force, rather than international law, is the game of hegemony. Be it President Obama, a Harvard law graduate, or President Trump, a New York realtor, they, smacking their lips, savor hegemony through bombings and assassinations, reminding the world that the U.S. can be a ruthless hegemon.

Indifference to suffering is part of hegemony. In 1996, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright murmured on national TV that 500,000 Iraqi children dead from economic sanctions was “worth it.” President George W. Bush found humor in destruction: “When I take action, I’m not going to fire a $2m missile at a $10 empty tent and hit a camel in the butt. It’s going to be decisive.” Merrily, the U.S. presidents play golf while the people in the target states suffer death, injury, hunger, and homelessness.

What hegemony fails to understand is the inexhaustible human will to resist unremitting domination. Article 2(4) is dead, but not the human will. Ponder over history: Slavery failed. So did colonialism. The South African apartheid broke down. The Soviet Union imploded. The Palestinians, the Kashmiris, the Uighurs, the Iranians, the Cubans, the Venezuelans, and others are resolute in resisting hegemony. The price of resisting hegemony is unbearable, and the stories of cruelty generate heartbreaking literature. At the end of the night, a long night indeed, the morning sprouts from the counterpunch of resistance.

L. Ali Khan is the founder of Legal Scholar Academy and an Emeritus Professor of Law at the Washburn University School of Law in Topeka, Kansas. He welcomes comments at legal.scholar.academy@gmail.com.