However the Syrian crisis turns out, it holds a lesson for American leaders. They have often been ready to confront those who violate international norms, such as Syrian President Bashar Assad, but reluctant to join worldwide agreements that express those norms. Such treaties would help deter the would-be perpetrators and would increase the legitimacy of actions taken against them.
American leaders have been suspicious of diplomacy and multilateral negotiating, but the founders took a different view. It was Benjamin Franklin who devised the first treaty provision restricting the conduct of future war, and at the behest of the new Congress, John Adams, John Jay and Thomas Jefferson helped bring it into force.
The story starts during the American Revolution, when Franklin was the rebellious country's minister to France. Outraged by British atrocities — the burning of American towns, encouragement of scalp-taking, killings of prisoners of war — he was determined to set humane rules for warfare.
Franklin believed that those working for the benefit of society should be safe from military attack. In 1779, news came that Captain James Cook's Pacific Ocean scientific expedition was heading home to England, and Franklin ordered American commanders to let the ships pass. Indeed, he wrote to the captains that they were to afford the party, "as common friends to mankind, all the assistance in your power which they may happen to stand in need of." (Franklin didn't know that a month earlier, Cook had been killed in Hawaii.) After the war, Britain's Royal Society awarded Franklin a gold medal for this remarkable action.
Britain and America began peace negotiations in 1782, and Franklin saw his chance to put his principle — immunity in wartime for those contributing to human welfare — into an international treaty. With the approval of fellow peace commissioners Adams, Jay and Henry Laurens, he proposed a provision stating that if Britain and America went to war in the future, they would not harm "women and children, scholars of every faculty, cultivators of the earth, artizans, manufacturers, and fishermen … and in general all others whose occupations are for the common subsistence and benefit of mankind." Their navies and privateers would not molest ships carrying the necessities of life.
Britain rejected the article, and the 1783 Treaty of Paris was signed without it. Congress, meanwhile, approved it and included it in a draft for commercial treaties that Franklin, Jefferson and Adams were to negotiate with each European nation.
In July 1785, just days before he left Paris and sailed home to Philadelphia for the last time, Franklin signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Prussia. It was the first agreement to include his provision.
The Prussian-American treaty also required humane treatment for prisoners of war. This had been the subject of agreements since the 16th century, but Franklin's idea of protecting those laboring for humanity was different — it limited the conduct of warfare.
Until the Prussian treaty, what few restraints there were on warfare had come from religious edicts or self-protective prudence — combatants each avoiding the killings of prisoners of war in hopes that the enemy would hold back too. Some agreements were made only for a current war: In 1675, France and the Holy Roman Empire, already fighting, agreed not to use bullets that were poisoned or shaped to do more than the usual damage. It was meant to last through the rest of the conflict, but it wasn't intended to set a continuing norm.
Franklin's article in the Prussian-American treaty was something new. It's true that it involved only two countries, but he wanted such norms to be widely accepted as the "law of nations."
This was to come. The 1899 Hague Convention saw 23 states banning, among other evils, projectiles containing asphyxiating gases. The modern example — the 1993 convention prohibiting chemical weapons — now has 191 signatories, with Syria announcing on Thursday that it would join the list.
Should diplomacy fail, action against Syria would be a symbolic message that the world abhors chemical attacks. To make such messages legitimate, the world must express its attitude beforehand by agreeing to bans on certain conduct and weapons.
Despite Franklin's example, America has not always led the way. Although the U.S. signed the chemical weapons treaty, it is among the minority of countries refusing to ratify conventions against land mines, cluster munitions and nuclear tests. It has opposed stronger international restrictions on incendiary weapons and provisions for monitoring biological weapons.
Some see George Washington and other founders as wanting an isolationist foreign policy. Indeed, they were wary of political or military alliances with other states. But they also pioneered an international agreement on the conduct of war. Such treaties fit American values. They are part of the country's heritage, in line with the aspirations of the founders.
Barry O'Neill teaches international relations at UCLA.Copyright © 2015, CT Now