Does the Biden Administration Care About International Law?

If you’re a US ally looking at Israel’s bombing of the Iranian consulate in Syria and Ecuador’s raid on its Mexican consulate, you’re probably thinking, “I can get away with something similar because the most powerful country in the world will let me do it.”

Joe Biden speaking at the White House in Washington, DC, on April 3, 2024. (Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In the “rules-based international order” the Biden administration is so fond of invoking, what exactly are the “rules”? Because it’s starting to look more and more like there aren’t any.

Last Friday, police in Ecuador — currently governed by a right-wing, US-backed government — stormed the Mexican embassy in the capital, Quito, to arrest Ecuador’s former vice president Jorge Glas who had been holed up in the building avoiding what he claims are trumped-up charges of corruption. The raid saw police break into the embassy, guns drawn, and repeatedly manhandle and throw to the ground diplomat Roberto Canseco, the highest-ranking official present at the embassy — all in the process of apprehending Glas, who had been formally granted asylum by the Mexican government earlier that day.

Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) charged that “a government does not do something like that if it doesn’t feel like it has the backing of other governments or powers,” a not-particularly veiled shot at the United States, which has deepened security cooperation with Ecuador since the election of the US-friendly banana fortune heir Daniel Noboa to the presidency last year.

Though President Joe Biden’s state department declared that “the United States condemns any violation of the Vienna Convention” and “takes very seriously the obligation of host countries . . . to respect the inviolability of diplomatic missions,” AMLO has expressed his disappointment at what he called the “very ambiguous” statement that failed to directly condemn the raid itself.

The raid, which triggered ripples of condemnation across the region and globe, came on top of another, even worse outrage committed by a US-backed government just days before: Israel’s deliberate bombing of an Iranian consulate building in Syria, killing seven Iranian military officials and greatly increasing the possibility of escalation and widening of a military conflict in the region.

As many have pointed out, these actions are a flagrant violation of centuries of diplomatic norms, as well as international law: specifically, the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which the US government ratified in 1972, making it US law, too. That agreement holds, among other things, that no state can set foot in or otherwise breach another country’s embassy without that country’s express permission, the legal basis by which most states — including both the United States and Iran — treat consular buildings on foreign soil as tantamount to their own territory. An attack on a country’s embassy, in other words, is a direct attack on that same country.

It’s one thing to say these actions are eye-popping, outrageous violations and that they risk, as one expert put it, a return to “a state of anarchy, a sort of jungle law.” But to really understand the line that’s been crossed here, you have to look at how scrupulously this principle has been abided by in the not-too-distant past.

In 1984, after a British policewoman was killed by gunfire from the Libyan embassy in London, the UK’s Margaret Thatcher government and conservative pundits everywhere had to begrudgingly watch as the perpetrators escaped justice for the sake of upholding this principle of diplomacy. The British police were forced to frustratedly stand by as Libya refused its requests to search the building and as the country’s expelled diplomats spirited the likely murder weapon out of the country in diplomatic pouches that were immune from being searched.

Mind you, this was all allowed to happen after Heathrow Airport was bombed by what were suspected to be Libyan terrorists loyal to dictator Muammar Gaddafi and after US intelligence had relayed that the order to open fire from the embassy had come from Gaddafi himself — a measure of how seriously the importance of upholding the Vienna Convention’s provisions was taken.

Three years later, the French government swallowed a similar frustration as the cost of upholding international law, when an Iranian translator who was wanted for questioning over a series of Paris bombings in 1986 put himself out of reach of authorities by taking refuge in the Iranian embassy. The standoff was ultimately resolved by negotiation, even though the whole affair — which saw the Iranian government effectively trap French personnel inside their embassy in Tehran — threatened to become a reelection-derailing hostage crisis for then president Jacques Chirac.

Maybe the most famous case is also the most recent one, which also, ironically, involved Ecuador: WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s seven-year-long refuge in the country’s London embassy. Despite both the US and British government’s clear hatred of Assange and desire to punish him, as evidenced by his subsequent torture at British hands and leaked US assassination plans, they likewise had to simply sit by and wait for him to leave the building rather than break in or bomb it to smithereens.

Or just look at the reaction to earlier violations of consular inviolability that were on par with or even less bad than what Israel and Ecuador have done this month.

Saddam Hussein’s siege and, finally, storming of five Western embassies in Kuwait after invading the country in 1990 was one of the key acts that led to Western intervention in the form of the Gulf War, with then US president George H. W. Bush calling Hussein’s actions “outrageous” and “clear violations of international law” that “underscore[d] the brutal behavior of Iraq,” and France’s then president François Mitterrand vowing that “we will respond to it.” When Belarussian strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko moved in 1998 to simply evict the ambassadors of the United States and several US allies from their apartments in a diplomatic compound in Minsk to enlarge his presidential palace, they reacted with fury, recalling their diplomats and threatening to ban the country’s officials from traveling to Europe.

That all pales in comparison to what might be the most well-known violation of the Vienna Convention: when Iranian revolutionaries in 1979 seized the US embassy in Tehran and took embassy workers hostage. That move prompted US sanctions and overnight turned Iran into enemy number one for the United States and decades later led US officials to declare that the Iranian government’s “brutality and amorality know no international boundaries.”

Iran. Belarus. Iraq. The governments the Biden administration is supporting today, in other words, are behaving like some of the most notorious members of Washington’s rogues’ gallery through recent history — or in Israel’s case, substantially worse than them.

The Iranian hostage crisis, in fact, should be a reminder of why the United States has always had, and still has, a major interest in upholding the “rules” its two partners have brazenly trampled over this month. Like every country, US diplomats are sitting ducks who can easily be turned into hostages or worse should some rogue or unfriendly state decide it doesn’t want to play by the rules of international law and diplomatic niceties anymore.

And states like those are more likely to make that kind of terrible decision if they see other countries, especially ones supported by the United States, breaking those same rules, especially if they get barely any pushback from their friends in Washington for doing so. It’s surely no coincidence that Ecuador’s raid came after the Biden administration did nothing to stop Israel from bombing Iran’s consulate in Damascus, and only affirmed it would keep sending it weapons in response.

This is why the United States, the UK, and numerous other countries have tolerated states like Iran or Ecuador using (and even abusing) their diplomatic privileges, as frustrating as it may have been for them. The United States, and Europe too, have relied on diplomatic protections in the same way in the past, as when thousands of East Germans used the protection of West Germany’s embassies to cross over the Iron Curtain, or when Bush granted Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi and his family protection in the US embassy in Beijing in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

Yet the Biden administration is now putting this centuries-old norm in jeopardy.

There is little doubt governments around the world are noticing the contrast between Washington’s tepid disapproval of Ecuador’s raid (“We encourage the two countries to resolve their differences”) — or, in Israel’s case, its refusal to say much of anything about the bombing of the Iranian consulate — and the fury with which its met similar violations by its adversaries. In those cases, US responses have ranged from fierce denunciations and sanctions, to firing warning shots and, more recently, demanding an apology, as the Trump administration did when Iran briefly detained the UK ambassador in 2020.

If you’re a state that sits under the US security umbrella, it would be hard to look at all this and not come to this conclusion: “I can probably get away with something similar to what Ecuador and Israel just did because the most powerful country in the world will probably let me do it.”

The losers of this race to the bottom won’t just be those countries that don’t have close relations with the United States. Because if US allies and partners can’t be bothered to adhere to the inviolability of embassies anymore and get little to no US pushback when they don’t, soon US rivals and adversaries won’t see the point either. And if that happens, all US officials will be able to do is impotently complain that everyone else abandoned the same principle they themselves seemed to have stopped believing in.