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Preemption and the Treaty of Westphalia


I submit that the 17th century principal of nonintervention in the domestic affairs of other states enshrined in the Treaty of Westphalia has been more respected in the 20th century than in earlier generations. The treaty was, after all, borne in part by the accumulated fatigue of the ghastly casualties of earlier wars.

In the late 20th century, preemption has been something ascribed to the Japanese or the Israelis. In what I call "Geopolitik with a grudge," I am not alone in seeing the growth of preemptive strikes as an accepted national instrument of force projection. (Publicly formalizing it is another matter.) It is a two-edged sword if a "Use it or lose it" mindset takes over strategy in the minds of usually defensive nations, much less the normally belligerent ones. Any state could then move to the position of aggressor such that the international scene comes to resemble Dodge City with guns blazing.

I make this reservation even though I regrettably feel that action was needed with respect to Iraq. As I have noted in other venues, Saddam Hussein was the product of a culture in which respect is synonymous with fear, in which revenge is a social mechanism by which an extended clan maintains its position and power -- and the failure to exact revenge is a sign of weakness and therefore loss of respect. I feel that he had been humbled by the US, and was seeking a means to extract his revenge under the cover of plausible denial.

Whatever verdict will be delivered on the Iraqi incursion and the reshaping of US foreign policy, the precedent implicit in its use is not a comforting one.

Gordon Housworth

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