The Assumptions of Koh’s Transnational Legal Process as Counter-Strategy

(Published in Opinio Juris, Feb. 26, 2018).

Harold-Presenting.1.webThis post will bring to a close the formal part of the virtual symposium on Harold Koh’s recent article The Trump Administration and International Law. As moderator, I would like to begin by thanking all those who contributed (including a couple of announced contributors who we unfortunately lost along the way to illness and crises). I think that each of the essays has raised interesting and important questions and issues. In closing, I would like to try to explore the common themes raised in the essays, and suggest that they all relate to a potential paradox in transnational legal process, and a weakness in its utility as a counter-strategy, that Harold may want to address as he expands the article into a book.


To briefly re-cap the symposium, Harold’s article argued that actors inside and outside of the U.S. government are, and should be, leveraging the features of transnational legal process as a counterstrategy aimed at preventing the Trump Administration from disrupting international law and postwar Kantian global order. There was general agreement with Harold’s analysis and criticism of the Trump Administration, and the threats it poses for international law and its institutions. And all applauded the effort to find ways to meet those threats. But each offered insights and critiques regarding different aspects of Harold’s account of transnational legal process, and its utility as a counter-strategy against threat Trump poses.

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Japan’s Definition of Armed Attack and ‘Bloody Nose’ Strikes Against North Korea

(published in Just Security, Feb. 1, 2018)

Shinzō_Abe_and_Donald_Trump_in_Palm_Beach_(2)There has been an important discussion in the last couple of weeks over the legality of possible limited strikes, part of a so-called “bloody nose” strategy, by the United States against North Korea. The main issue of that debate has been quite conclusively determined: such a strike would not be legal. And as Victor Cha, the White House’s pick, until recently, to be ambassador to South Korea, laid out in an op-ed this week, it would be deeply misguided as a policy choice. There remains more to be said, however, about a couple of interesting and potentially important questions regarding Japan’s position in relation to such strikes. One, which has been raised but not fully answered in the discussion, relates to whether Japan has already somehow consented in advance to U.S. action in collective self-defense of Japan. The second, which has not been explicitly addressed at all, is whether Japan defines “armed attack” for purposes of triggering the right of self-defense differently than does the U.S.

To recap briefly, the debate was set off by an essay in Lawfare by two West Point professors, Army Lt. Col. Shane Reeves and Army Capt. Robert Lawless, arguing that limited strikes on North Korea would be lawful. Virtually all elements of their argument were quite persuasively demolished by Kevin Jon Heller in Opinio Juris, and Michael Schmitt and Ryan Goodman here in Just Security.

A central premise of one strand of the Reeves/Lawless argument was that the test-firing of a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) into the territory of Japan could constitute an armed attack, triggering an American right to use force as an exercise of collective self-defense. They were dismissive of the position of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that collective self-defense requires a request from and consent of the country under attack, suggesting that the 1960 Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the U.S. and Japan (the “U.S.-Japan Security Treaty”), “may provide a basis” for American action. They went on to note that, in their view, Japan was in any event very unlikely to oppose American strikes in defense of Japan.

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Canada’s Support of U.S. Strikes on Syria Harms International Law

(Published in the HuffPost, May 1, 2017.)


In the immediate aftermath of the American missile strike against Syria, Prime Minister Trudeau announced that Canada “fully supports” the U.S. in its “limited and focused action to degrade” the Syrian government’s chemical weapons capability. Many Canadians appear to think that this was the right call, given the heinous nature of the chemical weapons attacks in Syria. But the U.S. missile strikes violated international law, and weakened the international rule of law. Canada’s swift and strong support for those unlawful acts will in turn do further harm to the international law system. That is not at all consistent with Canada’s traditional support for international law. It was not necessary, and the Canadian government should re-consider such support for future American unilateral attacks.

Let us begin with the question of legality. Article 2(4) of The United Nations Charter and customary international law provide for a strict prohibition against the use of force against other states. There are only two exceptions to that prohibition, permitting states to use force either in individual or collective self-defense (Article 51), or when authorized to do so by the UN Security Council for purposes of maintaining or restoring international peace and security (Articles 39 and 42).

There is an amazingly strong consensus among international law scholars, even within the United States, that the U.S. missile strikes constituted a clear violation of the prohibition against the use of force. These views have been articulated in such renowned national security and international law blog sites as Lawfare, Just Security, EJILTalk!, and Opinio Juris. Such a consensus is remarkable given how divided opinion has been on the invasion of Iraq, drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan, or even the American strikes within Syria against ISIS. There is so little disagreement on these recent strikes, however, because there is virtually no plausible argument that they satisfy either of the established exceptions.

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Speaking with Yanai in The Hague

Speaking in February on a panel with Judge Shunji Yanai, on the constitutional and international law issues arising from the Japanese government’s “reinterpretation” of the war-renouncing Article 9 of the Constitution. Shunji Yanai, who is a judge on the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea, was the chairman of the Advisory Panel on the Reconstruction for the Legal Basis of Security, which made recommendations to the Japanese government on how and why to “reinterpret” Article 9. The one-day conference was held at the Asser Institute in The Hague, with Judge Hisashi Owada of the International Court of Justice giving the keynote address.