International Law Expert and Professor Oona A. Hathaway

The professor discusses the possibilities for war…and peace in Trump’s America.

Oona A. Hathaway is the Gerard C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law at Yale Law School and the Director of the Center for Global Legal Challenges. She has published essays and opinion pieces in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The Guardian, and Foreign Policy. She served as the Special Counsel to the General Counsel at the U.S. Department of Defense in 2014-2015, for which she was awarded the Office of the Secretary of Defense Award for Excellence. She is a member of the Advisory Committee on International Law for the Legal Adviser of the US Department of State and an active member of the US Supreme Court bar. She earned her BA from Harvard College and a JD from Yale Law School, where she was Editor-in-Chief of The Yale Law Journal. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

Follow @oonahathaway on Twitter.


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Tavis: Pleased to welcome Oona Hathaway to this program. She is an international law professor at Yale Law School and the co-author of “The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World”. Professor, good to have you on the program.

Oona A. Hathaway: Thanks for having me.

Tavis: I want to start at the obvious place, President Trump on his way to Asia shortly. High expectations? Low expectations? What do you make of the trip?

Hathaway: Well, I think that everyone’s kind of holding their breath to see what’s going to happen. I think many are worried about what might unfold. We’re all hoping that there are no missteps, but one never knows with President Trump.

Tavis: What’s there to worry about specifically?

Hathaway: Well, I mean, it’s a very fragile region. It’s a region where there are a lot of animosities, where there’s historical differences, where the moment, of course, we have the tensions on the Korean Peninsula which has everyone quite scared and rightly so. And it’s a very delicate place and he’s not known for being delicate. So we’re all a little bit concerned what might happen.

Tavis: What’s your read on the way he has — I don’t want to say engaged because he really hasn’t engaged in the way that he has gone tete-a-tete with Kim Jong-un?

Hathaway: I think it’s very dangerous. I think that he thinks that — or he seems to think — that by being forceful and by sort of blustering with Kim Jong-un that he can get a better deal, as he likes to put it. But the truth is that doesn’t really work with Kim Jong-un.

That’s playing the game that he wants to play and it actually strengthens him at home as opposed to making him weaker. It also raises the possibility that there is going to be a miscalculation that something could go wrong.

And the more that he threatens Kim Jong-un, the more Kim Jong-un is going to think that, in fact, we might carry out those threats and might respond to something that otherwise might seem not provocative. And I think it just raises the tensions and raises the possibility that we might actually end up in a conflict with North Korea.

Tavis: Part of diplomacy, as you well know, is always leaving the person you’re negotiating or in conversation with, always leaving them an off-ramp that allows them to sort of save face. What is that off-ramp at this point that we have left for North Korea?

Hathaway: I think you put your finger on the problem. We have not left any off-ramp. We’re ramping up sanctions which I think is a very good idea through the nine nations and we have been kind of increasing the pressure, but it’s not clear where we want him to go.

We haven’t given him a place, a direction, to go that we find acceptable, and I think that’s a real problem. Because if you don’t provide an off-ramp, the only possibility is conflict.

Tavis: What’s the best? I asked you whether you had high expectations or low expectations. Your answer was that we’re worried, many of us are worried. What’s the best that can come out of this Asia trip? If the president just completely blew your mind and made this trip completely worthwhile, what’s the best that would come out of it? What’s the highest expectation?

Hathaway: I think the highest expectation is to — really our aim is to try and get the Chinese onboard. We need their help to resolve the situation in North Korea and we need them to assist in ramping up sanctions against North Korea. They’re the only ones who really can talk to the North Koreans in a way that we just simply can’t.

So I think that would be the ideal situation. We get the Chinese onboard and, more generally, that we start a dialog with China to get them willing to see us as partners rather than merely as engaged in conflict in the region. I mean, really the solution to Asia right now is going to have to run at least significantly through China. So improving that relationship could go a long way.

Tavis: Given his bluster about China and the way he sort of bashed them here and there, how likely is that to happen?

Hathaway: You know, unfortunately, not very likely. One can hope. But that’s why I think many of us are, as we started out saying, quite worried about what might happen.

Tavis: To your text, “The Internationalists”, we’re going to talk about the book in a second, but tell me for starters the parallel between what they were talking about then and where we are in the world now.

Hathaway: Yeah. Well, I think they were desperately trying to find a way to end war. And in many ways, we’re the beneficiaries of the system that they constructed. So they were coming out of World War I which had killed millions and desperately trying to find a way to prevent a war like that from happening again.

And they got this idea of outlying war as the solution and then they had to construct a whole system around that to make it work. We’re now in a situation where we’re the beneficiaries of the system they created. The United Nations has helped bring seven decades of unprecedented peace and the danger is that we might be putting that all at risk, and that’s what worries us.

Tavis: You say we might be putting all of that at risk. Who’s the we you’re talking about?

Hathaway: I think we — I mean, right now the United States has been backing off of its commitment to international institutions, but we’re not the only ones. You see Russia, of course, it’s invasion and seizure of Crimea, China and it’s flexing of muscles in South China Sea.

So the very states that created the modern legal order seem to be losing some faith in it and willingness to back it. That’s really going to be a problem and that could lead us to an unraveling of these institutions which have been really crucial to sustaining the peace.

Tavis: And what’s your research tell you about why that unraveling started to happen?

Hathaway: Well, the initial unraveling started to happen of the Old World order happened because people made a decision to change it and they signed a treaty to outlaw war. And then they had to figure out how to put all the pieces in place.

Right now, we’re kind of stumbling into a possible change. We don’t really seem to recognize the problems that we’re creating by one at a time kind of pulling out the threads of the international legal order.

And that’s part of what the book is trying to do is say, look, recognize what we’ve got. Recognize what’s at stake. Recognize how lucky we are to have the institutions that we do that have brought so much peace and prosperity, and don’t put that at risk without understanding what you’re doing. That’s what we’re worried might be happening.

Tavis: Do you think you have a read on what President Trump really thinks of these international organizations, these international laws? I ask that because, as we saw all during the campaign, even after he got elected, he was bashing the U.N.

Of late, at least, when he went to give his U.N. speech, his first address to the U.N., he seemed to back off of that hubris just a little bit. But I’m not sure that I have a read on what he really thinks of these international organizations. What’s your take on that?

Hathaway: You know, he definitely — his rhetoric is all very anti-internationalist and it’s very much an opposition to the U.N., kind of resisting international institutions. Of course, America First, which is not about multilateralism. It’s about us first.

You know, meanwhile, there had been some indications in his actions that maybe he doesn’t really mean it, so we hope that he doesn’t really mean it. I mean, he has been working through the U.N., as I said, with North Korea to put in place sanctions against North Korea and that’s been a positive step.

He backed off the Iran deal, but he didn’t completely collapse it, as some feared he would. So we’ll see. I mean, there’s some possibility he might be willing to maintain some of these institutions and we certainly hope so. But, you know, the signs aren’t great.

Tavis: You’re right. He didn’t completely implode or explode the Iran deal, but he did enough damage with his rhetoric. I raise that only — well, you raised it — but I raise it in part because I’m curious as to how the world or, for that matter, how North Korea could or should believe any deal we do with them if they see the way we backed off the Iran deal.

Hathaway: Well, this is a really big problem, right? So we talked earlier about off-ramps, right? The only off-ramp is going to have to look something like the Iran deal. It’s going to have to be some kind of a deal where we agree to give up some of the sanctions if North Korea agrees to give up its nuclear program, allow for inspections, and the like. That’s what the Iran deal looks like.

So the more we back off the Iran deal, the more we start to pull the rug out from under this arrangement that we agreed to, the more it makes it hard for anyone to believe that we’re going to stick to a deal like that in the future and the harder it is to find a diplomatic solution to the problems in North Korea and many other places.

Tavis: Hey, Jonathan, put the cover of the book back up for me right quick. I want to ask Oona a question as my exit question. When I got this book when it came across my desk, the first thing you note — of course, I noticed — was this picture on the cover. It’s a gorgeous picture, but they’re all basically white males.

Hathaway: Yeah, they are.

Tavis: One can assume that they pretty much have the same faith tradition or the same beliefs. I wonder how these internationalists differ, how we navigate the world that we’re in now when the persons who run the world are not all white males?

They don’t have the same belief system, they don’t have the same faith tradition. How does that make things more challenging, more difficult or, conversely, give us more opportunity to be a new era, a new generation of internationalists? Does that make sense?

Hathaway: Yeah, it makes perfect sense. You know, it definitely was striking to me too. You know, when I looked at the cover, I was, oh, my God, we got a picture of all these white guys on the front of the book…

Tavis: That’s what it was after World War I, yeah.

Hathaway: That is the reality, you know. That was the reality situation. There was at that signing ceremony and buried in the picture the Japanese representative. So it wasn’t entirely white, but it was all men. Yeah, it’s really notable.

And there were differences back then as there are today, but we have a much more representative group of people at the table. And I think that’s a good thing. I think that’s a strength. I think that’s something we should build on and, you know, gives me hope for the future.

Tavis: The book is called “The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World” co-authored by Yale professor, Oona A. Hathaway. Professor Hathaway, good to have you on. Thanks for the text.

Hathaway: Thanks so much.

Tavis: My pleasure. Up next, Deepak Chopra. Stay with us.

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Last modified: October 25, 2017 at 2:53 pm