Thursday, January 22, 2004

France Falling – Stephen Launay on War – Introduction, Part Two

As I mentioned in Part One of my introduction to Launay’s work on war, the key element in understanding war, according to Launay is the back and forth between sovereign powers. As such it is, as has famously been noted, “politics by other means.” We must be careful here to avoid cynical assumptions. Politics is itself the attempt to reach decisions about public affairs based upon arguments put forward by those contending to influence events. War, both in terms of forming alliances and attacking enemies, is a similar undertaking. In the modern dispensation, the basis of political life tends to be the sovereign individual, and while this is a somewhat different notion from the classical view which put the emphasis on virtuous speech rather than hard-nosed sovereignty, it does serve as the basis for thinking about domestic political legitimacy as well as war waged by sovereign nations.

Now, the notion that the sovereign individual is at the centre of political life has historically been most fully realized in the United States. Certainly arguments can be made against this view, and many in Europe today would suggest contemporary Europe is more respectful of human rights than is the US. That this is a rather popular view does not make it any more credible. It is both incorrect sociologically and philosophically, but demonstrating that will be left to another day. In the context of Launay’s book, what we have to consider is how the United States realizes its principles in the field of war, and most significantly, how it arrived at these principles.

According to Launay, the United States tends to wage war in a more democratic fashion than did the nation-states of Europe. The contrast between the US and Europe on this point is fairly well known. European nation-states, especially following the wars of religion and the Thirty Years War put in place a sort of balance of power system. This was based largely on the ideas of Cardinal Richelieu and his Machiavellian dealings with the Hapsburgs who were attempting to build something of a grand empire that would include much of Europe and the Spanish territories in Latin America.

By contrast, the United States responded to religious wars through the principle of religious freedom. Today, many would point to the fact that religious freedom was often denied in the US, but what they miss is the equally significant fact that the principle itself did have important effects on American politics, not the least of which is that when religion is taken from the political element, it tends to reinstate itself in the social, thereby providing the United States with a penchant for just war as opposed to purely self-interested war.

But beyond this, Launay also points out that the United States, especially in its early debates regarding the formation of the constitution and American foreign policy, undertook an intensive effort to understand the world around it, and its place in that world. It is often said that Americans are ignorant of the rest of the world, an idea that serves as the basis for the ill-conceived term “isolationist.” As Launay points out, the founders of the United States in fact looked long and hard at the power politics of the nation-state in Europe, as well as reflecting on the fates of the Greek city-states and the Roman Republic and Empire. In other words, they drew intensely on their experience of present things and their long reading of past examples.

Just as important was their assessment of the place of the United States in the contemporary world. While the US was most certainly a long way from the battles of Europe, it must be remembered that it was also surrounded by British, Spanish and French territory (with the return of Louisiana to the French by the Spanish, which itself was subsequently purchased by the Jefferson administration). The wars of Europe, such as the War of the Spanish Succession and the Seven Years War had a substantial impact on the American colonies and the men who founded the US. In short, the founders of the United States were not blind utopians unconcerned with far-away scuffles. Instead, they saw the US as a substantially threatened nation, precariously clinging to its loose confederation along the Atlantic seaboard. These people felt most closely the dangers posed by the far more powerful European nation-states.

This sense of imminent danger led the founders to shun power politics out of both conviction and realistic assessment. Instead, the US sought to avoid entry into foreign entanglements in order to protect its own rather unique vision of the nation state. This was not isolationism, but the natural result of a realistic assessment of its national interest in light of principles that differed from the European balance of power approach, but which also drew a great deal of their substance from European thinkers. As such, America has often been loathe to enter into war not out of isolationism and ignorance, but because foreign entanglements are seen as a threat to America’s sense of just war. In a nation as thoroughly democratic as the United States, war is never considered a wholly desirable undertaking as it often was in the European nation-states.

In concrete terms, this means that the US will avoid foreign engagement unless it has sufficient military, as well as moral force to win the war. When the US departs from either of these requirements, as it did in Vietnam, it will most surely fail in its military endeavors. This is what Launay means by the American way of war. It is a way that has substantial contrasts with the traditional European view of war based on the balance of power and the nation-state. At the same time, we have to be careful about overemphasizing these differences. Certainly, the balance of power could be seen as less moral than the just war approach, but it was not without its own subtleties and restraints. There were, in fact, a number of limitations and expectations placed upon combatants. We might see these more as honorable arrangements than moral or legal precepts, but they were important factors in how Europeans dealt with one another. Moreover, the nations of Europe, unless disturbed by something as eventful as the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, tended to operate on some basic shared principles, as they did through much of the eighteenth century and following the Congress of Vienna in the nineteenth. It was the inability of the leaders of Europe to manage this system that, in part, eventually led to World War I.

The essential point is that in Europe, as in the United States, approaches to war were based on practical assessments, reinforced by certain principles. When these two approaches met, most notably after World War I, they could conflict and produce something of a disaster as Woodrow Wilson soon learned. His intransigence met with the difficulties of European reality and American unease. Wilson, it seemed, understood the unique place of America in the world, but he was unable to activate that uniqueness and translate it into real international engagement, while simultaneously damning the very international system he thought he could impose on a Europe that could never maintain it on its own. Events after World War II would be substantially different and far more fortuitous.

However, as Launay contends, contemporary Europe is a very different place. It seems that Europe has, in a fashion, accepted America’s insistence on international organizations and law, but it has done so in a most provincial, insular and irresponsible manner. The historical experiences of World War I and II have turned Europe in on itself. Whereas the United States fashioned its just war approach on an assessment of the world outside itself and on realizable principles, Europe, according to Launay, takes no significant note of the world beyond its borders. Protected by the US, even to the extent that France could create a foreign approach that constantly aggravated the very US that was assuring its safety from the Red Army, Europe has taken that utopian state of affairs as the reality of the whole world. Europe does foreign policy as though there were nothing foreign.

Of course, in some respects, this is the result of American intervention in Europe, and we can justly wonder if the US should have attempted to force the western Europeans to be more independent militarily during the Cold War. On the other hand, it is obvious that western Europe alone did not have the resources or the will to defend itself against the Soviet Union so soon after the end of a war with Hitler that had killed so many.

In any case, Launay sees the current European situation as highly distressing – a combination of vain moralizing and international ignorance. If the word isolationism ever could have any useful connotations, it would be when applied to contemporary Europe. Understanding this reality and the reality of the eternal presence of the barbaric in man is Launay’s goal. In upcoming posts, I will outline how Launay goes about this task, seeking to discover what can be done from a strategic viewpoint to revive the western alliance.


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