Mars Takes The Field: The role warfare has played throughout history in reconciling the irreconcilable and solving the insoluble is beyond dispute. Sometimes, if peace is not in prospect, it pays to give war a chance.
THE RUBBLE in Europe and Asia was still smoking when representatives from 51 nations assembled in the undamaged United States city of San Francisco in June of 1945. Calling themselves the “United Nations”, they there inscribed their collective determination, “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind”.
Surveying the corpse-strewn landscape which separates us from those hopeful signatories of ‘45, you’d have to say that Peace has failed. Over the past 70 years, barely a day has passed without the scourge of war bringing untold sorrow to at least one unfortunate member of the family of nations somewhere in the world.
That the existence of the United Nations has spared us all a third global conflict is less a testimony to the wisdom and forbearance of a chastened humanity, than it is to the certainty that, being waged with nuclear weapons, World War III would’ve had no victors and no survivors.
And yet, in spite of the UN’s consistent failure to save succeeding generations from its effects, War continues to be both rejected and condemned as an instrument for the advancement of national policy. Though member states of the United Nations have regularly unleashed war upon their fellow UN members for precisely that purpose, the pious hopes enshrined in the UN Charter remain the official expression of what is – and is not – acceptable international conduct.
Is humanity well-served by this extraordinary hypocrisy?
Extraordinary Hypocrisy: The United Nations headquarter in New York City.
When a prominent politician from the United States, the nation which, in complete contravention of the UN Charter, launched a full-scale military invasion of Iraq, shamelessly castigates the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, for “violating Ukraine’s national sovereignty”, one struggles to muster any kind of respect for the existing international system.
Indeed, one wonders (heretically) whether the world might not be better off if the number of nation states belonging to the United Nations (currently 193) was significantly reduced. With the benefit of hindsight, isn’t it at least arguable that the much-vaunted principle of “national self-determination”, far from making the world a more peaceful place, has actually increased the incidence of organised violence?
In a similar vein, wouldn’t it be a lot easier to respond to global crises, such as anthropogenic global warming, if humanity was aggregated into larger, rather than smaller, political units? If it’s possible to construct banks and corporations that are “too big to fail”, might it not also be possible to create states that are “too big to lose”?
And where nations are embroiled in bitter conflict, as in the Middle East, shouldn’t it be acknowledged, honestly, by nations outside the region, that war may be the only effective means of re-arranging the pieces on the board?
Even more heretically, should we not ask whether nation states are even the most sensible solution to conflicts whose origins lie not in ethnicity or geography but in matters of religious doctrine?
Certainly, it is the view of James Traub, from the Centre for International Co-Operation, that what we are witnessing in the Middle East is not a “clash of civilisations”, but clashes within a civilisation. The war, argues Traub, is “not between ‘us’ and ‘them’ but inside the Islamic world.”
Would the planet be better or worse off if the outcome of this war inside the Islamic world was the emergence of a political entity roughly akin to the open, tolerant and inclusive Abassid Caliphate that once stretched all the way from Baghdad, in what is now Iraq, to Tunisia? Such an outcome would have less to do with redrawing national boundaries than it would with redefining the way Muslims express their religion.
The rules governing the relationships between nation states, as elaborated by we Europeans, are, in part, the product of our own civilisation’s inability to resolve religious schisms. But, whether the conflicts currently tearing the Islamic world apart can be resolved by the principles enshrined the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants, is highly debateable.
Beyond dispute, however, is the role warfare has played throughout history in reconciling the irreconcilable and solving the insoluble. Sometimes, if peace is not in prospect, it pays to give war a chance. Alexander the Great didn’t unravel the impossibly complex Gordian Knot with his fingers. He used his sword.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and the Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 February 2015.