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America's Ambivalent Commitment to International Justice

The Biden administration sees fit to chastise other states for ignoring the decisions of international tribunals. But one would expect that US leaders might at least reconsider their own sore loser strategy toward these important institutions.

NEW YORK – On the recent fifth anniversary of an international arbitral tribunal’s ruling that rejected Chinese claims over the South China Sea, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken implored China to respect the decision. But Blinken’s lecture to China’s leaders raises the thorny issue of America’s own approach to the international rule of law under President Joe Biden.

True, the removal of sanctions that President Donald Trump’s administration had imposed against high officials of the International Criminal Court was almost universally welcomed around the world. Although the United States is not a member of the ICC and its objections to investigations of alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan predate Trump, the sanctions were an unprecedented and outrageous attack on the functioning of an important global institution.

On other fronts, however, the Biden administration has not moved with the speed many think is warranted to reverse its predecessor’s attack on international dispute settlement. The Trump administration, for example, used its veto power to block all appointments to the World Trade Organization’s Appellate Body, which eventually became inquorate when prior appointees’ terms ended. Robert Lighthizer, the US Trade Representative under Trump, justified this extraordinary action as a response to adverse WTO rulings, claiming “judicial overreach.”

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