The New Rules of War

To Hell in a Handcart

Bertolt Brecht’s masterwork, “Mother Courage and Her Children,” begins with its hero riding in on the cart from which she sells black-market provisions across war-torn Europe; it ends with her yoked to it, dragging it around a wasteland of slaughter. The war in question—the Thirty Years War—was the conflict whose carnage laid the basis for the doctrine of noninterference in the internal affairs of states. Brecht chose it as a mirror for his times, and it serves as one for our own.

The Treaty of Westphalia that concluded that war laid the basis for the idea that states should relate to each other as citizens within a global polis. It would be difficult to overestimate the significance of the move we’re making to a post-Westphalia world.

Without discounting the importance of oil or concern about weapons of mass destruction ending up in the wrong—that is, unauthorized—hands, it is the establishment of a whole new way of running things that is at the core of the approaching war. We are no longer talking about a Pax Americana surrounded by client states. The aim seems to be to establish an imperial center with a surrounding hinterland of crippled states. Hence the lack of interest in doing any serious nation-building in Afghanistan.

Hence also the cavalier approach to what one might call extremely pre-emptive strikes. Such a strategy can only work if one assumes a pre-existing dominance over the state to be attacked—obviously so, since one person’s pre-emptive strike is another’s unprovoked attack, itself warranting a pre-emptive strike. By the rules of war, it is Iraq that has a legitimate reason to attack U.S. military targets, as the latter has so clearly and repeatedly threatened invasion.

That justification would be unlikely to gain acceptance because of another feature of the post-Westphalia order—the notion that some belligerent states (those that have invaded Panama, Tibet, or Lebanon, for example) can re-enter the world order, while others remain rogue for no greater transgressions. Equally, some states have the right to hold Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) for defense, while so-called rogue states are judged to be aggressors by the act of holding similar or lesser arsenals.

The justification for these moves—the proliferation of WMDs and the possibility of war at a distance—has been cited as something that would take us into that post-Westphalia order since the development of the bomber plane in the 1930s.

At that time it was widely assumed that such weapons made a move toward multilateral relations imperative. Winston Churchill, who has been taken as the patron saint of the pre-emptive strike, spent much of his time agitating for a united states of Europe. The process by which the opposing argument—for iron-fisted unilateralism—has come about seems to involve a great deal of sleight of hand.

The group that destroyed the twin towers in New York didn’t have the explicit backing of a state, merely of a territory-less statelike organization—Al-Qaeda. The next attack on a U.S. city—which will presumably have a body count one or more orders of magnitude higher than Sept. 11, 2001—will come not from a missile or plane but from a dirty bomb in a shipping container or rental truck.

The United States clearly hopes to minimize the possibility of such attacks by blowing away any places whence they could come and keeping them in a state of disorganization. In the short term, an alliance with such power may well be in Australia’s interests, narrowly and amorally defined. In the long run, it is contrary to them. Despite the “clash of civilizations” gurus, it is clear that the rise of militant Islamic fundamentalism is not a deep-seated expression of a civilizational divide but one in a series of responses to Western dominance.

Previously this was expressed through Arab nationalism a la Gamal Abdel Nasser, then via versions of Marxism-Leninism. A religious version is the most potent because it has a simple story to tell about the “other.” It is also fragile because it is undermined as states modernize and require the development of literacy, scientific education, and markets—as is clearly occurring in Iran. Resistance will continue but it will take different forms.

What an invasion of Iraq would provoke is unknowable. What we can say for certain is that behind the chimera of civilization clash with Islam is the real squaring-off that will shape this century—that between the United States and China. Whether it ends in World War III or the avoidance of it and the establishment of a more secure global peace depends upon what we do now.

As a minor outlying island in China’s sphere, it is clearly in our interest to help establish a global process of increasing trust and negotiation. This requires a reformed and recomposed U.S. Security Council—with scope for active intervention against genuinely belligerent states, in its own name. If we cannot establish this, then now, or later we may find ourselves going to hell yoked to Mother Courage’s handcart.