On the day in mid-April when I spoke with Mary Ellen O’Connell, eight weeks into the war in Ukraine, Russian forces launched airstrikes on a sprawling steelworks in the coastal town of Mariupol , on the Black Sea, where 3,000 Ukrainians – some 2,000 soldiers and about 1,000 civilians – have been locked up.
A member of Notre Dame faculty since 2005, O’Connell has closely followed the situation in Ukraine since 2014, when Russia invaded and seized the Crimean peninsula. Clearly Russia felt no qualms at the time, “and now invading again and trying to take the rest of the country shows how far we have fallen in support of the rule of law” , she says.
International law – rules and norms based on treaties, international customs and legal principles and accepted as binding by most nations – saves lives and helps prevent and end deadly conflicts, says O’ Connell, Robert and Marion Short law professor at Notre Dame. She specializes in international law, the theory and use of force as well as arms control and dispute resolution.
Russia’s war in Ukraine, she says, is about more than a nation’s future. Everything that happens globally – from trade to international travel to respect for national sovereignty – depends on countries adhering to international law.
The only time since World War II that has seen a comparable act of aggression aimed at eliminating a sovereign nation was the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, an act condemned by all major world powers, O’Connell points out. US-led coalition forces launched an assault on Iraqi armed forces and quickly liberated the country’s small southern neighbor.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did not produce a similar global reaction. About 50 countries, including China, India and South Africa, refused in early March to vote in favor of a United Nations resolution denouncing the invasion.
The goal is not simply to defend Ukraine as a sovereign country, but to defend the rule of law and the future of a peaceful and orderly world, says O’Connell.
Our conversation turns to lessons the world has not learned since World War II. As early as 1938, she says, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had the foresight to begin designing a new international organization, which in 1945 became the UN. The first sentence of the preamble to the Charter of the United Nations includes the prescient phrase: the scourge of war”.
Since the end of the Cold War, some nations have taken actions in violation of the charter that have weakened the authority of the organization, O’Connell says. These actions include drone strikes outside conflict zones – by the United States, France and others – some of which have killed civilians.
Killing people with missiles in peace zones violates international law, she notes. “We started to misread the charter because no one was going to hold us accountable that we really had to live up to,” she says. The world today lacks leaders who uphold the rule of law and promote peace.
Here in the United States, she continues, “we’ve had presidents from both parties, and they’ve all misread the charter, ignored it, helped weaken it and weakened respect for it.” While we in the United States may have thought we were above the rules, [we felt] everyone should obey them.
The Cold War ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The three decades since then should have delivered a peace dividend, as the United States was no longer in existential conflict with another superpower, says O’Connell, who holds a joint professor-researcher position at Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
“We should have been able to reduce, if not completely eliminate, nuclear weapons. We should have been able to defend the climate and the environment,” she says. This period offered opportunities to strengthen international institutions and improve global health and human rights.
“We have squandered peace dividends, sometimes with good intentions. But I think the fundamental flaw was pride,” she says.
When the Cold War ended, O’Connell believes the United States should have come up with something like the Marshall Plan that helped Europe recover from the devastation of World War II. It would have taken a major investment of funding, time and talent to help former Soviet satellite countries build democracies from the ground up – teaching them about economic controls, electoral systems and party politics. “We might be better ourselves in our own democracy right now if we had made a commitment to teach democracy,” she says.
Part of Russia’s hostility to Ukraine stems from anger over the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed he must prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, the 73-year-old US-European military alliance, as a pretext for war, O’Connell said.
She thinks it would have been prudent to dismantle NATO after the Cold War and transfer some of its responsibilities to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a regional security organization co-founded in the 1970s by the states United States and the Soviet Union. The OSCE is an institution for negotiating and discussing provocations, clarifying mistakes and strengthening security co-operation.
The best hope for peace – a Russian withdrawal and the survival of Ukraine as a nation – says O’Connell, is diplomacy by negotiators familiar with international law. She sees the OSCE as the natural venue for these talks.
O’Connell worked as a civilian educator for the U.S. Army for several years in Germany, work that included teaching students from former Soviet satellites as they built fledgling democracies. Her husband is a Gulf War veteran.
No US president elected since the end of the Cold War has served in the military, she notes. She sees a correlation with America’s perpetual involvement in global conflicts. “We have a whole new generation coming in now, politicians who were at war and who understand the futility and immorality of sending people into armed conflict that is not legal,” she says.
Yet O’Connell remains a person of faith and hope. The peoples of the world must support and support Ukraine, and “we ourselves can make sacrifices,” she says. She urges her European friends and colleagues to call for a halt to all oil and gas purchases from Russia in order to force an end to the war. “We will save Ukraine. We will save the rule of law. We will save the planet. It seems like a small price to pay,” she says.
Enforcing international law through means such as formal sanctions and censorship remains his greatest hope for saving the Ukrainian people and Ukraine as a sovereign nation from Putin’s goal of absorbing the country into Russia. “We have a fundamental law that is ancient, given to us by the great cultures of the world,” says O’Connell. “All the religions of the world, all the great philosophies are based on the principle that human beings need peace.”
Margaret Fosmoe is associate editor of this magazine.