Preaching to the Guardian's converted
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 9 April 2005)

Philippe Sands, QC, professor of law at University College, London, takes a stern line with the Americans. He intensely dislikes their independent policies and their suspicious attitudes to international organizations. They should realize they need the co-operation of many countries and the approval of people such as, well, Philippe Sands. He claims he hoped ("perhaps naively") that George W. Bush in his second term would develop a "gentler and more consensual" attitude to world opinion than in his first. But Bush, sad to say, has disappointed Sands.

Sands titled his most recent book Lawless World: America and the Making and Breaking of Global Rules (Penguin), which pretty well sums up his position. As he told readers of The Globe and Mail on Wednesday, recent Washington appointments indicate that more dangerous policies are coming. Bush has made Paul Wolfowitz president of the World Bank even though everyone knows that he organized the "illegal" (Sands says) invasion of Iraq. Bush has chosen Alberto Gonzalez as Attorney-General, though his views on treatment of terrorist prisoners do not accord with those of Sands. Worst, Bush has chosen an ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, who has had the nerve to criticize the UN's way of doing things.

Behind the opinions that Sands delivers we can see, just occasionally peeking through, a set of unarticulated assumptions about world order. He thinks that "global rules" exist, even though there's no evidence at all that most of the globe recognizes them; he also thinks that a country refusing to pay homage to those rules is creating trouble for itself.

Sands speaks in a glib, confident way to people (presumably including Globe readers in this case) who share his assumptions and haven't questioned them in years. He apparently thinks foreign aid has been a success and should operate without serious criticism from the Americans at the World Bank. The U.S. should just hand over the cash and let wise Europeans deploy it; or, failing that, should choose for the presidency of the World Bank someone who will defer to European policies.

He also implies (no one would be crazy enough to say it) that the one-vote-per-dictator democracy at the UN not only works but deserves uncritical support. He obviously thinks there's something fundamentally suspect about a nation, in this case the U.S., that not only wants to assert its own interests but believes it knows what these interests are and how to protect them.

His arguments suggest he believes his readers are at best half-awake. His most solemn statements are also among his most dubious. For instance: "History shows that co-operation cannot be imposed with the barrel of a gun...." In truth, it shows no such thing. In fact, the phrase "History shows" is almost always an incompetent way to make a point. Sometimes history demonstrates what Sands wants it to demonstrate, and sometimes it demonstrates the opposite. In the 1940s war destroyed the Japanese Empire and the Third Reich, transforming viciously expansionist states into democracies that have been co-operating with other nations for half a century. Admittedly, those are spectacular examples; but just for that reason, they can't be ignored by anyone who pretends to know what history shows.

Recently, Sands has been visiting the University of Toronto law school to teach a one-term course based on Lawless World. Back home in London, when not professing, he practices law in the British firm with the famously trendy name, Matrix Chambers, whose Web site advertises him as a "top-level performer" and a "Leading Silk in Public International law." In recent years he's also become a special favourite of the Guardian newspaper, which publishes his articles; it not only reviewed Lawless World with enthusiasm but also ran an extract.

If Sands did not exist, the Guardian would have invented him. He's the perfect intellectual performer for a paper whose readers can't get through breakfast without consuming several elaborate reiterations of views they have held as long as they have held views. Sands, being reliably anti-American and reliably suspicious of the Blair government, will never disturb the core beliefs of a Guardian reader.

Thinkers like Sands give internationalism a bad name. But then we who consider ourselves internationalists (I'm among those Canadian internationalists who were mortified when we methodically downgraded our commitment to NATO) must remember the First Law of Politics: No matter what your position, you will always wish that some of the people on your side were on the other side.

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