The National Bases of International Missions

This last point poses an awkward question, namely, where a sense of existential threat is not present, what effective justifications can be found to sustain external interventions that are ‘wars of choice’? Is the maintenance of international law and humanitarian ideals able to inspire popular backing for foreign missions? What can prescribe military conduct in asymmetric combat where the normal conventions of war are in dispute? In spite of appearances, I will argue that such interventions may reinforce the salience of nationalism as a legitimating force.

Levy and Sznaider (2002) argue that the memory of the Holocaust came to be salient as a justification of international interventions from the time of the Balkan wars of the 1990s. In particular, it persuaded all political sides in Germany of the duty to intervene. This, however, does not provide the basis of a cosmopolitan or universal moral imperative. As they admit, this event has greater resonance for situations in Europe—there was no sustained European public pressure for military intervention in the Rwandan genocides or, more recently, Syria. Even in Europe, the meaning of the Holocaust is contested, as one saw in the attempts to ‘Catholicize’ the Auschwitz site in Poland (Zubrzycki 2006). In Iran there has been a simple denial of the event. As Assmann suggests (2006: 14), the Holocaust, rather than being a universally shared memory, is at best a template through which other genocides and acts of violence may be viewed.

Cheyney Ryan makes an important distinction between reasons that justify and those that motivate action (Ryan 2014: 126-8). The former may be couched in universalist terms (e.g. the prevention of genocide), notably to the international community. But effective interventions are made by coalitions of nation states which are able to mobilize support among their population by appeals to national interests, ideal and material (e.g. security). The two, of course, can and are frequently combined—calls for a ‘new liberal imperialism’ to tame dictators and genocidal regimes or to demand leadership in the spread of democracy tacitly evoke older national civilizing missions (Cooper 2002).

International coalitions in spite of their difficulties can strengthen national identities. Japanese and German leaders (the latter in the case of Kosovo) have been able to ‘normalize’ their nation states by justifying military expeditions abroad, previously forbidden under their respective constitutions, as part of their international obligations (Warburg 2010). Coalitions create significant challenges for militaries: the problems of divided commands and separate forces answering to national governments. But they may also strengthen national identifications among their publics—when invidious comparisons are made with the contributions of other nations or when complaints are made that their nation is being drawn into an unnecessary conflict by a hegemonic power (the USA).

The goals themselves, when they envisage the construction of state institutions based on civic conceptions and new neutral symbols of territorial nationhood, tend to reinforce assumptions that the global political norm is nation statehood. Where the significant foundations of state and national institutions already exist, as in much, though not all, of the former Yugoslavia, interventions could have at least partial success. In the absence of such foundations (e.g. in Afghanistan), establishing stable and successful states is a task of decades and beyond the patience of Western populations, while it is very doubtful that nations themselves (on which most successful states are built) can be engineered by external agents. Nations are, in the eyes of their adherents, autochthonous. If nations arise from interventions, it will generally be in resistance to them. Indeed, it is all too easy when high technology is applied to insurgent movements for ideologues to construct the latter in romantic heroic terms as David against Goliath.

There is little evidence of the long-term effectiveness of aerial weaponry and drones: indeed the ‘collateral damage’ ensuing may undermine ‘hearts and minds’ strategies directed at the general population (Johnson 2014: 70-2). Michael Howard (2002: 102) pithily describes the problems of post-heroic asymmetric wars: ‘Tomahawk cruise missiles may command the air, but it is Kalashnikov submachine-guns that rule the ground. It is the imbalance that makes the enforcement of world order a rather problematic affair.’ A source of public and military concern is how to avoid soldiers trained to be disciplined killers in conventional rule-governed combat from morally degenerating when faced with non-uniformed adversaries employing unrestrained violence. Those who consider the military as emissaries of a cosmopolitan political project may look for solutions in an extension of universal legal and human rights norms into the battlefield. Christopher Coker (2007: Ch. 7), however, has argued rationally based external strategies to regulate the conduct of soldiers in battle zones will always break down in stress situations. To be effective, he suggests, norms have to be internalized in particular warrior codes of honour, and militaries are increasingly seeking these in ancient martial sources, also reinforced in the case of the USA military from the 1990s by a renewed emphasis on religious and nationalist values (King 2013: 427-8).

Indeed, the military profession cannot stand alone, but must be influenced by the norms of the community that it serves, namely those of the democratic nation state. The term ‘military covenant’ (used in Britain) implies a mutual obligation (of privileges in exchange for sacrifice) between independent parties. The relationship between the military, international law, and democratic national sentiment is not unproblematic, and the military may take a different conception of the national interest from that which is dominant. Military professionals have sustained ‘aristocratic’ honour codes that include adherence to the laws of war in defiance of ‘demotic’ passions for a war without limit. But this (transnational) sense of mutuality is founded in part on agreements between states that recognize each other as legitimate actors. Such disciplines were cast aside by German and Soviet armies in what was viewed as an elemental war of ideologies and peoples. In asymmetrical conflict in culturally alien terrains a sense of mutuality is shallow, and, although in 1977 the belligerent status of guerrillas was recognized through additional protocols to the Geneva Convention, the problem of how to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate combatants remains unresolved in the laws of war between the martial, Grotian, and republican-nationalist conceptions. Nabulsi points to a major tension between jus ad bellum and jus in bello. (Nabulsi 1999: 241). Prohibitions on reprisals and the torture of prisoners, when soldiers are faced with insurgents operating without restraints, must come from within—from internalized norms, deriving in part from military codes, but also in part from broader conceptions of national values that are informed by (often fierce) debates within civil democracies about acceptable behaviour in conflict zones. In exploring these complex problems, Mark Osiel (2009: 346 and more generally Ch. 12) observes that the conception of martial courage (heroism) has altered to reflect the new combat situations, so that in the US military one might win medals for saving enemy non-combatants by holding fire until their protected status is ascertained.

The armed services may play an active part in such discussions; they cannot ignore them. It is instructive that generals have repeatedly insisted on the importance of public support for the troops even if they do not agree with the reasons offered by governments for military interventions. This illustrates the complexities of the military-nation-state relationship produced by wars of choice. In the long run, political leaders, to retain national support, will need to exercise more considered judgement about the circumstances under which military force can be used effectively. Meanwhile, there is popular sympathy for the predicaments of the armed services. Indeed, the widespread use of term ‘military covenant’ implies a strengthened relationship between military and nation. Although there may be reactions against the government or even the state, the military can be pictured simultaneously as victims of the state and heroes of the nation.

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