House of Cards (Season 3): International Law and American Power – A review by Jed Odermatt

houseThere is nothing international lawyers love more than seeing their obscure fields of interest being discussed in popular culture (and of course, discussing how the writers got the law wrong). International lawyers relished, therefore, in Season 3 of House of Cards, in which discussions of international law play more than a minor role. House of Cards also provides great insight into how international law is perceived, and its complex relationship with power and morality. It illustrates two competing visions of international law and American power.

House of Cards tells the story of the shrewd and calculating Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) a US Congressman from South Carolina’s fifth district, and his wife Claire (Robin Wright), as they climb the ranks of power. The first two seasons see the Underwoods implement their Machiavellian plan to obtain the most powerful position in the country: the White House. Frank and Claire showed that there is little they will not do to achieve this objective. As Frank explains, “The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties.” Now in the White House, the President and First Lady continue to employ unscrupulous tactics to pursue their objectives.

The Plan

One of these objectives is to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. President Underwood, like nearly every modern US President (including the fictional President Bartlet in The West Wing), has a devised a plan to bring peace to the Middle East in the hope of securing his legacy. This plan, the logic of which is never fully explained, involves sending a UN peacekeeping mission to the Jordan Valley (“Underwood sends peacekeeping troops, the Israelis leave, the Palestinians are happy.”) Like many of Underwood’s schemes, it is a massive gamble. As a foreign policy advisor in the series puts it, “just one little thing needs to go wrong, and you’ve got a tinderbox where everyone’s holding matches…”, but “if it pays off, hey, he wins a Nobel Prize.” One of the main obstacles preventing Underwood from executing his ambitious plan is the Russian President Viktor Petrov (Lars Mikkelsen), a former KGB agent who likes to pose shirtless for the media, who rejects Underwood’s proposal soon after meeting him on a State visit to the White House. If Underwood cannot convince Petrov to support his plan, he needs to find some way to get around the Russian veto at the UN Security Council.

After a drunken game of beer pong in the White House (using bourbon) Secretary of State Catherine Durant (Jayne Atkinson) suggests to Claire, who has just been appointed Ambassador to the UN, a way to “override the Russian veto”.

Durant proposes using the UN General Assembly Resolution 377 ‘Uniting for Peace’ in order to send UN peacekeepers into the Jordan Valley. As Durant describes it, this resolution was used first “to get around the Russians for the Korean War.” While international lawyers may debate ( ) whether this is a fair description of the 1950 Uniting for Peace resolution, it is interesting to see how international law and institutions are depicted. Uniting for Peace, like Underwood’s other cunning schemes, is a shrewd and calculated ploy that allows him, not only to get his way, but also to embarrass Russia in the process. Uniting for Peace is presented as a novel and unconventional move. As we see in the extract below, the Russians, having vetoed the peacekeeping mission see the Uniting for Peace as a ‘radical move’: “You dust off some 60-year-old precedent and think you’re justified?” While there is only limited practice of the UN General Assembly using the Uniting for Peace resolution, it is hardly without precedent. Since 1950, there have been at least ten emergency sessions convened under the conditions set out in the Resolution, the most recent of which was on the topic of ‘Israeli actions in occupied East Jerusalem and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories’. The Resolution has only been employed to call for peacekeeping force on one occasion, however, in relation to the 1956 Suez Canal crisis. In House of Cards, Israel is reluctantly in favour of the Resolution. This also has a bearing on the legality of Underwood’s plan. Uniting for Peace could not be used for enforcement action by the UN General Assembly and cannot replace the role of the UN Security Council in this regard. Interestingly, the issue of whether the President has the domestic authority to send the peacekeeping mission is barely discussed. Claire simply states: “It’s occupied territory. He’s not deploying on sovereign land.”

Durant probably thought that she would have better luck persuading the First Lady of her proposal, rather than bringing it to the President directly. President Underwood remains convinced that he can persuade Petrov by making a deal in a (literally) smoke-filled room. Claire believes in the power of international institutions and the need for careful, multilateral diplomacy. Once it is clear Petrov cannot be persuaded, Frank and Claire turn their attention to convincing members of the General Assembly, including Israel, to vote for the Resolution. President Underwood’s style of diplomacy, however, employs the same strong-arm tactics of intimidation and threats that he employed as whip in Congress. From threat of US sanctions, to the use of aid for HIV treatment in Africa, the Underwoods justify these actions by the overarching aim of securing the resolution and implementing their peace plan.


Underwood’s plan soon falls apart, however, when eight Russian peacekeepers are killed by an IED (improvised explosive device) in the Jordan Valley. Claire’s Russian counterpart, Alexi Moryakov (Alexander Sokovikov), sows the seeds for her to think that it was a false flag staged by Russia. When the President sends in Navy Seals to investigate the site and a US soldier is killed, Claire is exposed as naïve, easily manipulated and out of her depth. Having used international institutions to put his plan in place, international bodies are soon jettisoned when Underwood seeks to save his peace mission. Rather than flying to New York for talks, President Underwood decides that the crisis can only be solved by flying to the Jordan Valley to meet with Petrov: “This is diplomacy. Sometimes it comes down to two men in a room. I have no faith in the UN anymore. I do have faith in my ability to negotiate with this man.” Petrov gives Underwood a final, humiliating condition: remove Claire as UN ambassador.

We also see how quickly Underwood’s commitment to the peace plan can give way to domestic issues. Travelling in Iowa and New Hampshire seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, Underwood would rather discuss his domestic economic agenda, but the public remain focused on the failure of his peace plan and the UN mission. The Jordan Valley soon becomes a millstone around Underwood’s neck, and he decides that it should be abandoned entirely for the sake of political expediency. For Underwood, peace can be pursued, but only for as long as the public have the stomach for it.

Claire and Secretary Durant represent the liberal internationalist and idealist streak of American foreign policy. They believe in the power of institutions such as the UN in resolving the conflict. President Underwood, the realist, ignores their advice, however, believing that only power and strength (of men) matter in the end. Claire and Frank may represent competing visions of international law. Yet they also represent two complimenting elements of foreign policy. Just as in their marriage, a mix of hard-nosed realism and high-minded idealism can be used to pursue their objectives. International institutions like the UN can be used, but only insofar as they remain a vehicle for American interests. When these two approaches come into competition, however, there is no question for the audience about which one of these is more effective. Just as President Underwood is about to clinch a deal with Petrov his plan is thwarted by Claire’s impassioned speech on behalf of Michael Corrigan (Christian Camargo), a gay rights activist who committed suicide while in detention in Russia.

Power and International Law

House of Cards is a story of power. Power, Underwood tells us, is more important than money: “Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after ten years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries.” When it comes to elections, however, Frank admits, “money gives power, well, a run for its money.” Power is central to Underwood’s understanding of justice and morality. After attending his first military funeral as President at Arlington National Cemetery, Underwood meets the motorcycle-riding chaplain Bishop Charles Eddis (John Doman) under the cover of darkness, to discuss the nature of justice. Underwood cannot understand the God of the New Testament, who tells us to turn the other cheek and to love thy neighbour. Frank asks why Jesus did not fight rather than let himself be sacrificed: “I understand the Old Testament God, whose power is absolute, who rules through fear. But… him…” (gesturing towards a statue of Jesus). This view of power and justice pervades Underwood’s presidency, especially his approach to foreign policy. Statecraft, to Underwood, is about power. International law is merely a means to an end, another battleground where nations can duel, and where the most post powerful usually comes out on top.

Be it electoral laws, the US Constitution or the UN Charter, law is presented as just an obstacle preventing Underwood from getting what he wants. But law can also be a useful tool for pursuing these goals. For example, Underwood asks his lawyers whether there is sufficient leeway in the Stafford Act (a law on disaster relief and emergency assistance) for the President to interpret high unemployment as an ‘emergency’. This would allow the Federal Government to implement Underwood’s signature ‘America Works’ jobs plan, a plan that both parties in Congress have refused to support. Using the disaster relief law to raid FEMA funds in this way is not only unorthodox, but possibly also illegal. When Underwood is told that it will certainly be challenged in the Courts, his response shows his consequentialist rationale for using the law in this way: “Well, even so, by the time that happens, people will see what America Works looks like.” To Underwood the ethics of his actions are judged only by their outcome, not by the means he uses to pursue them. International law and institutions play the same role in Underwood’s foreign policy. International human rights are merely a way to embarrass Petrov over his jailing of gay rights activists. When these ideals get in the way of striking a deal with Petrov, human rights must be abandoned in favour of achieving broader geo-political aims. The decision to use of the UN General Assembly is presented in a similar manner. Rather than being based on commitment to multilateral institutions and international law, it is a clever ploy to side-line Petrov and weaken Russia.

House of Cards also tells us something about international law through what is left out. International law plays a role in Underwood’s peace plan, but it does not feature at all in another of the sub-plots of the series: the use of drone strikes against terrorist targets, particular against an American citizen. International legal arguments do not come into play at all when discussing the use of force in this context. The legal arguments are purely domestic, relating to issues such as executive power and state secrets. The use of drones is an issue with clear international law elements, House of Cards shows that the only legal impediments are the US Constitution and the President’s own conscience.

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