‘A La Maison Blanche’: Le Président Des Etats-Unis Se Soucie-T-Il Du Droit International Lorsqu’Il Décide D’Une Intervention Militaire? ('The West Wing': The US President Does Care About International Law When Deciding Military Intervention?)
EUROPEAN SOCIETY OF INTERNATIONAL LAW, 10th Anniversary Conference, Vienna, 4-6 September 2014, Conference Paper No. 15/2014
13 Pages Posted: 1 Dec 2014
Date Written: September 4, 2014
"The U.N. doesn't want this. They want to wring their hands and censure us after, but they expect us to take care of things like this. And after they’ve exhausted themselves calling us warmongers and imperialists they’ll go home and quietly drink toasts to their relief."
Those words, pronounced by Leo McGarry, President Bartlet’s Chief of staff, can make us think that international law is absent — or at least neglected — in the well-known The West Wing TV series (7 seasons, 1999-2006). However, a comprehensive viewing of its 155 episodes reveals a more subtle representation of international law, particularly as far as the UN Charter rules are concerned. Generally, it can be said that The West Wing echoes, and at the same time supports, the traditional US doctrines about the use of force in international relations. Firstly, (preventive) self-defense is broadly conceived as an action that appears necessary in order to counter terrorist groups or States that support them: "terrorists aren’t nations […]. International law has no prohibition against any government, superpower or otherwise, targeting terrorist command and control centers" (President Bartlet, Season 5). Secondly, a right to overpass the multilateral procedures enshrined in Chapters 7 and 8 of the UN Charter can be deduced from several scenes. In Season 4, for example, President Bartlet states that « No country has ever had a doctrine of intervention when only humanitarian interests were at stake. That streak’s going to end Sunday at noon ». At that moment, he proclaims a new US doctrine of humanitarian intervention without even mentioning the opportunity of requesting a Security Council’s authorization. Finally, the representation of the UN Charter in The West Wing seems to correspond to the existing American film tradition, either in films like Air Force One (1997) and Zero Dark Thirty (2013), or in TV series like 24 (2001-) or Homeland (2011-): the President’s powers cannot be restrained by the existing rules; those rules must simply be interpreted as allowing any military action necessary to protect the interests of the United States. Against this background, it is not surprising that the US public opinion often shares this particular representation of international law when actual military interventions are triggered.
Keywords: International law; cinema; television; The West Wing; popular culture; use of force; UN Charter; humanitarian intervention; public opinion.
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