CAN WAR BE CONTROLLED AND CONTAINED?
Professor Hew Strachan
All Souls, Oxford
Thank you very much for asking me to address this question. I do not
propose to do so by thinking about the First World War at all, although if you
think WW1 is relevant to that question (which it is) please ask me how it might
be. What I want to do is to think more into the future: that is the brief
I was given. One of the things historians like to do is to take their
clothes off and do something totally different, and that is what I will try and
do today. I suppose inevitably I will look backwards as I do so, but the
intention is to go forwards.
The first thing we have to think about is: what do we mean by war? We cannot
talk about controlling and containing it unless we have a sense of what war is.
That is a need, which is, even more pressing since the attack on 11 September
2001 on the twin towers.
What I would like to do first therefore is to consider the response of the US to
that attack and precisely where it leads us. George Bush said quite
explicitly in the immediate aftermath of the destruction of the twin towers
that the attacks were, and I'm quoting him, 'more than acts of terror they were
acts of war'. And our own PM took up exactly the same refrain on 16
September, when he said, 'Whatever the technical or legal issues of that
declaration of war the fact is that we ARE at war with terror. It is a war
between civilisation and fanaticism.'
Now, since 1945 the UN has been quite clear that essentially war is an illegal
act unless it is condoned by a resolution of the UN. The exception to that
is the decision to go to war as an act of self-defence. In this particular
case it could be argued that the US has no legal difficulty in its responses in
terms of international law. Here indubitably was a direct attack on the
The difficulty of course was identifying who the assailant was. Indeed in any
formal sense we still don't know who the assailant was on 11 September.
What we know for sure is that there was no Afghan among the assailants on 11
September 2001. What we also know for sure was that the assailant was not
another state. Afghanistan did not attack the United States of America on 11
September 2001. Its offence was to play host to an organisation which is accused
of having undertaken that attack. In that respect, of course, as the
President of the United States has made clear since, it was not alone. The
forces, which attacked the US, were not an army, they didn't wear uniforms, and
they did not have an identifying badge. They conformed to none of the
definitions of legitimate belligerents, although I suppose, they were part of
some form of organisation - but we do not know what the organisation was as it
has never declared itself publicly.
It was therefore impossible for the United States formally to declare
war after the attack on 11 September because it was not clear against whom
that war would be declared. But
what the US then did was to make its response into a war in a legal and formal
sense. That is it identified the threat as having come from a particular
state. It linked the al-Qaida network to Afghanistan, and it then focused on the
Taliban as its target within Afghanistan as the Taliban was the nearest thing
Afghanistan had for a formal government.
What therefore happened was that a response to an act of terrorism became a
war against another nation state. I know that it is arguable whether the Taliban can be
identified as the government of Afghanistan, and whether Afghanistan in its
current condition can be fully identified as a nation state. But that was the
logic that allowed the Pentagon to conduct the war in Afghanistan in broadly
familiar terms. We had a sequence of bombings from the air and then
the insertion of ground forces. That response to international terrorism
also enabled a turf war within the Pentagon to be resolved.
The big debate for the defence forces of the US after the attacks was this.
Should the war in Afghanistan be undertaken by the special forces (the
equivalent of the SAS), acting in conjunction with intelligence, carefully
gathered, and designed to target quite specifically the al- Qaida
network within Afghanistan and also probably to deal with it as an
international problem? Or was it to be tackled by conventional forces
acting against a nation state and working within the confines of that state?
The response adopted revolved round the second of these propositions rather than
And what has happened since then in the US? In the last two weeks
the effects of the attacks on the defence policy of the US has essentially been
to treat this as a war. The US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld,
before the attack had the reputation of someone who was going to be at odds with
the armed services of the US. He was working on them to change direction.
He was exerting pressures on the defence budget. Cuts were in the air and
there was talk in the press of antagonism between the 3 services and their
political boss. And some of that thinking was reflected in Rumford's
immediate reaction. On 13 September 2001 he said, 'we are in a sense
seeing the definition of a new battlefield in the world, a 21st century
battlefield, and it is a different kind of conflict.' Essentially the
message to the US forces was they were going to have to rethink their
structures and reappraise how they were equipped In this country,
The Times on the following day went on to say that: 'this is a conflict for
which the administration is still trying to find an answer. So far
Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld have been unable to provide a clear answer on
how America and its allies intend to win this war.' In the last week or so
we have had our answer. And in a way for those who have studied US defence
policy since 1945 it is a familiar answer. Essentially you chuck more
at the problem in terms of resources rather than decide to prioritise. The
immediate parallel which came to my mind was the situation that confronted
McNamara in the early sixties, when he wanted to move the US away from a
policy of reliance on massive retaliation using nuclear weapons to what NATO
later came to call flexible response, the idea that you could use war in a more
limited and manageable way by engaging conventional forces only - at least at
the outset of any conflict.
That could have been deeply divisive among the American armed services because flexible
response implied the use of ground forces, so favouring the army, and went against
the air force in particular which was then the prime possessor of the nuclear
weapon. What actually happened of course under the Kennedy
administration, on the back of the Cuban crisis, was that all three services got
lots of money and so the Americans could expand the conventional forces within
the army without necessarily upsetting the air force or the navy too much.
And there seems to me to be an element of exactly that in the Bush/Rumsfeld
response. In the State of the Union speech, which he gave just the other
day, George Bush said, 'My budget carries the largest increase in defence
spending in two decades'. The increase itself, just the increase, is twice
the size of Britain's current total defence budget. It is $48 billion and
is equivalent to the combined defence budgets of Britain, Canada, Belgium and
Greece - and that's simply the increase. Just before its announcement,
Wesley Clark wrote a piece for Foreign Affairs where he said, 'In order to meet
the current needs of the American armed forces, they need at least $50 billion.'
Well, they've got it, and it is very rare for any services anywhere in the world
to be given what they've asked for.
The obvious question, which we should be concerned with today, is: against whom
is this defence effort directed? According to the same State of the Union
message, it is against an axis of evil, which is aiming to threaten the peace of
the world, and that axis includes Iran, Iraq and N. Korea.
That speech suggested that, although the Department of Defence's budget increase
is compatible with traditional definitions of war, Bush's prosecution of
that war is once again breaking out of any legal constraints that concern war.
In other words, having been a fight, which was carried on within Afghanistan,
this is now a fight, which is becoming international in the way in which it
is being conducted rather than national.
As far as we are aware there is no formal alliance between the three powers who
constitute the axis of evil, and certainly it seems very hard to imagine an
alliance between Iran and Iraq. And none of these three states, or none
yet at any rate, has, as far as we know, directly attacked the US.
Implicit here, therefore, is a readiness for preventive war conducted
unilaterally by the US. That readiness operates at two levels.
In the 1990s there was a great deal of discussion in the US about something that
came to be called The Revolutionary Military Affairs (RMA). I won't try
and define the RMA because essentially it defies definition. One man's
revolution is another man's not-a-revolution, and the debate has kept many defence
specialists and academics in employment for ten years. But the point of
it, I think, without going into the technologies or the doctrines, was that it
involved an element of pre-emption.
There is a book, 'War and Antiwar', written by Alvin and Heidi Toffler, in which
they quote a report from the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) of 6 May 1993 on what
the JCS called Oknowledge warfare. The essence was that you wouldn't need
as much equipment if you could identify what your targets were if you had good
intelligence and if you used the advances in IT as a force multiplier. Knowledge
warfare aims at superiority through targeting command and control centres.
The report of the JCS went on to say, 'command and control warfare offers the
commander the potential to deliver a knockout punch before the outbreak of
traditional hostilities'. In other words something that looks very
attractive to any commander in the field carries with it political implications
that are fraught. Up to 11 September 2001 you could argue that that
ability for pre-emptive action was constrained by political factors.
The obvious big change in the US since 11 September 2001 is that those political
factors, those political constraints, have now been removed. There is an
acceptance within the US of the need to take casualties in defence of the
homeland. In other words, American forces can be deployed overseas and suffer
casualties because the cause is now quite demonstrable. Secondly, there is
a pressure politically as well as militarily to act pre-emptively against
The dilemmas, which have emerged, and the uncertainty within the US as to what
it is doing, were, I think, revealed most dramatically by the whole debate about
the treatment of its prisoners in the aftermath of the fighting in Afghanistan.
It reaffirmed the readiness of the US to act outside the international framework
created by the Hague Convention, the Geneva Protocols, the UN, and the
International Criminal Court, which is in the throes of being formed. It
decided to treat the prisoners that it had taken not as prisoners of war despite
the fact it had declared it was a war. In other words what we seem to be seeing
is a US, which having won its war in Afghanistan, is now taking steps which no
longer regards its conflict as a war in a 'technical and legal sense' - to
use the phrase that Tony Blair used in the middle of September. And that
drift, that this is not a war in the traditional and legal sense, is confirmed
by the fact of course that it is a war without a clear victory - and that is
going to be one of the further difficulties in defining now, in the 21st
century, what we mean by war.
Whether the attack on 11 September 2001 and the US response to it constitute a
war is an important issue. Some people in the press have said since then
that it is simply a matter of semantics. But until 11 September 2001 the
short answer to the question, which you asked me to address this morning, which
was 'Can war be controlled and contained?', is yes. Sometimes it can
be - not always for sure, but many of the indicators evident, at least to the
Western world over the last decade, were more positive than negative. Let me
take you through some of the more recent trends in the use of war, which
suggested that restraint was becoming a feature of international relations.
First of all, however much the press may have played up collateral damage (which
of course is very often a euphemism for civilian casualties), the very fact that
the press did play it up made the US very careful to try and avoid civilian
casualties. As far as Afghanistan was concerned the civilian casualties
that were suffered by Afghanistan were published. There was no deliberate
attempt to try and kill civilians. Contrast that, for example, with the
conduct of Britain in Malaya in the early 1950s, where, in the pursuit of
terrorists, Lincoln bombers bombed bits of jungle in the hope that one or two
terrorists might be killed as a consequence.
We have been endeavouring to make war more precise in what it does. One of
the reasons that war has endeavoured to be more precise is because the
technology is there to do it. Smart warfare, smart weapons, and
precision-guided munitions allow more deliberate and more accurate targeting.
Furthermore the troops on the ground are, not least because of the experience of
the British army in N. Ireland, given clear rules of engagement. The
British soldier in N. Ireland carries a yellow card telling him when and where
he can fire, and that, of course, is a principle that is increasingly extended
to the deployment of troops by Western powers elsewhere in the world.
And, finally, there is a greater attention to international law within the armed
services themselves. One of the things that staggered me, when the British
armed forces established their joint services staff college at Shrivenham,
was that there was no framework within that course for the teaching of
international law, and that those who worked on the laws of war within the armed
services were not incorporated within the Joint Doctrine Centre that was then
created there. That has now been rectified. And it is something, which is
already in train in US military academies. International law and the laws of war
are now an integral part of the syllabus of officers.
The result was that in the 1990s a number of distinguished commentators
luxuriating in the aftermath of the end of the cold war were predicting the end
of major war. The historical basis for that optimism was, to me at least,
clear enough. But let me recap its principal elements. I think I have said
enough about my own response to 11 September 2001 and how the US has dealt with
it, to suggest that I am a Clausewitzian. In other words I see war as
something that is used as a political instrument. War is not the same as
unfettered violence; it is not the same as murder; it is not the same as
something an individual does to another individual. It is an activity
engaged in on a social basis by states as part of their political
framework. A German fighting on the eastern front in W.W.II was serving in
an army that undoubtedly committed war crimes, but that does not make every
individual German within the German army a war criminal, because, of course,
some of them behaved in ways that were morally entirely defensible.
Similarly it was perfectly possible for a British soldier fighting in N-W Europe
between 1944-45 to commit a war crime although we would say the cause for which
Britain was fighting at that stage was undoubtedly just. None of this is
to say that individuals are relieved of their own moral responsibilities when
they are engaged in war on behalf of their own nation-state. It is simply
to make the point that it is the nation state that makes the war, not the
The traditional reason why international relations students look back at
Clausewitz is the formulation that war is a political instrument; that war does
not have its own logic but only its own grammar; that the logic of war is
provided by politics. In the Cold War that formulation seemed to be
particularly powerful. Nuclear war seemed likely to approximate to
Clausewitz's idea of absolute war, and thus the role of politics was to
limit and restrain the use of war, to ensure that war fulfilled coherent
political objectives. In the context of nuclear weapons that essentially
meant that nuclear weapons would threaten war but they wouldn't be used in
But politics have not necessarily always been a limiting and controlling factor
in war, and that is something, which many students of international relations as
opposed to historians of war have often forgotten. They read Clausewitz in
the 1980s and 1990s in order to think how you would limit war because war is a
political instrument. But in Clausewitz's own day war broke out of
its constraints with which it had been conducted in the 18th century and it did
so because of political change. War became a more awful thing in his
own time. He lived through the Napoleonic wars, and what he looked back on and
saw was a phenomenon that had not changed because of changing technology and
changing capabilities, but a phenomenon that had changed because of a
transformation in the power of the state. The French revolution had
enabled the state more easily to mobilise the resources of the nation for the
purposes of war. Thus for Clausewitz politics was perfectly capable of
making war more awful and more terrible, rather than more limited and more
constrained. When he wrote 'On War', he could not predict how things might
go, but the tenor is, and his expectation was, that what had in a sense been
invented by Napoleon could not be dis-invented. In other words the
controlling and constraining factors within war were less likely to come from
politics than we might now imagine. The only other factor which he saw as
controlling and containing war was what he called friction - the inherent
difficulty simply in conducting war: the fact that it might be a foggy day
outside so that you can't see your enemy, or the fact that you got lost on your
way to the battlefield, or whatever else.
Clausewitz wondered what future war would look like, and that wondering has been
one of his attractions to liberal strategic thinkers in the late 20th century.
The expectation that Europe would step back from the extremes of the Napoleonic
wars was something, which he did not actually believe, would be fulfilled.
In fact, what happened between 1815 and 1914 was that war within Europe was very
largely controlled and contained. Weapons systems within Europe,
principally thanks to industrialisation, became more lethal and more awful
between 1815 and 1914. But until 1914 Europe did not reap the harvest of that
increase in lethality.
War was contained and controlled for a number of reasons. One of them was
that the 1815 peace settlement, established in Europe after the Battle of
Waterloo, created an international order to which all the great powers gave some
sort of support. Even during the July crisis of 1914 Sir Edward Grey, the
British foreign secretary, referred to the concert of Europe, a possibility that
the great powers might all sit round a conference table and thrash out their
problems by talking - that jaw was better than war.
There was also a recognition in the nineteenth century by armies that laws and
customs should operate within wars. That recognition of the laws of war,
which grew particularly on the back of the American Civil War and its knock-on
effects within Europe (and there were knock-on effects however much historians
tell you that there weren't), confirmed the idea that the use of arms should be
the monopoly of organised bodies of men, of armies. Of course there were
exceptions to that. In the latter stages of the Franco-Prussian war, for
example, the German army had to confront francs tireurs in France in 1871.
But the sense was there by 1914 that states go to war, and what they deploy are
armies rather than peoples as they do so. Civilians, therefore, are protected
from the business of fighting.
Significantly within that legal framework the attention was on what happened
within a war, not why you went to war. States retained the sovereign
right to go to war and indeed that was one of the definitions of statehood.
And what followed was that the new states, which were formed in nineteenth
century Europe, were established precisely because they were militarily robust.
To take the obvious point, in the middle of the nineteenth century Italy unified
and then after that Germany unified. States were formed by a process of
getting bigger rather than a process of getting smaller. Implicit within that,
therefore, was a process of increasing military strength.
Clausewitz's sense that what the Napoleonic Wars had unleashed was something,
which would be very hard to put back into its bottle, was evident, of course,
between 1914 and 1945. That was the next stage of the evolution, which he
to some extent anticipated.
Now critics of Clausewitz, like John Keegan, have argued that World War I in
particular shows that Clausewitz was wrong, that this was a war that most
obviously did not fulfil political objectives and that was why it ceased to be
I would argue the exact opposite. The war expanded precisely because it
was the object of policy to expand it. Governments aimed to mobilise all
the resources of their states as fully as possible and that was what people came
to mean by total war in the second half of W.W.I and again in the inter-war
period period. France in 1917-18, under the direction of Clemenceau, began
to use the phrase 'la guerre totale', the aim being to rally all France's
efforts at a stage when pacifism suggested that some in France thought it would
be a good idea to strike a deal with the Germans. In the inter-war period
one of those Germans, Erich Ludendorff, pondering Germany's defeat, wrote a book
which in English is called 'The Nation in Arms' (1935), but in German is called
'Der Totale Krieg'. His English translators significantly used the phrase
'totalitarian war' not 'total war', to describe what Ludendorff meant. In
other words Ludendorff's book is not about the business of fighting, it's not
about the advent of the aircraft and the implications of either of those weapons
systems for the conduct of war. It is a book about the organisation of the
state, and the mobilisation of the state for the purposes of the war. It
is the about the idea that if a state now engages in war civilians are no longer
exempt, because civilians are part of that war effort, that everybody is
involved in a war. In other words its focus is domestic rather than
international. It is saying to Germans that, if there is another war, then
every German and every resource that Germany possesses will be part of that war
From those assumptions it was, of course, an easy transition during W.W.II to
the idea that Ototal war as a term explains how war itself was fought. If you
were going to mobilise all the resources of the state, then the civilian could
not be exempted from enemy attack: the civilian was part of the war effort of
the nation. So the idea of the non-combatant immunity, which might have been
self-evident and even sacrosanct to an army in 1850, no longer seemed so
self-evident or so sacrosanct in 1950.
The result was that in 1945 total war seemed to be the new norm. Just as
Clausewitz writing in the 1820s tended to reckon on the Napoleonic Wars being
the benchmark for the future so strategic theorists in the 1950s took the wars
of the first half of the twentieth century as the benchmark for the second half.
And then when we got to the year 2000 and we looked back on the second half of
the twentieth century, and if we had the good fortune to live in Europe (I
realise that what I am saying is very Eurocentric), we began to think they were
wrong. Fifty years had passed without another total war, and we were able
to argue that the fear of nuclear war was what had prompted that restraint.
The two world wars became total wars because they represented clashes of
fundamental ideological differences over which compromise seemed impossible.
Unfashionably I would argue that in relation to WWI. WWI was presented as
a war between liberalism and militarism, and, by the end, much of its
justification, as far as the Western allies were concerned, was that it was
a war of liberalism which was a counterpoint to the Bolshevism that had emerged
in the East. It was, as the war memorials tell us, 'A War for Civilisation'.
Even more, and less arguably, was that the case in 1939 - 1945. This was a war
that pivoted round big ideas and major ideologies, fascism against liberalism,
and, of course, fascism against Bolshevism. Now on that basis the Cold War
should have been a total 'Hot War', rather than a total Cold War, because it
involved apparently irreconcilable value systems. It involved a clash
between Marxist-Leninism and liberalism. But it wasn't, because the means
would clearly have outstripped the ends.
Since the end of the Cold War and at least until 2001 we have had the security
of having a clear division between capability and interest. Nuclear
weapons seemed to go off the agenda. But what we did have was a situation
where the powers that possessed the most up-to-date weapon systems and the most
clearly defined military capabilities, that is to say the powers of the West, were
the least willing to wage major war. On the other hand the powers that
seemed most keen to wage major war, like Iran and Iraq, lacked the capabilities
of those in the West because they were not so advanced technologically.
That division now looks much less stable, and even that was the case even before
11 September 2001. It looked much less stable for three general reasons.
The first is that since 1990 the Western powers have engaged in wars with
comparative impunity. After the Gulf War Time Magazine ran an article where it
pointed out that US servicemen serving in the Gulf were safer in the Gulf than
were their comparable age groups living in the US. The latter were more likely
to have died through car accidents, pub brawls and whatever else than those who
had actually been deployed to the Gulf in time of war. What we have seen in the
case of the UK is that each of the major conflicts, which we have been involved
in since the Falklands, has resulted in a falling number of casualties to our
own armed forces. They suffered two deaths in Kosovo, both of them
actually after the formal fighting had ended. One British officer and one
Gurkha were killed. The result of that was that the use of armed force has
become easier for the Western powers. Governments, we are constantly told in the
West, are worried about the so-called 'body bag' factor. In reality the
body bag factor, when it operates at such low levels as it does at the moment,
can legitimate war, not undermine it. In the summer of 2000 I was in New
Zealand when New Zealand suffered its first casualty since Vietnam. A New
Zealand soldier was killed in East Timor. New Zealand is an inherently
isolationist country. It is a long way from any major threat and what I expected
to happen and what I expected to find reflected in the press was a storm of
protest: 'Why should this young man have been killed? What was New Zealand
doing?' Exactly the reverse happened. The response was that, if a
New Zealand soldier had been killed in East Timor, it showed just how important
it was that New Zealand troops should be deployed on peacekeeping and
peace-enforcement missions. What happened on 11 September 2001 is only likely to
confirm that trend. It is better to suffer a few casualties far from home
than run the risk of suffering major casualties at some future date at home.
The second general trend follows from that acceptance of casualties. That
relates to the fact that we have seen a fundamental restructuring of armed
forces. We have underestimated this fundamental restructuring in Britain
because we abandoned conscription after the Sandys White Paper of 1957. We
haven't had conscription in this country for over 40 years. And the US, of
course, abandoned conscription after Vietnam. But European armies have, in
the main, abandoned conscription over the last decade. France is in the process
of doing so, Spain is in the process of doing so, Italy is in the process of
doing so and Germany is agonising about what to do next but thinks on the
whole it should probably do so too. The validation of conscription rests
on the idea of national self-defence. The implication in conscription is that
citizens have civic rights and, because they have civic rights, they also have
civic obligations. If the state gives you basic freedoms, then it
can also require you to shoulder a rifle to defend those basic freedoms.
That is why wars in which conscripted armies engage tend to be big wars and ones
about fundamental issues, because they are essentially wars about national self-defence.
But conscription has historically also served another purpose, and that has been
to ensure that armies reflect the societies which they are called on to defend.
Professional and voluntarily enlisted armies, particularly if they are small,
almost by definition do not represent the societies that they are called upon to
defend. Many British soldiers have got in the habit of calling themselves
mercenaries, and Geoff Hoon only in the last week has taken that one stage
further and suggested maybe we should be readier to use mercenary forces in some
of the peacekeeping situations in which British currently finds itself involved.
The public profile of the British armed forces over the past decade highlights
the point that they do not in a direct sense reflect society as a whole.
They have courted controversy over whether homosexuals should serve in their
ranks, how successfully they recruit ethnic minorities, and what status it
accords women. The forces' response to this sort of attacks has been to
assert their right to be different. The right to be different does,
however, expose us to the danger that those who join the armed forces will have
different values and interests from those of mainstream society. Particularly,
and this is something which fortunately has not figured much within the UK but
has on one or two occasions been flagged up, particularly by the tabloid press,
is the danger that those who are attracted to military service will be those who
belong to some sort of paramilitary organisation, those associated with the
radical right who may be more inclined to exercise violence and so on and so
forth. Members of groups like Combat 18 found to be within the army are shown
the door pretty quickly. When I was in Germany about two years ago Frankfurter
Allgemeine Zeitung carried a report about paramilitary and extreme right
organisations within the armed forces, and the fact that they had been giving
Nazi salutes to each other within the army. I mentioned this to a
colleague who is a reserve major in the German Bundeswehr, and he said to me,
'What else do you expect? We abandoned full conscription and so that is
exactly the sort of people you will have in the army.' And hence, of
course, Germany is locked in indecision about whether it should abandon the
principle of conscription.
The British army no longer talks about the right to be different. Instead
it emphasises the need to be different and that need is combat. The
argument is that fighting creates fundamental demands, and therefore those
fundamental demands, which are the bottom line for any army, must be reflected
in its recruitment policies. But the obvious question in the context of
what I am meant to be talking about today, which is the issue of containing war,
is: who guards the guardians?
Thus far in the West professional armed forces have shown no indication to seek
war as a way of justifying their existences. Indeed, if anything,
fortunately, the trend has been the other way round. You only have to open
the paper on any day of the week to be reminded of how much the British Armed
Forces see themselves as over-stretched, overcommitted, and therefore, of
course, there is an implication from the Armed Forces that they should not be
required to do anything extra.
During Colin Powell's time as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff he spelt out
to the State Department very clearly that there were certain conditions under
which US armed forces should not be deployed. His pressure was against
their deployment to such an extent that Madeleine Albright turned round to him
in 1992 and said, 'If we can't use the armed forces when we want to use them,
then what the hell have we got them for in the first place?' This shows that the
trend, certainly in America and Britain over the last decade, has been that the
politicians have been the ones who have wanted to go further than the soldiers
in the use of armed forces. Policy has expanded war rather than contained
However, Powell's response also shows the potential political independence of
professional soldiers who are increasingly divorced from mainstream society. In
other words the opportunity exists, the more the you professionalise your armed
forces, for the armed forces to set the agenda, to determine the conditions
under which they are or are not used. At the moment that trend has a
restraining effect and that, of course, is perhaps positive. It is
positive, but it could work the other way.
Conscription can go because it is not a sensible form of military organisation
for wars that are not wars of national self-defence. The West now engages
in what it calls wars of choice and uses coalitions of the 'willing'. Its
strategies are expeditionary and global. It seems that Ministries of
Defence should once again be called Ministries of War. I've already made
the point about the readiness of the US for preventive warfare and Bush's State
of the Union message underlines that intention.
Now the justification for that greater readiness to use war as an instrument of
policy is ideology. The reason, apparently, we need to have this greater
ability to extend power throughout the world, not only in the US but also here
in the UK, is because we are determined to uphold the ideals of democracy and
That's not a new invention, that's something that has not just happened since 11
September 2001. Nor is it an invention of George Bush and Tony Blair.
That commitment to the ideals of democracy and international law has been
inherent in the United Nations since its formation and the idea that Britain is
a member of the Security Council of the UN and therefore has an obligation to
have a global role in defence terms was made manifest even under the
Conservatives in the early 1990's. Malcolm Rifkind used it as a
justification for the British armed forces having a global role when he was
Secretary of State for Defence.
The worry is, as I hardly need to remind you, that ideologies do not necessarily
claim the universal acceptance that those of us in the West sometimes imagine.
Sam Huntington has written eloquently on this point in his book, 'The Clash of
Much of the readiness to threaten or use force globally rests on pragmatism
rather than ideology. It assumes that the West has a technological edge
and thus that the conflict will be limited and constrained for the US and its
allies, if not for the countries in which they elect to fight. Moreover,
by having the ability to project forces globally, the US and its allies are able
to commit forces over great distances, and wars can therefore take place on
other peoples' territories rather than on our own.
That pragmatism prompts two fears. The first relates to the assumption
that the economically more backward power needs to have sophisticated technology
in order to respond. In other words the presumption behind the ability to
project force is precisely that the other side can't hit back directly at the US
or the UK. The UK could fight with Argentina in the Falklands in 1982
without anybody here in the UK being under direct threat. The Alliance
could commit itself to war in the Gulf without any of the allies, except those
within the Middle East, being under direct threat from Iraq.
The evidence, of course, of 11 September 2001 is that the presumption that the
ability to strike back rests on comparable technological sophistication may not
be a correct one. The essence of the hijackers' success was their
readiness not even to try to match the US in military terms. Even if the
US had had a sophisticated system of national missile defence on 11 September
2001 it wouldn't have done the US any good at all.
The second fear which follows on from that is this: who says that the
economically backward power can't get weapons of sophisticated technology? Here
national missile defence is relevant but the whole thrust of national missile
defence is towards point defence, that is towards the protection of specific
targets. I don't see how national missile defence could prevent another
Twin Towers, and, even if it could protect the US, it doesn't follow that it
would necessarily protect the US's allies.
So we are confronting two challenges - both that the opponents of the West could
have technologies which might get round the West's defences, and the possibility
that the opponents of the West won't even bother to do that because they can use
other means to strike the West directly.
So is the position irredeemably gloomy? Is my message essentially that
we've reached a point where war can no longer be controlled and contained in the
way that we thought over the last 50 years that it might be? I said
earlier that I'm a Clauewitzian and that is an unfashionable thing to be.
John Keegan wrote a history of warfare in 1993 and Martin van Creveld wrote a
book called 'The Transformation of War' in 1991, both of which attacked
Clausewitz. They said that he was a European and made certain cultural
assumptions; that he was the product of the nation state and he was
therefore a man whose thinking reflected a particular period in history which
related to the French revolution and the emergence of the nation state and to
the dominant ideas of nationalism and statehood which were being subverted by
the end of the 20th century. Martin van Creveld went on to say that a
future war would not be fought between states but within states - that
intra-state conflict was more likely than inter-state conflict. Those who fought
would be civilians, they would be terrorists and they would be guerrillas and
their weapon systems would be machetes not machine guns, home- made bombs rather
than nuclear missiles.
11 September 2001 therefore seemed an incredible vindication of van
Creveld's book. Whether he is right and whether Clausewitz is now finished
depends on how you see the nation state. The presumption within John
Keegan's writings and within Martin van Crevelds is that the nation state has
had its day. This is where I come back to develop a point which I made in
relation to why there was comparative peace within Europe in the 19th century.
States have proliferated in the last 50 years. The number of states in the
world has more than doubled since 1945. Unlike the situation in the mid-
nineteenth century, these new states have not necessarily had either the armed
forces or the governmental structures that could be seen as guarantors of
their robustness. I go regularly to lecture in Norway. Norway's ability to
sustain its own defence policies and its own defence capability is locked into
an alliance system, not into the issue of national self-defence.
Conscription is justified, of course, in terms of national self-defence, but
since the end of the Cold War Norway has not been confronted by a direct threat,
and it could not sustain the sort of armed forces which it would need if there
ever were a major attack. The SNP in Scotland has put forward proposals
for Scotland to have its own defence forces. These defence forces couldn't
in their own right make any significant contribution either to the defence of
Scotland or the defence of anybody beyond Scotland. They only make sense
within an alliance context. In other words the right of the sovereign state to
national self-defence is no longer a definition of nationhood.
Moreover the international context within which those 't mean simply the growth
of supra- national political organisations like NATO or the EU or of
multinational corporations, however much both these forms of organisation are
presented as villains. I mean rather the presumption within international
law and within international opinion that a guerrilla or a terrorist is not a
brigand or a criminal beyond international law but a freedom fighter who should
be brought within the pale of international law. Indeed Bush unwillingly
elevated his enemy in his response after 11 September 2001 when he said that the
US was at war. By saying that it was at war, at least if he was speaking
legally, then he accorded its opponent certain rights which were guaranteed
under international law. Sir Michael Howard (sagely in my point of view)
said Bush should have treated the challenge as one of international crime rather
than of war.
The ideologies of the West have worked to undermine the sovereignty of the
nation state in their claim to represent values that are of universal
application. The justification for NATO action in Kosovo was a precise
reflection of this. However appalling you might regard what Belgrade was doing,
Kosovo technically and legally was within Serbia. In the same way, we need
to reflect again on the frequent Western criticisms of the Russian handling of
Chechnya. Before 11 September 2001 both the UK and the US attacked the
Russians for their frequent violations of human rights within Chechnya. They
ignored the Russian protests that what they were dealing with was a terrorist
threat. The Russians were dealing with a terrorist threat, but they were
also, of course, violating human rights. It's not an easy dilemma.
The point I want to make today, by way of conclusion, is that international law
and the international system are precisely what they say. In other words
they rest on the premise that relations between nation states are what are at
the heart of international law and the international system. What
international law tries to do is to regulate relationships between states, and
therefore the building blocks of international law and of the international
system are those nation states. The positive side of the outcome of 11
September 2001 is this. There is a greater readiness to acknowledge that a
safer world needs to rest on robust states operating together.
It is interesting that since 11 September 2001 the US and the UK have both
moderated, in fact stopped criticising, the Russians for their behaviour in
Chechnya. That essentially means that what states must be expected to do
is to police their own populations. It also means that those who are not
willing or able to police their own populations stand out as distinct.
Thus the effort to put terrorism into the context of its host nation and to
shift from counter-terrorist action to open war is legitimated.
It is significant how the US now interprets its policy. It talks about
terrorism flourishing in failed states, and therefore its effort, of course, is
to help create a new state within Afghanistan, a new form of government. And
where terrorism is condoned by an established state, then it talks about
something called 'regime change'. In other words it is recognising that the key
to this is having a robust and, one hopes, a legitimate and accepted form of
government. We have felt even within the UK the effects of this readiness
to strengthen the state domestically with David Blunkett's proposals. I
think in many ways they are illiberal, and I'm not sure as a liberal that I
really like them, but I think the motivation is probably the right one.
So what I am saying is hardly a new message and that is that I think the key to
containing and controlling war is a stronger international community. And that
means a greater respect for the nation states that make up that community. It
means, too, that the US must work within that framework. It must
support the UN, which it doesn't do at the moment, and it must back the
international criminal court, which it also doesn't do at the moment. Our
job in the UK is to do all we can to persuade the US that the legitimacy of its
responses is crucial to the eventual solution of their and our problems.
Professor Hew Strachan
All Souls, Oxford
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