Former State Department Legal Adviser Harold Koh speaks at SIA

Harold Hongju Koh at SIA Credit: Mary Szmolko

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – On Thursday, Jan. 25, Harold Hongju Koh, Sterling Professor of International Law and former dean at Yale Law School and former legal adviser to the U.S. Department of State presented his talk, “The Trump Administration and International Law,” to a full Sutliff Auditorium, which included students, faculty, and community members.

Koh was introduced by Penn State Law and School of International Affairs Dean Hari Osofsky, who detailed Koh’s impressive international law scholarship and leadership and recalled her time as one of Koh’s students at Yale Law School, referring to Koh as a “dear friend and mentor.”

Upon taking the stage, Koh acknowledged that his life has had four career streams: professor, dean, attorney, and adviser. Through each of these roles, he gained the experiences that have helped him develop an approach to transnational law that he believes will keep any powerful world leader in check with constitutional realities by internalizing standards and norms that can’t be discarded by any one person.

As someone who worked closely with Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in the Obama Administration, Koh has seen and dealt with many difficult situations. And while he admittedly did not vote for President Trump, he does want him to succeed.

“But I still expect him to uphold the Constitution,” said Koh. “His strategy could permanently change the nature of many of our country’s international relationships. So what should we do about it?”

Looking back at the first year of the Trump presidency, Koh outlined several of the major conflicts that have arisen, including immigration, climate change, Russian hacking, Syria, the Islamic State, human rights, and more, noting that things seem to get more extreme every day. While the rhetoric from the White House seems tough and immediate on each issue, Koh argued that if a transnational legal process approach is taken by those advisers and leaders surrounding the president, as well as by his constituents, they are able to place checks on his work.

These checks include things like Saturday Night Live sketches that parody what is happening in politics, the large number of marches taking place throughout the country, and even political Super Bowl commercials. But it also includes more complex matters like keeping lawyers working alongside U.S. military leaders to maintain lawful war, and multilateral agreements like the Paris Accord that cannot be exited quickly or without consequence. All of these and many other pieces, according to Koh, can balance each other, with Trump being just one player, and everyone owning the responsibility.

“As Martin Luther King Jr. said, the arc of history does bend toward justice, but not by itself,” Koh said. “We are all participants, and it is our common duty.”