drink coffee with. . . Mary Ellen O’Connell | Stories | Notre Dame Magazine

Speaking to Mary Ellen O’Connell in mid-April, after eight weeks of war in Ukraine, Russian troops launched airstrikes on a sprawling steel mill in the Black Sea coastal city of Mariupol, where 3,000 Ukrainians — about 2,000 soldiers and about 1,000 civilians — were holed up.

O’Connell has been a Notre Dame faculty member since 2005 and has closely followed the situation in Ukraine since 2014, when Russia invaded and captured the Crimean peninsula. It’s clear that Russia had no qualms then, “and now invading again and trying to take over the rest of the country shows how far we’ve fallen in supporting the rule of law,” she says.

International law — rules and norms based on treaties, international custom, and legal principles that are accepted as binding by most nations — saves lives and helps prevent and end deadly conflicts, says O’Connell, Robert and Marion Short Professor of Law at Notre Dame. She is an expert in international law, theory and use of force, as well as arms control and dispute resolution.

Russia’s war in Ukraine, she says, is about much more than a nation’s future. Everything that happens on a global scale – from trade to international travel to respect for national sovereignty – depends on countries complying with international law.

The only time since World War II that there has been a comparable act of aggression aimed at eliminating a sovereign nation was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, an act condemned by all major world powers, O’Connell points out . Coalition forces led by the United States launched an attack on Iraqi forces and quickly liberated the country’s tiny southern neighbor.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has not provoked a similar global response. Some 50 nations — including China, India and South Africa — declined to vote on a United Nations resolution earlier in March denouncing the invasion.

It’s not just about defending Ukraine as a sovereign state, but working for the rule of law and the future of a peaceful and orderly world, says O’Connell.

Our conversation revolves around lessons the world has not learned since World War II. She says that as early as 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt had the foresight to begin shaping a new international organization, which in 1945 became the UN the scourge of war.”

Since the end of the Cold War, some nations have taken anti-charter actions that have weakened the organization’s authority, O’Connell says. These actions include drone strikes outside of conflict zones – by the US, France and others – some of which have killed civilians.

Killing people with rockets in peace zones violates international law, she says. “We started misinterpreting the charter because nobody wanted to hold us accountable, which we really had to respect,” she says. Today’s world lacks leaders who advocate the rule of law and the promotion of peace.

Here in the US, she continues, “we’ve had presidents of both parties, and they all misunderstood, ignored, helped weaken the charter and weakened respect for it. While in the United States we might have thought we were above the rules, [we felt] all others should obey them.”

O’Connell: “The fundamental mistake was hubris.” Photo by Barbara Johnston

The Cold War ended in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The three decades since then should have delivered a peace dividend because the US is no longer in an existential conflict with another superpower, says O’Connell, who holds a joint appointment as a research professor at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

“We should have been able to reduce, if not eliminate, nuclear weapons altogether. We should have been able to defend the climate and the environment,” she says. The period offered opportunities for building international institutions and improving world health and human rights.

“We squandered the peace dividend, sometimes with good intentions. But I think the fundamental mistake was hubris,” she says.

At the end of the Cold War, O’Connell believes the US should have devised something like the Marshall Plan, which helped Europe recover from the ravages of World War II. It would have required a large investment of funds, time, and talent to help the former satellite countries of the Soviet Union build democracies from the ground up—by teaching them about economic controls, electoral systems, and partisan politics. “We might be in a better position now, even in our own democracy, if we had made a commitment to teaching democracy,” she says.

Part of Russia’s hostility towards Ukraine stems from anger at the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed he must prevent Ukraine from joining NATO, the 73-year-old US-Europe military alliance, as a pretext for war, O’Connell says.

She believes it would have been wise to disband NATO after the Cold War and transfer some of its responsibilities to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a regional security organization co-founded by the US and Soviet Union in the 1970s. The OSCE is an institution for negotiating and discussing provocations, clearing up mistakes and building co-operation towards security.

According to O’Connell, the best hope for peace — a Russian withdrawal and Ukraine’s continued existence as a nation — is the diplomacy of negotiators knowledgeable of international law. She sees the OSCE as a natural place for these talks.

O’Connell worked for several years as a civilian educator for the US military in Germany, work that included teaching students from former Soviet satellites how to build fledgling democracies. Her husband is a combat veteran of the Gulf War.

No US president elected since the end of the Cold War has served in the military, she notes. She sees a connection to America’s ongoing involvement in global conflicts. “We now have a whole new generation of politicians who have been to war and who understand the futility and immorality of sending people into an armed conflict that is not legitimate,” she says.

Still, O’Connell remains a person of faith and hope. The people of the world need to stand by and support Ukraine, and “we can make sacrifices ourselves,” she says. She calls on European friends and colleagues to demand a cessation of all oil and gas purchases from Russia to force an end to the war. “We will save Ukraine. We save the rule of law. We save the planet. It seems like a small price to pay,” she says.

Enforcing international law through such means as sanctions and formal censorship remains their best hope of saving the Ukrainian people and Ukraine as a sovereign nation from Putin’s goal of incorporating the country into Russia. “We have an ancient bedrock right that was given to us by the great cultures of the world,” says O’Connell. “All world religions, all great philosophies start from the premise that people need peace.”


Margaret Fosmoe is Associate Editor of this journal.

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