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Tai-Heng Cheng gives Machiavellianism new meaning

Professor Tai-Heng Cheng has a new book: “When International Law Works: Realistic Idealism After 9/11 and the Global Recession”. It has already been prized as essential reading. I know I’m a fool for writing about it, but from what I hear I already fear.

Professor Julian Ku – who’s favorite sport is shark jumping – gave a “short bloggish description” of the book at Opinio Juris:

“We should follow formal, positive international law most of time, except when we shouldn’t. In those cases, we should find a way to do the right thing without undermining the overall international legal system, which has an inherent moral value in maintaining minimum world order.”

Tai-Heng Cheng agrees that this is “as clear a summary of my book as I’ve been able to muster in two sentences” and quotes from the conclusions of his book that:

“It rejects a blanket disapproval of international law and so will not resonate with trenchant exceptionalists or other scholars who radically challenge existing international power structures reflected in the international legal system. It also distances itself from an extreme liberal view that international law ought to constrain executive power even where acute national interests are at stake.”

This very short description already sounds like Machiavellianism to me, elevated to a new level of perversity. Let me illustrate this with a thought experiment:

Imagine that a cataclysmic catastrophe destroys much of the Earth. Most of the continents sink beneath the waters and a new continent arises from the ocean. You and a group of people from all over the world survive the catastrophe and colonize the new continent.

For a while, there is no state, there are no laws, no judges and no courts. People divide the land into farms and try to rebuild their lives as best as they can. We could call this the state of nature.

In this state of nature, a conflict arises between you and your neighbor. You notice that the fence between your farms is frequently moved, to your disadvantage, making your territory smaller and your neighbor’s larger. Mister S. Mart, hereinafter referred to as Smart, your neighbor, denies that he has anything to do with it, or, indeed, that it even happens. After a while, your stock starts dying out since there is not enough grass and hunger leads to the death of some of your children.

Then a new incident occurs. Mister Smart kills your twelve year old daughter and sells her organs; at least, this is what you are pretty firmly convinced is the case, especially since you have seen it yourself, together with several witnesses.

By chance, it was filmed from different angles. You also have similarly compelling evidence that he has sold her organs. You confront Smart with your argument, but he denies that he has committed a crime.

Confronted with your accusation, he replies using one or more of the following arguments:

  1. “You are a little bit short-sighted, your cameras are flawed and all your witnesses are unreliable junkies who cannot discern the difference between a human and a cow.”

  2. “Yes, indeed, I took her life, and I feel the pain very deeply, I feel compassion and I am empathic with you, but I could not do otherwise”. He then adds one of the following:

  • “She attacked me with a weapon and I had to defend myself.”
  • “I have suffered terribly unfortunate brain damage and lose control of myself sometimes.”
  • “I didn’t sell her organs, but used them for seminal scientific research and have discovered a cure for a sickness that will save the lives of billions of children in the future, children who would otherwise die before they were ten. It is the same sickness that your other two children have, and thus I could save them.”
  1. “The whole story is a mendacity intended only to destroy my magnificent self. You are just jealous of my freedom, my money, and my moral and intellectual superiority.”

Given the situation, and as the reasonable person you are, you try to remain tranquil. You propose to Smart that you take the matter to a competent, neutral and detached, third party with as few interests at stake as is possible; namely, to a judge or some kind of a court. This new, first-enacted judge should look at the evidence and decide who is right and what should be done. Her decision should be binding on both of you. If the judge decides that the fence should be moved to the old location, Smart should abide without reservations. The same should happen if the judge finds him guilty of the killing; he should accept the punishment and/or the payment of compensation.

It goes without saying that you pledge to resign yourself to any decision unfavorable to you.

Smart reacts with indignation at the accusation leveled against him and at the waste of his valuable time and says that he is not going to let a judge make the final decision, since he is good and certain that his argument is more than solid.

In short, he demands the freedom to be the sole arbiter in respect of his guilt.

This is precisely what U.S. does when ‘doing the right thing’: she claims to be the sole judge of her actions.

Imagine that U.S. invades an oil state. From the outside point of view this might look like armed robbery, meant to enrich U.S. and enlarge her power. U.S. in return argues that this is one of the cases when U.S. was ‘doing the right thing.’

When disqualifying her critics, U.S. gives herself a God-like position – claiming to be omniscient and knowing better than the critics. It is they – the critics – who are blinded and don’t see that it was the right thing to do.

This violates the most important rule of law: that nobody should be the judge in her own conflicts. It is because we all have limited cognitive powers, we are subjective in our conflicts. That is why we solve our conflicts through binding decisions of third persons (the judges), because they are in important ways more objective than we are.

So when professor Tai-Heng Cheng allows U.S. to violate IL when “acute national interests are at stake”, he just produces the ideal breading environment for Machiavellianism, he gives U.S. a method to cheat. Therefore here comes an alternative summary of the book, more concise with a better description:

“How to violate International Law and get away with it while fooling others to respect it. With a straight face.”


Geredigeerd door Pascale Esveld
Published inBeste BlogsFilosofieInternationaal RechtRechtbank voor Allen


  1. PiratePete PiratePete


    In jouw voorbeeld geef je een conflict situatie weer en de oplossing is een onafhankelijke persoon, te weten een rechter.
    Mijn probleem met dat is dat het een ongeorganiseerde staat is. Eentje zonder vorm van leiderschap.
    Wanneer een rechter zelfstandig uitspraken gaat doen, zonder beperkt te worden door regelgeving en wetten, dan gaat deze rechter ook direct op de leiders stoel zitten.
    En voila, de dictatuur is geboren!

    Trias Politica, ook Internationaal. . .
    NOOIT en te NIMMER dient een rechter op de regerings stoel te gaan zitten.

    Dat we in een internationaal machts vacuum zitten is zeer spijtig, maar dat dient opgelost te worden door de UN, niet door het Internationaal Gerechtshof.

    Trias Politica, ook rechters dienen hun plaats en functie te respecteren.

  2. Mihai Mihai


    Er zijn voldoende verdragen en regels van internationaal recht, die gebruikt kunnen worden in een internatonaal gerechtshof. Kijk naar de site van ICJ en je ziet dat ze daar heel druk zijn met rechtszaken. Er zijn ook veel andere hoven, zoals ICC, ECtHR, Het Inter-Amerikaanse Hof voor Mensenrechten, het Afrikaanse, UNCLOS, al die tribunalen voor Rwanda, Cambodja, ex-Joegoslavie, Libanon, Charles Taylor.

    Dus het kan.

  3. PiratePete PiratePete


    Ik ben het met je eens dat het mogelijk is. Sterker nog, het lijkt mij een uitstekend idee.
    Helaas zie ik nogal veel beren op de weg. Waarbij de grootste beer de Verenigde Staten is. . .
    Volgens mij is dit iets wat binnen de UN arena uitgevochten dient te worden. Er dient natuurlijk wel een akkoord te zijn tussen verschillende staten. Anders wordt het internationaal recht een ‘toothless tiger’.

    Eerst akkoord bereiken, dan recht instellen. (A legislative body needs to be established first)

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