Sat, 29 Mar 2003

War is becoming unnatural

Jonathan Power Columnist Madrid

War, the systematic and organized use of violence with all its bestial destructiveness, is peculiar to the most advanced of animals, man. Writing in the early 16th century, the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus considered war "unnatural". "Animals do not make war on one another. Whoever heard of 100,000 animals rushing together to butcher each other, as men do everywhere?"

It was the European thinkers of the 18th century Enlightenment who saw the issue of war in perhaps more realistic terms. "Want of a common judge with authority puts all men in a state of nature," wrote John Locke.

Or as Michael Howard, the war historian, has written more recently, "War is an inherent element in a system of sovereign states which lack any supreme and acknowledged arbiter."

There is probably something in this. The few societies which have never practiced war appear to have a common ingredient, a homogeneous culture and a system of authority refined and effective enough to resolve disputes without recourse to arms.

The Eskimo tribes of Greenland don't even have a word for war. Some of the pre-Colombian Indian peoples of North America also developed highly ritualized forms of conflict that stop short of war. Egypt of the Pharaohs, a far more complex society than any of these, didn't go to war for over 1,000 years.

The question we now face -- and which appeared to be out of the framework of the thinking of those in power in Washington -- is how we move from a situation where the powder chain is laid to one where by negotiation, by agreement, by order and by institution, the growth of armaments and the chances of conflict can be seriously diminished. Law on which we all agree is our only hope.

The Romans used to say: Inter arma silent leges -- In the time of war law is silent. Our job must be to give law resonance and strength; to provide the framework of trust and practice that can contain the forces of a hostile world. This is not an impossible task. In the last half century it has been done in Europe, the crucible of most of the world's worst wars. It has been done in most of the countries of South America, at least in inter-state relations. And it has been done in much of the South Pacific and indeed within the continent of North America. The constitution of Japan forbids it to make war.

Some may be tempted to conclude that this war shows that the world is going backwards. I think this is a misinterpretation of what went on in the great debates at the UN Security Council. The feverish debating managed to delay war by many months. It also gave time for anybody who could read a newspaper, even the more conservative ones, to realize that Washington and London had only a paucity of evidence to prove that Iraq was the threat they said it was and that the supposed connections with al-Qaeda were tenuous at best.

It allowed public opinion in Europe to move from its stance of deferring to Washington's judgment on matters concerning life and death to becoming independently minded in a way it never had before. It made Mexico and Canada, the United States' near neighbors and most important trading partners, realize that there are overriding matters that push aside economic self interest.

It made the Africans, who held 20 percent of the votes on the Security Council and who desperately need more American aid, that on some critical issues principles and judgment have to come first. And, not least, it made Russia that has been tempted to develop a condominium of power with the U.S. over Europe's head, that it's only hope for a stable political future lay with allying itself with the major European powers and looking for its anchoring point inside the European Union.

It also made the UN more relevant, not less. The U.S. and the UK may have pushed it aside to the anger of many international lawyers. But the UN itself as an institution can hold it head high. It didn't try to compromise its principles based on its Charter as it did at the time of the misguided Kosovo adventure. The U.S. has little choice but to keep the channels to it open if it is to make a post war Iraq viable.

Moreover, George Bush with his instinctive abhorrence of the UN does not reflect a majority of American public opinion. Before long there will an American president elected who will not ride rough shod over it and a Congress better educated in the limits of strong arm tactics.

Despite this war, the world is making progress -- towards the emergence of what Immanuel Kant called " a state of peace" -- an international system of states bound by law, an international society of free citizens.

Freedom from war is not an illusion. The life of civilization and mankind is not predetermined by unshakeable physical causations, much less theories of realpolitik. We can intervene and shape its direction. We need reason, faith, generosity and imaginative experiment in the reach of international law. And then we can take even further steps forward to show that Erasmus' early intuition was essentially right.