About 40 people came to Weill Hall Monday to hear Harold Koh, professor of international law at Yale University, speak about his new book “The Trump Administration and International Law.” The talk is the first of a series sponsored by the Ford School of Public Policy’s new Weiser Diplomacy Center.
The event was moderated by John Ciorciari, director of the Public Policy School’s International Policy Center and associate professor of public policy.
In the first half of the event, Ciorciari and Koh explored themes of populism and globalization, U.S. foreign policy and whether Western countries use international law hypocritically. The conversation was followed by questions from the audience, which consisted of undergraduate and graduate students and faculty.
“We chose Professor Koh because no one has greater expertise in this domain, in international law, and we thought that as part of our opening sequence of events, that that would be a really important theme for us to cover,” Ciorciari said.
Koh served as the legal adviser to the U.S. Department of State during the Obama administration and holds a lifetime achievement award in international law from the American Bar Association. He is considered by many to be a leading expert in the fields of international law, security and human rights.
His book is critical of the Trump administration and claims President Donald Trump is not “winning” with foreign policy. He also said Trump’s attempts to disengage from global and domestic alliances have been largely ineffective.
“He’s not winning,” Koh said. “Trump is not winning, because his strategies are based on impulses. He does the opposite of whatever Obama would do or Hillary Clinton would have done. He likes to do things that he thinks he has unilateral authority to do under the law.”
After being asked about Trump’s international strategy, he responded by attesting to its lack of a strategy.
“Well, I think it’s a little grandiose to call it a strategy,” Koh said.
Koh later criticized Trump’s mentality about diplomacy, particularly with his penchant for referring to it as a series of “deals.”
“One of Trump’s great failures is he thinks of the world as deals rather than relationships,” Koh said.
The conversation later delved into U.S. foreign policy, particularly concerning North Korea. While Trump has stated numerous times he would like to back out of the Iran nuclear deal, Koh said any negotiation he makes with North Korea would likely be very similar to the Iran deal, especially because Trump’s administration is using the same experts.
“It turns out that if you’re going to have a deal with North Korea, it’s going to look like the Iran deal,” Koh said.
Koh cautioned against pulling out of the Iran deal, saying it would set a bad precedent for North Korea. He also noted that in the beginning of his presidency and on the campaign trail, Trump sought to use force to handle the nuclearization of North Korea. Now, Koh said, he’s professing his love for North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un.
“Now he’s desperate for diplomacy. He seems like a spurned suitor,” Koh said.
Trump’s perceived ineffectiveness proved a major theme of the night.
“The fact of the matter is that Trump has very little grasp on law, and the law is keeping the guard rail up,” Koh said. “I think the short answer is that the law is bigger than Donald Trump; the intertwining of domestic and international law is bigger than Trump.”
Public Policy senior John Chambliss attended the talk after taking a class on international law in which his professor praised Koh as an expert with unique insight into the field. Despite following the news regularly, Chambliss was surprised by how little influence Trump has had on long-term foreign policy, as argued by Koh.
“I guess I was expecting not putting such an emphasis on how ineffectual he was,” Chambliss said. “I thought he would be more detrimental in terms of long-term policy. Even though the talk seemed sort of pessimistic in certain ways, I thought that it really emphasized that the institutions around international relations and international law are solid in comparison to any disruption he can make in the international arena.”
Ciorciari was likewise reassured by Koh’s argument that Trump’s policies have not greatly altered international norms.
“I’m heartened by his analysis of the resilience of international law,” Ciorciari said. “I took encouragement from his points about the many different layers of transnational legal process that help to sustain the rules and norms that have been developed over many decades, even when there’s a period where there’s a lot of turbulence.”