Former State Department and National Security Council legal adviser speaks at SIA

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – John Bellinger, currently a partner at Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer LLP, visited the School of International Affairs as the guest of the Penn State Center for Security Research and Education (CSRE) on Feb. 8. The former legal adviser to the U.S. Department of State and the National Security Council in the George W. Bush Administration delivered his talk, “International Law Under President Trump: A One-Year Assessment,” to a crowd of faculty, staff, students, and community members.

Retired Navy Vice Admiral James W. Houck, director of CSRE and distinguished scholar in residence at Penn State Law and the School of International Affairs, introduced Bellinger as the former “most senior international lawyer in the U.S. government.”

“I have an academic side,” said Bellinger. “I love to have the opportunity to get out to law schools and universities to talk about my experiences, but also to hear questions and have a dialogue.”

One year into Donald Trump’s presidency, Bellinger said it is a good time to look back and ahead at his international legal strategy, noting that this year of controversy—and to some, chaos—can be heavily attributed to Trump’s lack of government experience and his general distrust of government. Additionally, Bellinger said, Trump seems to be in constant running battles with individuals and agencies in the U.S., as well as executive leaders of several of our allied nations. Meanwhile, many of the top Senate-confirmed security positions remain unfilled.

Bellinger offered his reasoning on the vacant positions, saying that Trump didn’t expect to win, that many people don’t want to align themselves with this administration by working for it, and that the administration will not nominate anyone who might speak out against it. Bellinger is, however, reassured that nominations for these positions are becoming more frequent, and, in his opinion, many of these are good and competent people.

Looking ahead to this administration’s second year, Bellinger believes there are four things to monitor as the barometer of Trump’s international law strategy: counterterrorism, treaties, the International Court of Justice, and the International Criminal Court.

Trump promised to make many changes during his campaign regarding terrorism, though Bellinger explained that the changes he has made thus far are small, and include looser drone strike rules and the reversal of an executive order by President Barack Obama to close the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. That reversal, however, did not include language that would indicate the intent to start sending prisoners there again, which Bellinger believes would be met with disapproval by the Justice Department and the Department of Defense.

The negotiation and interpretation of international treaties is a critical function of the president, and Bellinger has concerns over the administration’s distrust of previously held agreements to which the U.S. is a party.

“I hope we don’t see a withdrawal from these treaties,” said Bellinger. “Much of what we do in the world would not be possible without them, like flying over foreign countries or allowing access to consular representation to U.S. citizens abroad. We benefit every day.”

The final two pieces to measure future international law strategy of the Trump administration are the two international courts in The Hague, according to Bellinger. Pending litigation involving the U.S. and Iran in the International Court of Justice could see the president deciding to leave the court, making the country appear hostile toward international law. And while the U.S. is not a part of the International Criminal Court, it has generally supported the decisions coming out of it. Now, however, an open investigation regarding American activities in Afghanistan could reverse the administration’s support, and cause the president to call for other countries to do the same or even to pass legislation against the court. All of this, Bellinger argued, could greatly impact the world’s view of the U.S. in international affairs.

Given all that is at stake in matters of national security and international law, Bellinger hopes that the rhetoric will calm down and the administration will implement sound legal policies, and ultimately will make a concerted effort to promote American values around the world.

“The strength of the United States is not just our military, but our values, like democracy, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and all the rights outlined in the Bill of Rights,” said Bellinger. “Not promoting those values hurts us around the world.”

Before taking questions from the audience, Bellinger ended by making a pitch for public service.

“This is a time when your country needs you. I encourage you to take that on, and do great work representing the American people.”