The hard power of a state relies on two things: strength and credibility. Strength means the capacity to inflict damage or harm, and credibility means using that capacity when promised. Recently the United States had its credibility tested when evidence surfaced that Obama’s so-called "red line" was crossed in Syria. France and the United Kingdom announced that they had evidence that Syria had used sarin gas on its own people, putting pressure on the United States to act. It originally looked like the administration was simply trying to buy time, claiming to need further verification before taking action, but it appears that the United Stateshas finally agreed to supply weapons to the opposition.
Taking action saves the United States’ credibility, making our threats and promises more intimidating. The administration executed a fine balancing act with the response by both taking tangible responses that escalate our involvement, and avoiding any direct military action. Thus Obama kept his promise to the world that chemical weapons would change things while keeping his promise to the American public that he would not involve in another war in the Middle East. The circle is closing around the Syrian regime in response to something that the majority of the world agrees should earn condemnation. But as the Syrian opposition gains support from the international community, one question remains: When did international law become compulsory?
The international system lacks a sovereign, ultimate authority that can order states around and enforce punishment. The system relies instead on voluntary memberships and conventions that limit state behavior. This means that states are only constrained by the agreements which they sign and ratify, only beholden to the laws they have agreed to follow, and are not beholden to the others. As proof, the United States never became a party to the Rome Statute and therefore the International Criminal Court, meaning that our citizens cannot be prosecuted by this body nor tried before this court. Similarly, most treaties on arms restrictions or regulations are purely on a volunteer basis, meaning that those who do not sign the treaty are not obligated to follow the parameters. The Chemical Weapons Convention is one such treaty.
The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons and on their Destruction is the treaty that regulates chemical weapons and their use internationally but, much like the International Criminal Court, it is a voluntary treaty, to which Syria is not a party. Any international repercussions that Syria will suffer for its use of chemical weapons have implications far beyond just the future of the Syrian regime. Without signing and ratifying the Convention on Chemical Weapons, Syria remains outside the jurisdiction of any regulatory bodies and therefore, legally, should not suffer any punishment for using any chemical weapons.
But the basis for Obama’s decision, and the international outcry, rests high above legal precedents. Instead, moral guidelines and norms are guiding actions, ushering in a new framework for international law. By circumventing voluntary international treaties, the United States lays the foundation for a new enforcement mechanism of international norms. Slowly and carefully, the international system is developing a sovereign entity, and the United States has certainly spent a lot of money, energy, and American lives making clear that certain state behaviors have repercussions.
After Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, Russia and China are throwing their full weight behind halting this slow forward march, yet they have not succeeded. As the United States continues to take moral high grounds and push for the punishment of state behavior we need to take stock of the world around us. The danger of establishing a precedent for an international sovereign power lies in who will inherit it generations from now. While we work to constrict state behavior, shaping the world in our image, we should be careful: We never know in whose image the world will be reflected after us, and whether we will want to listen to whoever takes over our bully pulpit.