As Loretta Lynch, the US attorney general, swooped down on FIFA like a righteous eagle, millions of Indians must have shared a fervent wish: Wouldn’t it be delicious if Ms Lynch could sink her talons into the BCCI and the barons of the IPL. In this vein, a wit remarked on Twitter, “Sepp Blatter is the Swiss Srini.” (Except that it was possible to topple N Srinivasan from his perch. As of this writing, septic Blatter is hanging on for dear life.)
Let us give thanks to the United States, and take comfort from the fact that it is the world’s judicial superpower. It is customary to talk of American strength in military terms, and while that strength is on the wane — distressingly so, for those of us who want to keep China on a leash — it is still a match for the challenges and torments that beset the globe. But there is an aspect of American “policing” that is frequently overlooked: its positive resort to the law, and to legal muscle.
Unique among the world’s States, America revels in an assertion of extraterritorial judicial reach. There has been ill-informed criticism of Ms Lynch’s actions from many quarters, not least from the lawless Vladimir Putin, asserting that the US had no business cracking down on FIFA in Switzerland. This is the purest poppycock. The corruption and racketeering of senior FIFA officials is alleged to have occurred in the US. It matters not that these pashas were parked in a Zurich hotel, and that they are citizens of Trinidad & Tobago, and the like: the locus of their impugned activity is enough to make them America’s quarry.
Washington asserts jurisdiction over crime if there is any American connection — which can be something as wispy as the use of a US IP address in a fraudulent Internet transaction. Other States are powerless to challenge this; but they are also disinclined to do so. As any study of the exercise of American extraterritorial jurisdiction will show, the US authorities use this power sparingly and punctiliously. Besides, this use of law-power is acceptable to the “market”: it is the “hard currency” of rectitude, taken in most places — like the dollar is — with nary a murmur. (It is ironic that much of the bleating about American “overreach”, here, has come from liberal critics in the Third World and nationalist yahoos in Russia, places where legal protections range from feeble to non-existent.)
There is more to America’s assertion of the law than a foray into the fortress of FIFA. Witness America’s challenging of China in the South China Sea, which, by the way, is a giant favour being done — for free — to Japan, Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Brunei, Taiwan, Indonesia, and, yes, India. (Have I left anyone out?) China is the anti-America: its political assertions are based entirely on what’s in China’s national and material interest, with not an underlying iota of universal principle in play. It is monumentally selfish.
With breathtaking illegality, China is building artificial islands on reefs in the South China Sea so as to widen its zones of maritime monopoly. All of this is in violation of international law, but does Beijing care? Silly question!
America cares. And we should be grateful that it cares. Yes, it’s asserting its own might by sailing naval vessels into waters that China wishes to sinicize, and it is buzzing Chinese installations with its aircraft. Yet these aren’t assertions merely of American heft. They are statements of law, and lawfulness, and assertions of rights: not just American rights, but rights that all nations have, including India, to freedom of navigation, and to protection from forcible seizure by one State of large chunks of the global commons.
I have made an improbable connection here between FIFA and the South China Sea. But the common thread is the US. Take comfort from the fact that it is a nation of laws. Think of Beijing as a giant Sepp Blatter.
Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution