America is loosening its grasp on the importance of international law, letting the threads of responsibility among nations slip away as the United States moves farther from the ideology that helped form the nation.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, at the Lionel Trilling Seminar Feb. 19 in the Low Rotunda, argued this point, which was subsequently discussed according to the tradition of the seminar. The discussants were Sir Brian Urquhart, former Under-Secretary to the United Nations, and Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago Law School.
Moynihan cited an example of the United States' allowance of the weakening of international law: During the fall of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, U.S. policy makers disregarded Mikhail Gorbachev's assertion that the future Russia be "bound by the norms of international law."
"Gorbachev knew what it meant for the Soviets to assert that they would be bound by norms of international law," Moynihan argued. "But official Washington did not, for it no longer actively felt that the United States was bound by such norms."
Without a clear commitment to the idea of the law of nations, which Moynihan said was "set forth as the foundation of our national existence," then all societies will lose a sense of responsibility, and break down.
Moynihan, now in his fourth term in the U.S. Senate, has written extensively about international law, has chaired numerous committees, was appointed to serve under four presidents, and served as U.S. Ambassador to India and U.S. Representative to the U.N. His speech at last week's seminar cited the visionary work of the late Lionel Trilling, Columbia's venerated English professor and critic, and said that we would do well to follow his example.
"It might surprise us," Moynihan said, "if we were to invoke his sensibility to ask this question and ponder such answers that might be forthcoming."
This thoughtful nature has defined Moynihan during his long career in public service.
In introducing Moynihan, Jack F. Matlock Jr., professor of international affairs at Columbia and a former U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union, recalled a time when they, as ambassadors, were in Moscow one summer.
"Moscow in August is nearly as deserted as Paris in August," Matlock explained, because the Politburo is not in session. Typically, one official was left behind to serve as a "concierge," Matlock joked. That summer, the job fell to future Russian president Boris Yeltsin, with whom Moynihan struck up a conversation.
Moynihan, Matlock recalled, had recently visited Lenin's apartment and spoke to Yeltsin about some of the books in Lenin's library.
"It was pretty clear Yeltsin had read none of the books in Lenin's library," Matlock said.
Russia was short on politicians with intellectual interest, he said, and in introduction to Moynihan added, "But the United States was not."
Columbia University Record -- March 1, 1996 -- Vol. 21, No. 18