Just War and the Construct of the West
By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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In an age of terrorism, guerilla and total warfare the medieval doctrine of Just War needs to be re-defined. Moreover, issues of legitimacy, efficacy and morality should not be confused. Legitimacy is conferred by institutions. Not all morally justified wars are, therefore, automatically legitimate. Frequently the efficient execution of a battle plan involves immoral or even illegal acts.
As international law evolves beyond the ancient percepts of sovereignty, it should incorporate new thinking about pre-emptive strikes, human rights violations as casus belli and the role and standing of international organizations, insurgents and liberation movements.
Yet, inevitably, what constitutes "justice" depends heavily on the cultural and societal contexts, narratives, mores, and values of the disputants. Thus, one cannot answer the deceivingly simple question: "Is this war a just war?" - without first asking: "According to whom? In which context? By which criteria? Based on what values? In which period in history and where?"
Being members of Western Civilization, whether by choice or by default, our understanding of what constitutes a just war is crucially founded on our shifting perceptions of the West.
Table of Contents
I. Hitler and the Invention of the West
II. The Demise of the West?
III. The New Rome - America, the Reluctant Empire
IV. The Doctrine of Just War
I. Hitler and the Invention of the West
In his book - really an extended essay - "Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order" - Robert Kagan claims that the political construct of the "West" was conjured up by the United States and Western Europe during the Cold War as a response to the threat posed by the nuclear-armed, hostile and expansionist U.S.S.R.
The implosion of the Soviet Bloc rendered the "West" an obsolete, meaningless, and cumbersome concept, on the path to perdition. Cracks in the common front of the Western allies - the Euro-Atlantic structures - widened into a full-fledged and unbridgeable rift in the run-up to the war in Iraq (see the next chapter, "The Demise of the West").
According to this U.S.-centric view, Europe missed an opportunity to preserve the West as the organizing principle of post Cold War geopolitics by refusing to decisively side with the United States against the enemies of Western civilization, such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein.
Such reluctance is considered by Americans to be both naive and hazardous, proof of the lack of vitality and decadence of "Old Europe". The foes of the West, steeped in conspiracy theories and embittered by centuries of savage colonialism, will not find credible the alleged disintegration of the Western alliance, say the Americans. They will continue to strike, even as the constituents of the erstwhile West drift apart and weaken.
Yet, this analysis misses the distinction between the West as a civilization and the West as a fairly recent geopolitical construct.
Western civilization is millennia old - though it had become self-aware and exclusionary only during the Middle Ages or, at the latest, the Reformation. Max Weber (1864-1920) attributed its success to its ethical and, especially, religious foundations. At the other extreme, biological determinists, such as Giambattista Vico (1668-1744) and Oswald Spengler (1880-1936), predicted its inevitable demise. Spengler authored the controversial "Decline of the West" in 1918-22.
Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) disagreed with Spengler in "A Study of History" (1934-61). He believed in the possibility of cultural and institutional regeneration. But, regardless of persuasion, no historian or philosopher in the first half of the twentieth century grasped the "West" in political or military terms. The polities involved were often bitter enemies and with disparate civil systems.
In the second half of the past century, some historiographies - notably "The Rise of the West" by W. H. McNeill (1963), "Unfinished History of the World" (1971) by Hugh Thomas, "History of the World" by J. M. Roberts (1976), and, more recently, "Millennium" by Felip Fernandez-Armesto (1995) and "From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life" by Jacques Barzun (2000) - ignored the heterogeneous nature of the West in favor of an "evolutionary", Euro-centric idea of progress and, in the case of Fernandez-Armesto and Barzun, decline.
Yet, these linear, developmental views of a single "Western" entity - whether a civilization or a political-military alliance - are very misleading. The West as the fuzzy name given to a set of interlocking alliances is a creature of the Cold War (1946-1989). It is both missionary and pluralistic - and, thus, dynamic and ever-changing. Some members of the political West share certain common values - liberal democracy, separation of church and state, respect for human rights and private property, for instance. Others - think Turkey or Israel - do not.
The "West", in other words, is a fluid, fuzzy and non-monolithic concept. As William Anthony Hay notes in "Is There Still a West?" (published in the September 2002 issue of "Watch on the West", Volume 3, Number 8, by the Foreign Policy Research Institute): "If Western civilization, along with particular national or regional identities, is merely an imagined community or an intellectual construct that serves the interest of dominant groups, then it can be reconstructed to serve the needs of current agendas."
Though the idea of the West, as a convenient operational abstraction, preceded the Cold War - it is not the natural extension or the inescapable denouement of Western civilization. Rather, it is merely the last phase and manifestation of the clash of titans between Germany on the one hand and Russia on the other hand.
Europe spent the first half of the 19th century
(following the 1815 Congress of Vienna) containing France. The trauma of the
Napoleonic wars was the last in a medley of conflicts with an increasingly
menacing France stretching back to the times of Louis XIV. The Concert of Europe
was specifically designed to reflect the interests of the Big Powers, establish
their borders of expansion in Europe, and create a continental "balance of
deterrence". For a few decades it proved to be a success.
The rise of a unified, industrially mighty and narcissistic Germany erased most of these achievements. By closely monitoring France rather than a Germany on the ascendant, the Big Powers were still fighting the Napoleonic wars - while ignoring, at their peril, the nature and likely origin of future conflagrations. They failed to notice that Germany was bent on transforming itself into the economic and political leader of a united Europe, by force of arms, if need be.
The German "September 1914 Plan", for
instance, envisaged an
economic union imposed on the vanquished nations of Europe following a military
victory. It was self-described as a "(plan for establishing) an economic
organization ... through mutual customs agreements ... including France,
Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Austria, Poland, and perhaps Italy, Sweden, and
Norway". It is eerily reminiscent of the European Union.
The 1918 Brest-Litovsk armistice treaty between Germany and Russia recognized the East-West divide. The implosion of the four empires - the Ottoman, Habsburg, Hohenzollern and Romanov - following the first world war, only brought to the fore the gargantuan tensions between central Europe and its east.
But it was Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) who fathered the West as we know it today.
Hitler sought to expand the German Lebensraum and to found a giant "slave state" in the territories of the east, Russia, Poland, and Ukraine included. He never regarded the polities of west Europe or the United States as enemies. On the contrary, he believed that Germany and these countries are natural allies faced with a mortal, cunning and ruthless foe: the U.S.S.R. In this, as in many other things, he proved prescient.
Ironically, Hitler's unmitigated thuggery and vile atrocities did finally succeed to midwife the West - but as an anti-German coalition. The reluctant allies first confronted Germany and Stalinist Russia with which Berlin had a non-aggression pact. When Hitler then proceeded to attack the U.S.S.R. in 1941, the West hastened to its defense.
But - once the war was victoriously over - this unnatural liaison between West and East disintegrated. A humbled and divided West Germany reverted to its roots. It became a pivotal pillar of the West - a member of the European Economic Community (later renamed the European Union) and of NATO. Hitler's fervent wish and vision - a Europe united around Germany against the Red Menace - was achieved posthumously.
That it was Hitler who invented the West is no
cruel historical joke.
Hitler and Nazism are often portrayed as an apocalyptic and seismic break with European history. Yet the truth is that they were the culmination and reification of European history in the 19th century. Europe's annals of colonialism have prepared it for the range of phenomena associated with the Nazi regime - from industrial murder to racial theories, from slave labour to the forcible annexation of territory.
Germany was a colonial power no different to murderous Belgium or Britain. What set it apart is that it directed its colonial attentions at the heartland of Europe - rather than at Africa or Asia. Both World Wars were colonial wars fought on European soil.
Moreover, Nazi Germany innovated by applying
to the white race itself prevailing racial theories, usually reserved to non-whites. It
first targeted the Jews - a non-controversial proposition - but then
expanded its racial "science" to encompass "east European" whites, such as the Poles and the
Germany was not alone in its malignant nationalism. The far right in France was as pernicious. Nazism - and Fascism - were world ideologies, adopted enthusiastically in places as diverse as Iraq, Egypt, Norway, Latin America, and Britain. At the end of the 1930's, liberal capitalism, communism, and fascism (and its mutations) were locked in a mortal battle of ideologies.
Hitler's mistake was to delusionally believe in the affinity between capitalism
and Nazism - an affinity enhanced, to his mind, by Germany's corporatism and by
the existence of a common enemy: global communism.
Nazism was a religion, replete with godheads and rituals. It meshed seamlessly with the racist origins of the West, as expounded by the likes of Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). The proselytizing and patronizing nature of the West is deep rooted. Colonialism - a distinctly Western phenomenon - always had discernible religious overtones and often collaborated with missionary religion. "The White Man's burden" of civilizing the "savages" was widely perceived as ordained by God. The church was the extension of the colonial power's army and trading companies.
Thus, following two ineffably ruinous world wars, Europe finally shifted its geopolitical sights from France to Germany. In an effort to prevent a repeat of Hitler, the Big Powers of the West, led by France, established an "ever closer" European Union. Germany was (inadvertently) split, sandwiched between East and West and, thus, restrained.
East Germany faced a military-economic union
(the Warsaw Pact) cum eastern empire (the late U.S.S.R.). West Germany was
surrounded by a military union (NATO) cum emerging Western economic
supranational structure (the EU). The Cold War was fought all over the world -
but in Europe it revolved around Germany.
The collapse of the eastern flank (the Soviet - "evil" - Empire) of this implicit anti-German containment geo-strategy led to the re-emergence of a united Germany. Furthermore, Germany is in the process of securing its hegemony over the EU by applying the political weight commensurate with its economic and demographic might.
Germany is a natural and historical leader of
central Europe - the EU's and NATO's future Lebensraum and the target of their
expansionary predilections ("integration"). Thus, virtually overnight, Germany
came to dominate the Western component of the anti-German containment master
plan, while the Eastern component - the Soviet Bloc - has chaotically
The EU is reacting by trying to assume the role formerly played by the U.S.S.R. EU integration is an attempt to assimilate former Soviet satellites and dilute Germany's power by re-jigging rules of voting and representation. If successful, this strategy will prevent Germany from bidding yet again for a position of hegemony in Europe by establishing a "German Union" separate from the EU. It is all still the same tiresome and antiquated game of continental Big Powers. Even Britain maintains its Victorian position of "splendid isolation".
The exclusion of both Turkey and Russia from these re-alignments is also a direct descendant of the politics of the last two centuries. Both will probably gradually drift away from European (and Western) structures and seek their fortunes in the geopolitical twilight zones of the world.
The USA is unlikely to be of much help to Europe
as it reasserts the Monroe doctrine and attends to its growing Pacific and Asian
preoccupations. It may assist the EU to cope with Russian (and to a lesser
extent, Turkish) designs in the tremulously tectonic regions of the Caucasus,
oil-rich and China-bordering Central Asia, and the Middle East. But it will not
do so in Central Europe, in the Baltic, and in the Balkan.
In the long-run, Muslims are the natural allies of the United States in its role as a budding Asian power, largely supplanting the former Soviet Union. Thus, the threat of militant Islam is unlikely to revive the West. Rather, it may create a new geopolitical formation comprising the USA and moderate Muslim countries, equally threatened by virulent religious fundamentalism. Later, Russia, China and India - all destabilized by growing and vociferous Muslim minorities - may join in.
Ludwig Wittgenstein would have approved. He once wrote that the spirit of "the vast stream of European and American civilization in which we all stand ... (is) alien and uncongenial (to me)".
II. The Demise of the West?
The edifice of the "international community" and the project of constructing a "world order" rely on the unity of liberal ideals at the core of the organizing principle of the transatlantic partnership, Western Civilization. Yet, the recent intercourse between its constituents - the Anglo-Saxons (USA and UK) versus the Continentals ("Old Europe" led by France and Germany) - revealed an uneasy and potentially destructive dialectic.
The mutually exclusive choice seems now to be between ad-hoc coalitions of states able and willing to impose their values on deviant or failed regimes by armed force if need be - and a framework of binding multilateral agreements and institutions with coercion applied as a last resort.
Robert Kagan sums the differences in his book:
"The United States ... resorts to force more quickly and, compared with Europe, is less patient with diplomacy. Americans generally see the world divided between good and evil, between friends and enemies, while Europeans see a more complex picture. When confronting real or potential adversaries, Americans generally favor policies of coercion rather than persuasion, emphasizing punitive sanctions over inducements to better behavior, the stick over the carrot. Americans tend to seek finality in international affairs: They want problems solved, threats eliminated ... (and) increasingly tend toward unilateralism in international affairs. They are less inclined to act through international institutions such as the United Nations, less likely to work cooperatively with other nations to pursue common goals, more skeptical about international law, and more willing to operate outside its strictures when they deem it necessary, or even merely useful.
Europeans ... approach problems with greater nuance and sophistication. They try to influence others through subtlety and indirection. They are more tolerant of failure, more patient when solutions don't come quickly. They generally favor peaceful responses to problems, preferring negotiation, diplomacy, and persuasion to coercion. They are quicker to appeal to international law, international conventions, and international opinion to adjudicate disputes. They try to use commercial and economic ties to bind nations together. They often emphasize process over result, believing that ultimately process can become substance."
Kagan correctly observes that the weaker a polity is militarily, the stricter its adherence to international law, the only protection, however feeble, from bullying. The case of Russia apparently supports his thesis. Vladimir Putin, presiding over a decrepit and bloated army, naturally insists that the world must be governed by international regulation and not by the "rule of the fist".
But Kagan got it backwards as far as the European Union is concerned. Its members are not compelled to uphold international prescripts by their indisputable and overwhelming martial deficiency. Rather, after centuries of futile bloodletting, they choose not to resort to weapons and, instead, to settle their differences juridically.
As Ivo Daalder wrote in a review of Kagan's tome in the New York Times:
"The differences produced by the disparity of power are compounded by the very different historical experiences of the United States and Europe this past half century. As the leader of the 'free world,' Washington provided security for many during a cold war ultimately won without firing a shot. The threat of military force and its occasional use were crucial tools in securing this success.
Europe's experience has been very different. After 1945 Europe rejected balance-of-power politics and instead embraced reconciliation, multilateral cooperation and integration as the principal means to safeguard peace that followed the world's most devastating conflict. Over time Europe came to see this experience as a model of international behavior for others to follow."
Thus, Putin is not a European in the full sense of the word. He supports an international framework of dispute settlement because he has no armed choice, not because it tallies with his deeply held convictions and values. According to Kagan, Putin is, in essence, an American: he believes that the world order ultimately rests on military power and the ability to project it.
It is this reflexive reliance on power that renders the United States suspect. Privately, Europeans regard America itself - and especially the abrasive Bush administration - as a rogue state, prone to jeopardizing world peace and stability. Observing U.S. fits of violence, bullying, unilateral actions and contemptuous haughtiness - most European are not sure who is the greater menace: Saddam Hussein or George Bush.
"Contrary to the claims of pundits and politicians, the current crisis in United States-European relations is not caused by President Bush's gratuitous unilateralism, German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's pacifism, or French President Jacques Chirac's anti-Americanism, though they no doubt play a part. Rather, the crisis is deep, structural and enduring."
Kagan slides into pop psychobabble when he tries to explore the charged emotional background to this particular clash of civilizations:
"The transmission of the European miracle (the European Union as the shape of things to come) to the rest of the world has become Europe's new mission civilisatrice ... Thus we arrive at what may be the most important reason for the divergence in views between Europe and the United States: America's power and its willingness to exercise that power - unilaterally if necessary - constitute a threat to Europe's new sense of mission."
Kagan lumps together Britain and France, Bulgaria and Germany, Russia and Denmark. Such shallow and uninformed caricatures are typical of American "thinkers", prone to sound-bytes and their audience's deficient attention span.
Moreover, Europeans willingly joined America in forcibly eradicating the brutal, next-door, regime of Slobodan Milosevic. It is not the use of power that worries (some) Europeans - but its gratuitous, unilateral and exclusive application. As even von Clausewitz conceded, military might is only one weapon in the arsenal of international interaction and it should never precede, let alone supplant, diplomacy.
As Daalder observes:
"(Lasting security) requires a commitment to uphold common rules and norms, to work out differences short of the use of force, to promote common interests through enduring structures of cooperation, and to enhance the well-being of all people by promoting democracy and human rights and ensuring greater access to open markets."
American misbehavior is further exacerbated by the simplistic tendency to view the world in terms of ethical dyads: black and white, villain versus saint, good fighting evil. This propensity is reminiscent of a primitive psychological defense mechanism known as splitting. Armed conflict should be the avoidable outcome of gradual escalation, replete with the unambiguous communication of intentions. It should be a last resort - not a default arbiter.
Finally, in an age of globalization and the increasingly free flow of people, ideas, goods, services and information - old fashioned arm twisting is counter-productive and ineffective. No single nation can rule the world coercively. No single system of values and preferences can prevail. No official version of the events can survive the onslaught of blogs and multiple news reporting. Ours is a heterogeneous, dialectic, pluralistic, multipolar and percolating world. Some like it this way. America clearly doesn't.
III. The New Rome - America, the Reluctant Empire
IV. The Doctrine of Just War
The Inverted Saint - Hitler
Fascism - The Tensile Permanence
Left and Right in a Divided Europe
Communism, Capitalism, Feudalism
A Classification of Cultures
Why America is Hated
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