On the mid-April day when I spoke with Mary Ellen O’Connell, eight weeks into the war in Ukraine, Russian forces launched airstrikes on a sprawling steel plant in the Black Sea coastal city of Mariupol, where 3,000 Ukrainians — some 2,000 troops and about 1,000 civilians — were holed up.
A member of the Notre Dame faculty since 2005, O’Connell has been following the situation in Ukraine closely since 2014, when Russia invaded and seized the Crimean Peninsula. It’s clear Russia felt no compunction at the time, “and now, invading again and attempting to take the rest of the country, shows how far we’ve fallen in supporting the rule of law,” she says.
International law — rules and norms that are based on treaties, international custom and legal principles and accepted as binding by most nations — saves lives and helps prevent and end deadly conflicts, says O’Connell, the Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law at Notre Dame. She’s an expert in international law, theory and the use of force as well as in arms control and dispute resolution.
Russia’s war in Ukraine, she says, is about much more than the future of one nation. Everything that happens on a global scale — from trade to international travel to honoring national sovereignty — depends on countries adhering to international law.
The only time since World War II that has seen a comparable act of aggression designed to eliminate a sovereign nation was the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, an act condemned by all major world powers, O’Connell points out. Coalition forces led by the United States launched an assault on Iraq’s armed forces and quickly liberated the country’s small, southern neighbor.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine hasn’t produced a similar world reaction. About 50 nations — including China, India and South Africa — declined in early March to vote in support of a United Nations resolution denouncing the invasion.
The point is not simply to defend Ukraine as a sovereign country, but to stand up for the rule of law and the future of a peaceful and orderly world, O’Connell says.
Our conversation turns to lessons the world has failed to learn since World War II. As early as 1938, she says, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had the foresight to begin designing a new international organization that in 1945 became the U.N. The first sentence in the preamble to the U.N. Charter includes the prescient phrase, “to save succeeding generations from 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 organization’s authority, O’Connell says. Those actions include drone strikes outside conflict zones — by the U.S., France and others — some of which have killed civilians.
Killing people with missiles in peace zones violates international law, she notes. “We started misreading the charter because nobody was going to call us to account that we really needed to respect,” she says. Today’s world has a dearth of leaders who stand for the rule of law and the promotion of peace.
Here in the U.S., she continues, “we’ve had presidents from both parties, and they all misread the charter, ignored it, helped weaken it and weakened respect for it. While we may have thought in the United States that we were above the rules, [we felt] everyone else should obey them.”
The Cold War ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The three decades since should have delivered a peace dividend, because the U.S. was no longer in existential conflict with another superpower, says O’Connell, who holds a joint appointment as a research professor in the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.
“We should have been able to draw down, if not completely eliminate, nuclear weapons. We should have been able to defend the climate and the environment,” she says. The period offered opportunities to build up international institutions and improve world health and human rights.
“We squandered the peace dividend, sometimes with good intentions. But I think the fundamental flaw was hubris,” she says.
At the end of the Cold War, O’Connell believes, the U.S. should have crafted something like the Marshall Plan that helped Europe recover from the devastation of World War II. It would have required 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 in a better place ourselves in our own democracy right now if we had made the commitment to teach democracy,” she says.
Some of Russia’s hostility toward Ukraine is born out of anger toward the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that he needed to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, the 73-year-old U.S.-European military alliance, as a pretext for war, O’Connell says.
She believes it would have been prudent to dismantle NATO after the Cold War and shift some of its responsibilities to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a regional security organization co-founded in the 1970s by the U.S. and the Soviet Union. OSCE is an institution for negotiation and discussion of provocations, for clarifying mistakes and for building cooperation toward security.
The best hope for peace — a Russian withdrawal and Ukraine’s continued existence as a nation — O’Connell says, is diplomacy by negotiators who are well versed in international law. She sees OSCE as the natural venue for those talks.
O’Connell worked as a civilian educator for the U.S. military for several years in Germany, a job that included teaching students from former Soviet satellites as they built fledgling democracies. Her husband is a combat veteran of the Gulf War.
No U.S. 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 conflict. “We’ve got a whole new crop coming up now, politicians who were in wars, and who understand the futility and the immorality of sending people into an armed conflict that is not lawful,” she says.
Still, O’Connell remains a person of faith and hope. The people of the world must stand with and support Ukraine, and “we can make sacrifices ourselves,” she says. She is urging European friends and colleagues to call for cutting off all oil and gas purchases from Russia as a way to force an end to the war. “We will save Ukraine. We’ll save the rule of law. We’ll save the planet. It seems like a small price to pay,” she says.
Enforcing international law through means such as sanctions and formal censures remains her 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 bedrock law that is ancient, that has been given to us from the great world cultures,” O’Connell says. “All world religions, all great philosophies start from the premise that human beings need peace.”
Margaret Fosmoe is an associate editor of this magazine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or @mfosmoe.