Strange Angel: Some Reflections on War

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The philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin owned a print, Angelus novus, by Paul Klee. In his essay, Theses on the philosophy of history, Benjamin’s Ninth Thesis recalled that it depicted:

An angel…who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment…to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.

This image and idea has been influential in philosophy and culture, for example, check out this song by Laurie Anderson.

A while ago, I was asked to write some reflections on war and international law. Deadlines whooshed past, but it is finally finished. International law, at least traditionally, saw war and peace as mutually exclusive—“there is no middle ground between war and peace” (Grotius, De iure belli ac pacis (1625) Book III, Ch.XXI, 1), although this dichotomy predated Grotius by centuries. At least since the end of the First World War, peace has been seen as the normal condition in international relations, with war characterised as an abnormal state of affairs. But what is the function of war in the international community?

The First World War was meant to be “the war to end all wars”. While this proved to be a false hope, it brought in its wake the League of Nations, at the core of which was the doctrine of collective security. The historian George Egerton has described collective security as the central myth of the twentieth century liberal internationalist ideology. In this sense, “myth”, does not mean something fictitious or illusory, but rather is:

a dramatic didactic narrative or projection of events, social conditions, and human actions, an imaginative presentation of history and destiny with intense meaning for a social group or class.

Myths are a feature common to all political systems, and have the function of encapsulating and communicating an underlying ideology, its values, and beliefs. Egerton argues that collective security, an apparent guarantee of peace, ascribed sense and value to the privations of the war, with the League being seen as “a cause, perhaps the only cause, capable of giving satisfying moral and ideological direction in the wake of the Great War and its personal and social tragedies” (506).

This desire for some means to ensure peace was a reaction to the egocentrism of the sovereign State, the ideology that States were free to pursue their own interests, employing force to do so if this were thought necessary. In the early nineteenth century, Clausewitz famously expressed the view that “war is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means” (On war (1832–34), Book 8, Ch.6, sect.B). The international lawyer generally credited as the key figure in throwing off the restraints on resort to war embodied in just war theories, such as they were, is Vattel. In Droit des gens (1758), he conceded that arbitration is a “reasonable mode” to decide disputes which do not “directly interest the safety of the nation” (Book II, xviii, §329), but was adamant that where a dispute threatened an essential right then resort to a peaceful mode of dispute settlement was redundant and the State:

will, in such a quarrel, exert her utmost efforts, exhaust every resource, and gloriously lavish her blood to the last drop if necessary…and if fortune prove unfavourable, a free people will prefer death to servitude. (Book II, xviii, §332)

Vattel was clear that the State was essentially free to determine if it considers a dispute threatened or encroached upon its vital interests and whether it should resort to war in their defence. This is an egocentrism which, to all intents and purposes, was unfettered:

it belongs to each nation to judge whether her situation will admit of pacific measures, before she has recourse to arms. Now, as the voluntary law of nations ordains, that, for these reasons, we should esteem lawful whatever a nation thinks proper to do in virtue of her natural liberty. (Book II, xviii, §335)

Vattel’s account of war encapsulates a myth of war which communicates the ideology of the autonomous sovereignty of each State, and the necessity to prosecute its perceived national and vital interests at any cost. Philip Allott claims that Vattel’s Droit des gens:

was on the desk of every diplomat for a century or more. It was a book which formed the minds of those who formed international reality, the international reality which is still our reality today. (The health of nations (2002) 416, s.14.45)

The League Covenant did not ban war: that had to wait until the 1928 Pact of Paris when States decided to “”renounce [war] as an instrument of national policy”, with a more comprehensive prohibition on the threat or use of armed force finally being embodied in Article 2(4) of the United Nations Charter. The problem was that no legal definition of “war” existed before the League Covenant, as governmental resort to force was sufficient evidence that a state of “war” existed:

When States employed force against each other, and were legally free to do so, it was of little interest to anyone whether it was technically war or not…no one seems to have thought that a definition of war was needed. It is only in recent applications of the Covenant of the League, and of the Pact of Paris, that the realisation has come that, if war is to be outlawed, one must know what war is. (C Eagleton, ‘The attempt to define war’, 15 International Conciliation 237 (1932-33) 238 and 261).

Nor, indeed, was any consensus reached on a definition during the inter-war period when the need for this was pressing. Reviewing proposed definitions, Eagleton commented, “The variety which appears in these definitions is obvious, and reveals the surprising confusion which exists” (261) which led to “a great deal of uncertainty as to the meaning of war” (282). This amounted to “Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres/Trying to learn to use words” (TS Eliot, East Coker (1940), lines 173–174).

The doctrine of collective security has always had its discontents. For example, in the midst of the Second World War, Georg Schwarzenberger argued that:

In a system of power politics, war is not an unhappy incident or an incalculable catastrophe, but the culminating point in a rising scale of pressure, the last resort of power politics when diplomacy fails to achieve its objects by the threat of force or the application of less drastic forms of pressure. (‘Jus pacis ac belli? Prolegomena to a sociology of international law’, 37 AJIL 460 (1943) 466)

This reflects Schwarzenberger’s rejection of idealist natural law doctrine where peace was seen as the normal state of affairs, secured by just war doctrine. He thought that peace “is nothing but the interval between the dynamic periods in which previous systems of power politics undergo a process of confirmation or transformation”. As peace was the result of force, force was necessary to uphold the peace, and so he concluded that there was no intrinsic difference between peace and war (479).

War appears no longer to be an operative term in international law, not simply because of the difficulties encountered in its definition, but also because it has been replaced by the apparently more tractable notion of armed conflict, the simple “threat or use of force”, although that is not without its difficulties. A century after the outbreak of the First World War, however, one might wonder if we are witnessing a paradigm shift in the notion, myth, and significance of “war”.

Does the “war on terror” (a loaded term if ever there was one), which manifestly bears little relation to the traditional idea of “war”, at least in terms of participants, if not in the means employed in its prosecution, constitute a fundamental change in the myth of war, signifying a shift in the ideology underpinning the nature and conduct of international relations? Given the current situation in the Middle East, particularly the response to the rise of the so-called Islamic State and the defensive rhetoric invoked to justify forcible action against it, are we seeing an attempt by some States to redefine “collective security”? Are we seeing an attempt to defend the pluralism encompassed in the ideology of liberal internationalism against an absolute certainty of value based in theology by using, rather than by restraining, force? On this blog, Dapo Akande and Marko Milanovic, and Paulina Starski have expressed misgivings about the implications of Security Council resolution 2249 (2015). Marc Weller has commented that resolution 2249 identified Islamic State, the Al-Nusrah Front, and other individuals and entities associated with Al-Qaida as constituting “unprecedented threat to international peace and security”, but “despite employing the language of collective security, the Council was unable to take collective, Chapter VII, action to engage that global threat forcibly”. Are we witnessing the decentralisation of collective security focused on the Security Council, towards a much looser assertion of force by States in defence of what they perceive to be their vital interests? Like Benjamin’s angel, are we simply being driven backwards into the future, aware of and yet reliving the past:

Until the Crimean War (1854-6) [the Ottoman Empire] was not considered as “participating in the public law of Europe”…The Turks had come into the orbit of the Western Powers by violent irruption, and with the apparent aim of extending the Moslem power to the whole world. A subversive Power like that could not be treated on the same plane with the Powers that shared the common tradition of Greece and Rome. The invading Turks were only stayed at the gates of Vienna. They were regarded rather as a menace than as a State. (T Baty, ‘Abuse of terms: “recognition”: “war”’, 30 AJIL 377 (1936) 392-393)

Are we about to replay history in the rubble of Iraq and Syria?

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