Why Nations (Including the U.S. and Iran) Comply With Their Agreements

Paul Pillar

Much of the latest discourse about a prospective nuclear agreement with Iran—with commentary on whether future U.S. presidents could renege on an agreement, on whether an agreement would be binding or non-binding, and so forth—reflects misconceptions on why nations observe international agreements to which they are party, and misconceptions even of the very nature of international agreements.

It may help to understand this by contrasting observance of international agreements with observance of domestic laws. I may believe a particular law enacted by the jurisdiction in which I live to be bad, and I may see no way in which compliance with this particular law, by myself or even by others, protects or advances my interests—except that I nevertheless am apt to comply because otherwise the sovereign authority involved, in the form of police, prosecutors, and courts, may punish me. At the international level there is no sovereign authority to exact such punishment. What we call international law is basically a set of understandings about international conduct that have come to be seen in general as in the interests of the society of nations. What may motivate a state to comply with international law is not enforcement by some sovereign authority but rather the prospect of reciprocal action by other states—action that will hurt the interests of the first state either because the tenet of international law at stake breaks down or because other states make other harmful responses. In other words, compliance comes from self-interest, defined more broadly than merely avoiding the sort of punishment I would receive for violating a domestic law.

An international agreement reached by two or some small number of states is a codification of some understanding about each state's behavior that is in those states' mutual interest to observe. Such understandings do not need to be codified, and many never are. The international system operates more smoothly and peacefully than it otherwise would because states observe countless unwritten understandings about behavior that would be of interest or concern to other states—regarding, for example, where military forces will be deployed. Codification nevertheless offers important advantages (regardless of what particular form—treaty, political agreement, etc.—the codification takes). It provides greater clarity and precision than is possible with unwritten understandings, and this is especially useful when getting into matters more technical than, say, an understanding that the naval forces of country X always will stay north of latitude Y. Codification makes it easier for states not just to observe current standards of behavior but to move to new patterns of behavior; without a written agreement, such a transition is likely to run aground on concerns about who moves first and uncertainty about exactly where the new limits of acceptable behavior will be drawn. A written agreement also sends clearer and stronger messages to domestic constituencies and provides a framework for any complementary changes in domestic law.

Just as with unwritten understandings, compliance with a written agreement ultimately depends on each of the states involved seeing compliance to be in their own interests. The chief interests concerned in an agreement by two or a handful of states are apt to be more parochial than the interests applicable to the whole community of nations that are involved in most international law. The dependence on continued consistency with self-interest is reflected in the very common use in such agreements of sunset clauses—a recognition that how states perceive some of their interests and the best way of serving them might change with time and changing circumstances. A further reflection of the same thing is another very common provision in international agreements: a clause explicitly providing for withdrawal from the agreement, usually with some advance notification required.

Consider one of the issues raised by that ill-conceived senatorial letter to the Iranians that was aimed at screwing up the negotiations by feeding doubts about U.S. credibility. This was the issue of whether a future U.S. president could or would reverse commitments that the current U.S. president made to Iran. Of course a future president could do that, but as others have observed, this sort of reversal of international agreements made by U.S. presidents has been very rare. It is rare not because of fear of punishment by a sovereign authority, and not even because of some warm fuzzy feeling about international law inside the tummies of presidents. It is rare because it has not been in U.S. interests to do such reversals. The interests involved include the interest the United States shares with others in having some predictability and reliability in international diplomacy—an interest somewhat similar to why stare decisis is an important principle in jurisprudence. The interests also include the more specific benefits that the agreement in question brought the United States in the first place. In the case of the Iran nuclear program, it is hard to conceive of any defensible reason that, if Iran had complied for at least a couple of years with an agreement that kept that program tightly restricted, heavily monitored, and entirely peaceful, any U.S. president would say it was in the U.S. interest to destroy that agreement.

As for the reasons Iran would comply with such an agreement, it again is all a matter of self-interest. The talk about differences between binding and non-binding forms of agreement are mostly beside the point. Iranian leaders will sign an agreement and will comply with it if they see the future that it prescribes—of a tightly restricted, heavily monitored, and entirely peaceful nuclear program coupled with relief from economic sanctions and international ostracism—as being more in their interests than the alternative. The fact that they have entered these negotiations and already observed for over a year the restrictions placed on them in the preliminary agreement of November 2013 indicates that they do see their interests that way.

Understanding these principles about international agreements clarifies why it is a fundamental mistake to try to squeeze and punish Iran still more in the hope that it would capitulate on outstanding issues about the nuclear program—and a mistake not only because there is no prospect that such capitulation would ever happen. Even if it were to happen, the result would be an agreement that Iran would have meager incentive to observe for long. The future of such an agreement would be bleak. U.S. interests will be served by an agreement that protects U.S. nonproliferation objectives and that Iran, as well as the United States, wants to uphold.                                           

TopicsIran RegionsMiddle East

China and America's Coming Battle for Southeast Asia

The Buzz

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has declared its intent to establish a fully integrated Community that extends across the economic, political, security and social realms by the end of 2015. Such a regional arrangement would, for the first time, provide the countries of Southeast Asia with a single regime of intergovernmental collaboration that can be used to draft, implement and refine joint policies and courses of action. That would greatly facilitate future proactive planning and aid the development of comprehensive and codified forms of supranational cooperation and governance.

The main aim of those changes is to better situate ASEAN to achieve its core goal of “centrality”—a term coined to emphasize how internal cohesion can be leveraged to both advance economic progress and manage the Association’s relations with external partners.

One external variable that’s likely to bear heavily on the trajectory of the proposed ASEAN community is the influence of an increasingly assertive People’s Republic of China (PRC). The country is now the pre-eminent power in the Asia-Pacific and its ties with the Association have grown substantially over the past 25 years. Both factors imbue Beijing with a real potential to sway the future course of ASEAN integration.

(Recommended: Red Alert: The South China Sea's New Danger Zone)

In economic terms, the PRC’s overall impact is likely to be largely positive. Since the signing of a strategic partnership agreement in 2003, bilateral fiscal and commerce relations have boomed and over the past decade the two-way flow of goods and services has increased more than six-fold—topping $400 million in 2013. The growth and prosperity of ASEAN and China will be highly contingent on further expanding that mutually beneficial economic partnership, something the two sides no doubt fully appreciate.

In the political and security realm, there’s far less certainty in ASEAN perceptions of China. This is especially true with regards to the PRC’s strategic intentions in Southeast Asia. Concerns that anti-access/area denial platforms may be used to restrict access in the South China Sea or to institute a regional order that’s determined in Beijing could encourage ASEAN’s littoral states to look to Washington—rather than the Association itself—as the ultimate guarantor of national and wider defense in this part of the world.

(Recommended: Most Chinese Say Their Military Can Crush America in Battle)

Beijing’s soft power is also relevant for ASEAN’s social and cultural integration, although the extent of that influence is difficult to determine. On the one hand, China’s official emphasis on peaceful development and shared Asian values would seem to fit well with ASEAN’s own commitment to stability and unity. On the other, the PRC’s effort to position itself diplomatically as a non-threatening power has fallen foul of a central administration that in many ways lacks self-awareness—something that’s been especially true with regards to its uncompromising stance on territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

To be successful, the ASEAN Community will also require considerable backing from the U.S.—the other major power in Southeast Asia.

Washington has three main reasons to support the development of an ASEAN Community. First, economic integration will help to enhance growing and significant bilateral trade and investment ties. Second, promoting a more multilateral approach to security cooperation would directly contribute to burden sharing. Third, a fully integrated ASEAN would help to balance China and India, assure access to critical shipping lanes in the South China Sea and bring greater symmetry to important East Asian forums that involve American representatives.

(Recommended: How Powerful Is America's Military Really?)

There are several ways that the U.S. could help to support the institutional development of the ASEAN Community. Economically, it could deepen regional integration and buttress trade liberalization by expanding the Association’s membership in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). On the political and security front, the U.S. could provide input to the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting’s current deliberations by suggesting joint endeavours that support military interoperability. Finally, American soft power could be employed to promote programs that are designed to fully engage civil society across ASEAN.

Although the PRC and U.S. are both in a position to influence the process of ASEAN integration, ultimately it will be up to the Association itself to cement internal cohesion, achieve centrality and thereby remain a relevant player in the emerging Asian order. In this respect uncertainties remain, as in many ways the bloc’s member states continue to follow the age-old principles of unanimity, non-interference and informality that have traditionally shaped the manner by which they act and conducts business.

Now in its sixties, ASEAN sits at a critical juncture that could see it either occupying the driver’s seat in future regional cooperation or being marginalised as a relic of the past.

Peter Chalk is an adjunct senior political scientist with the RAND Corporation in the US. This post complements his ASPI Strategy paper published today called ASEAN ascending: achieving “centrality” in the emerging Asian order. This article originally appeared on ASPI’s The Strategist, here.

Image: Flickr/#PACOM


International Organizations and Congressional Recalcitrance

Paul Pillar

Reminders of Congressional resistance getting in the way of the execution of U.S. foreign policy and the effective pursuit of U.S. interests abroad are not hard to find. The most recent reminder is not nearly as blatant and direct as that senatorial letter telling Iranians not to trust any commitments that the United States makes. Instead the reminder comes from an inappropriate statement by the Obama administration: its public criticism of the United Kingdom for deciding to become a member of a new Chinese-initiated international organization, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. That criticism is misplaced; Britain has legitimate and understandable reasons to take this step, and major roots of what is going on here regarding China are traceable not to London but to Washington, and more specifically to Capitol Hill.

The new bank is one of several international financial institutions that China recently has taken the lead in creating and that appear as alternatives to existing institutions with similar missions whose governance has been dominated by the United States, Europe, and Japan. Those existing institutions include not only the Asian Development Bank but also the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. It is impossible to say what moves China would or would not have made if the governance of those existing institutions had been different, but clearly at least a large part of the motivation for what Beijing is doing is the outdated nature of those governance arrangements, which have not kept pace with change in the global economy. The economic rise of China itself is the most conspicuous part, but not the only part, of that change.

The structure of the International Monetary Fund has been perhaps the leading issue in recent years. Negotiations reached agreement five years ago on a package of reforms of the IMF that coupled changes in members' monetary quotas and the Fund's lending authority with changes to members voting strength—the latter change in keeping with the principle adopted at the birth of the IMF to have voting weight reflect economic weight. The Obama administration played a leading role in conducting those negotiations and in protecting U.S. interests in the process.

Since then the administration has been pushing for Congressional approval of the package but has been unable to get approval from the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. The situation has gone on long enough that now the only thing standing between an outdated IMF and a reformed one is the U.S. Congress. Would-be reformers in other countries are now talking about possible ways to work around the U.S. resistance.

It is hard to find any good reasons for that resistance, given that the reform package does not harm the U.S. interests at stake. The United States would neither pay a larger share of the institution's budget nor lose its veto-capable voting strength (the increased voting share for rising powers like China would be coming mostly at the expense of the Europeans). The resistance in Congress seems to be a matter of old ideologically-laden habits—of disliking international organizations in general, of holding strange concepts of sovereignty when it comes to relations with international organizations, and of believing that the only way to deal with countries we dislike is to reject any of their proposals and not to do any business with them.

Such ill-founded recalcitrance harms U.S. interests in several ways. One concerns what role an increasingly powerful China is to play in the international system. It is in the interest of the United States for that role to be incorporated as much as possible, peacefully and without resentment, in existing structures rather than for a frustrated China to reject those structures or to compete with them.

A second interest concerns U.S. relations with other developing countries. It is not just the Chinese but also Brazilians, Indians, and others who are dissatisfied with outdated governance arrangements.

Finally, a failure to accept updating of institutions such as the IMF loses sight of the significant advantages that they provide the United States as long as the institutions themselves remain relevant. John Ikenberry has explained how the United States, by submitting to rules and principles of international organizations that it took the lead in creating at the end of World War II, has been able to extend its disproportionate global influence longer than other measures of national power would have enabled it to do. That big advantage may be lost altogether if the United States is unwilling to permit the institutions to keep pace with change in the rest of the world.                         

TopicsChina IMF RegionsEast Asia

ISIS' Role Model: Pol Pot's 'Genocidal' Khmer Rouge

The Buzz

In an excellent exploratory piece by Graeme Woods in The Atlantic this month, he notes in passing the similarities between ISIS and the Khmer Rouge. It’s a worthy comparison – further highlighted by ISIS’ destruction of antiquities as reported last week – and something that merits a deeper look.

In the 1960s and 70s, communism was arguably the Western world’s equivalent to today’s global battle with Islamic jihad. Its scourge and spread in the midst of the Cold War kept U.S. and European policymakers awake at night. One of the groups that emerged under the broad guise of communism was the Khmer Rouge.

A regressive and genocidal regime, the Khmer Rouge seized upon the anger of Cambodians following a brutal U.S. bombing campaign. That campaign, from 1965 to 1973, flew 230,516 sorties and dropped 2,756,941 tons of ordnance on Cambodia (more than the Allies dropped during the entirety of World War Two). The bombing campaign, of which over 10 percent was on indiscriminate sites, was aimed at destroying mobile Viet Cong bases in eastern Cambodia. The environment of anger that the campaign fermented gave way to a coup d’état in 1970, followed by the Khmer Rouge seizing power in April 1975.

As a 2006 paper by Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan noted, “despite many differences, a critical similarity links the war in Iraq with the Cambodian conflict: an increasing reliance on air power to battle a heterogeneous volatile insurgency.” Just as in the case of Cambodia, that heterogeneity in Syria and Iraq has given way to a calcified homogenous and territorially-bound group.

In one of their first acts, the Khmer Rouge emptied Phnom Penh and forced the capital’s residents on a long and deadly march into the countryside to work rice fields. Torture and execution were central to their brutal grip on power. As Kiernan explains, Cambodians “quickly learnt that any display of knowledge or skill, if ‘contaminated’ by foreign influence, was folly.”

At the forefront of the Khmer Rouge’s ranks were thousands of indoctrinated youth who were to usher in “Year Zero.” At the base of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal regime was a mix of ideological agrarian socialist utopianism and a desire to reinstate the glory years of the 12th Century Khmer Empire. Pol Pot, a self-proclaimed leader, found an opportune moment in the Cold War, playing the great powers and capitalizing on public discontent, to build his ranks then seize and maintain power. His genocidal reign was short but destructive.

There’s much similarity to be gleaned from Pol Pot’s genocidal regime that parallels with ISIS today.

Aside from obvious similarities that will be noted from the above, both groups subscribe to the destruction of a collective memory in place of a favored revisionist other. In effect, both are anti-progress. Reminiscent of the Khmer Rouge’s “Year Zero” concept is the recent footage of ISIS destroying ancient artefacts in Mosul and Nimrud (despite having profited greatly from the smuggling of other antiquities).

Anti-progress movements (whether religious or ideologically driven) are nothing revolutionary. The very nature of progress gives birth to counter-movements – the Luddites, for example, destroyed machinery during the 19th Century Industrial Revolution. These groups thrive in periods of change, such as the incredible social and technological upheaval that has marked this new century.

Anyone who has walked Cambodia’s Killing Fields or S-21 prison should need little reminding of the urgency for action against genocidal groups. In the three years, eight months and 20 days of the Khmer Rouge’s power, an estimated 1.7 million people died. That number, among the most conservative of estimates, equated to 21 percent of the population. The long tail of that civil war lasted until 1998. Yet, unlike Pol Pot’s Cambodia, which financially ran itself into the ground, ISIS has riches and resources far beyond.

Elliot Brennan is a Non-Resident Research Fellow with the Institute for Security and Development Policy's Asia Program in Sweden. This piece originally appeared on the Lowy Interpreter.


Sorry, America: India Won't Go to War with China

The Buzz

In his latest contribution to our debate, Shashank Joshi raised some excellent points against my skeptical view of the emerging India-U.S. strategic partnership. But I'm still unpersuaded.

To explain why, it helps to step back and clarify the question we are debating here. It is not whether strategic relations between Delhi and Washington have grown closer in recent years, because clearly they have. It is what these closer relations mean for the geo-political contest between America and China.

India's position is clearly important to this contest. Many Americans, and many of America's friends in Asia, have long believed that India's growing wealth and power will be vital in helping America counterbalance China's growing strategic weight, and resist China's challenge to U.S. regional leadership.

Indeed, the belief many people have that India will play this role is central to their confidence that America can and will preserve the status quo against China's challenge. It is therefore important to decide whether the progress we have seen in U.S.-India relations justifies that confidence.

I have argued that in a geopolitical contest of the kind we see unfolding between America and China today, India's relations with America will only make a difference to the extent that India is seen to be willing to support America in a U.S.-China conflict.

That is because who wins the contest between the American and Chinese visions of Asia's future order ultimately depends on which is seen to be more willing to fight for their vision. Each power wants the other to believe that it will go to war to impose its vision, and hopes that, if all else fails, this will persuade the other to back off.

This way of describing what is happening will surprise those who think that this kind of old-fashioned power politics disappeared after 1989, but it seems to me the only way to understand events in Asia today. In fact, power politics never went away; people simply started to think that America was the only power that was indulging in it. It has been taken for granted that America will fight to support its vision of regional order, but that no one would be willing to oppose them. Now China is proving that false. We can no longer assume that China isn’t any more determined to change the current order than America is to preserve it.

That is why India's role in this contest depends on how far it appears willing and able to materially support the U.S. in a conflict with China. In a game played for these stakes, nothing less counts for much.

As I read him, Shashank makes two key points about this question.

One is that, while India might not be willing to send combat forces to fight alongside America's in a coalition against China, it would provide other, non-combat support such as basing and refuelling facilities. That sounds like what the diplomats call “all support short of actual help.” It would do very little either practically or symbolically to bolster America's position against China, and certainly much less than American boosters of the relationship expect.

His second key point is that perhaps India would be willing to provide America with more substantial support if it saw really fundamental issues of regional order at stake in a U.S.-China conflict. He cites the example of the wide support given to America in opposing Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 by countries who saw basic questions of international order being tested there.

I agree with Shashank that very important issues for India would be at stake in a U.S.-China clash. But deciding to support America against China would be much harder than joining the coalition against Iraq. In every way China is both a much more valuable partner and a much more dangerous adversary. The key question for India, and for America's other friends in Asia, is what would have to be at stake for them to make that decision?

So it boils down to this: would India go to war with China to help America preserve the current order based on U.S. primacy? If the answer is no, then I don't think the new warmth between America and India matters much to the future of Asia, and America's position in Asia is rather weaker than most people assume.

Hugh White is a Professor of Strategic Studies at the Australian National University. This article originally appeared on the Lowy Interpreter.

Image: Wikimedia/U.S. Air Force photo by SMSGT THOMAS MENEGUIN

TopicsSecurity RegionsAsia