Wednesday, January 14, 2004

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

Among the many arguments and contentions put forward since September 11, 2001, among the most intellectually impressive had to be the declaration by a group of American university professors and intellectuals outlining the reasons as to why America was fighting. The group, which included heavyweights such as Jean Bethke Elshtain, Francis Fukuyama, Samuel Huntington and Harvey Mansfield, drew significantly on the just war tradition in advancing their cause. Not long after, a group of German professors replied. The differences between the two groups could not have been starker. Whereas the American professors lucidly put forth their argument by thoughtfully invoking philosophic and political principles regarding war and international relations, the German intellectuals breezily dismissed just war theory in a single sentence and proceeded to argue an inane and obstructionist case amply demonstrating their complete lack of profound reflection on war and its context.

This incident, perhaps more than any, highlighted the immense gap that exists today between the American and European approaches to war. Indeed, it shows that there effectively is no European approach to war, a point Stephen Launay forcefully makes in his recent book, La guerre sans la guerre (War Without War). Launay is one of France’s top thinkers on the issue of just war and on war in general. His recent book is an effort to show the relevance and significance of just war as a means of thinking about war. But, his book is also an assessment of the growing rift between American conceptions about war and the lack of any conceptions whatsoever on the part of the Europeans.

Launay’s book is based on two pillars. The first is that there is an undeniable fissure between the Americans and the Europeans regarding war. The second – a more philosophic contention – is that in order to think about war we must always admit the presence of barbarous impulses on the international scene and in human nature generally. The second point is essential because it forces statesmen to take account of a prudent diplomatic approach to international relations, given the continual possibility of conflict with other states and non-state actors. It also serves to remind us of the limitations of war inasmuch as total war assumes the utopian fantasy of complete human perfectibility while the presence of barbaric elements implies a limitation to the probable achievements of any war. Yet today, Europe, according to Launay, has no strategic doctrine concerning war. Rather, it holds war to be the worst of all evils besetting humanity, or as Jacques Chirac blandly and rather nonsensically pronounced during the prelude to war in Iraq, “war is always the worst solution.”

But the question arises How do we think about war? Launay argues that we cannot look at war simply in terms of power, which is, interestingly enough, the general approach of those in the field of international relations. On this point, we can consider the notion of “hyper-puissance” or “hyper-power” coined by former French foreign minister, Hubert Vedrine. When Vedrine labeled the United States as a hyper-power, he intended to suggest that the Americans were somehow a breed apart from the regular nations and political actors on the international stage. He also, despite his denials, meant that there is something illegitimate about the degree of power held by the United States. The effect of this characterization is that any military action waged by the US, the hyper-power, would necessarily be an unjust use of this power against a weaker enemy. Even when the United States is attacked, as it was on September 11, the invocation of power as the basis for thinking about international relations would automatically cast the United States as the aggressor because it is in possession of a degree of power unrivalled in the world at the present time.

Power as a notion in international relations abstracts from the intended uses of power, whether in the cause of a just or unjust end. But just as importantly, it abstracts from the real configuration of power on the ground. Here again Launay tells us we have to be careful. It is often assumed that power is the basis of international relations, and that understanding this makes one a “realist” when it comes to international affairs. By contrast, “idealists” are those who attempt to rein in power through the use of international law and organizations in order to restrain the powerful. In general, the realist position is seen as deriving from the notorious Machiavelli, while the idealist stance is held to be the brainchild of Kant. In fact, neither Machiavelli nor Kant held such foolish views, precisely because the assumption behind them is untenable. In fact, if we take the notion of hyper-power seriously, we would end up arguing, as so many misguided souls did during the controversy over Iraq, that use of American power, even when supported by the majority of European nations, is somehow a unilateral action taken by the global bully, while appealing to the United Nations is a form of multilateralism despite the fact that many of those nations opposing military action were pseudo-democracies at best and were pursuing their own national interests. And this fact, the fact of national interest, is what puts the lie to the notion of hyper-power, because, as Launay points out, the United States is not all powerful, but must act in conjunction with a number of actors in the world to achieve its ends. Furthermore, there exists a group of non-state actors, such as terrorists, who quite obviously do wield a certain amount of power. The lesson is that we cannot reduce international relations to power simply, and we cannot therefore understand war if we only consider power. War must be something more comprehensive than an interplay of power.

The difficulty of viewing war in pure powers terms also comes up when we look at how various nations behave in war. It is often said that the United States relies on a diversity of responses to international engagement. These are variously described as “isolationist,” “interventionist” or “imperial” and are often associated with a specific presidential administration; Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Wilson, etc. Now, it is certainly the case that within the US, as well as in Europe, there are competing views regarding international policy, but when we see things purely in terms of isolationism or imperialism, what we’re really doing is describing aspects of approaches to international relations, when what we really need is an explanation of how a nation makes war. This brings us back to the nature of war, which is a philosophic question, What is war? Answering this question allows us to see that war is a natural phenomenon and, subsequently, it allows us to consider how each nation approaches war. A less comprehensive approach, such as those usually taken both by experts in international relations and by those in a plethora of post-modern schools, will produce a skewed view of everything from international law to diplomacy. Unfortunately, it was exactly a failure on the part of many Europeans, most notably Messrs. Fischer, Schroeder, de Villepin and Chirac, to take this comprehensive approach that produced the foolish and ill-conceived responses of the Franco-German alliance to their traditional American ally.

This said, Launay must look for the most comprehensive definition of war he can find, and here he turns to none other than the old Prussian Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote that, “War is an act of violence the object of which is to bend the will of your adversary to your own.” Notice immediately that Clausewitz does not speak of power, but of producing a conformity of wills. And willing is essentially an act of sovereignty, whether it involves forcing one’s will on another or bowing to that will. The key element then is not power, which is indifferent to human design, but sovereignty, which implies a degree of human freedom. War is a natural undertaking of a sovereign power, a fact Machiavelli understood clearly when he spoke of being uno solo, one alone – possessing the sovereign will. Power is only a tool of sovereignty, it is, according to Hobbes, what sovereignty endlessly seeks in order to assure its dominance, but it remains only a tool of sovereignty.

And on this point, Kant was in complete agreement. In fact, Kant was a pure Machiavellian in his understanding of sovereignty. Though many today trace our current obsession with international law and organizations to Kant, it is once again important to see that Kant conceived of the possibility of his famous perpetual peace only on the basis of a close analysis of war and sovereignty. For Kant, said peace would come about only when sovereign nations would agree to abide by rules arrived at in common. But at no point would these nations refute their sovereign rights, and more importantly, at no point would these laws take on the status of inviolable and eternal edicts apart from the sovereign nations involved in their acceptance. Kant would never have countenanced the view, common in Europe today, that states that the sole legitimizing authority for military action rests with the United Nations, especially since most of the nations holding membership in that organization haven’t the least respect for the liberal principles Kant held most dear.

But how did we end up with this skewed perspective, more prevalent in Europe than the US? I’ll address this issue in my next post that deals with the second part of Launay’s introduction to his book.

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