The year was 1648. After 30 years of Lutherans slaughtering Catholics and Catholics slaughtering Lutherans, Europe had become tired of war. The heart of western Germany, the Palatine, was utterly destroyed. A treaty was concluded at Westphalia, near the heart of the conflict, which crafted peace through a new concept – sovereignty. The warring monarchs agreed that each side had territorial integrity and that neither would interfere in the internal affairs of the others.
The entire world was eventually divided up into “sovereign nations” based on this principle.
The year was 2011. Protesters igniting the “Arab Spring” in Syria were slaughtered by their sovereign national army, and eventually formed something like an armed rebellion in what is now known as a civil war. The world watched in horror as at least 100,000 people were killed, about half civilians, for more than two years. Sovereignty means that no one is supposed to intervene, at least not directly. That has held until repeated attacks by chemical weapons occurred, crossing an apparent “red line” that denotes the limits of sovereignty. The world wants to act to stop it.
Why this line? Why now? What is the real limit of “sovereignty” and what does it mean to be a nation-state today?
As President Obama prepares to gear up yet another international coalition and seek approval from Congress there are many questions to be answered. There is strong support among many people to put an end to the slaughter, usually from people who have been begging for intervention for years. Syria is a horror and the introduction of weapons of mass killing (which started at least as early as March 2013) only accelerated the desperation. But it appears to be what has spurred at least some to act.
President Obama painted that red line in August 2012 by declaring that the use of chemical weapons would compel us to act. But action has been very slow in coming all the same. Only now are we considering intervention.
The problem does come down to the accepted legal framework that has divided the world up into these sovereign nations, independently operated and insulated from interference. The United Nations has the ability to intervene, but in practice was set up to make such action extremely rare. Any member of the Security Council can block action, as Russia and China have been doing for Syria all along. Sovereignty holds unless the world is remarkably united against a situation – which occurs very rarely.
Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the dictatorship of Syria from his father, knows how to play this game well. He solidified Russian support to prevent UN action against him. He has played international organizations to make a strong coalition against him difficult to organize. While sovereignty was a concept forced on the Middle East by the Europeans that invented it, it has become a useful tool for dictators to exercise a free hand while conducting extra-national operations with proxy groups such as Hezbollah. The “rules” are now being used against those who enforced them in the first place.
If there is an international coalition that intervenes in Syria, the problems only start to multiply. As Secretary of State Colin Powell said of Iraq, “If you break it, you buy it.” Destroying the Syrian military would be easy for the US, but to then re-form a working nation under the rules of the game will be extremely difficult –as we have learned most painfully in Afghanistan. The problem comes back to the enforcement of the concept of “sovereign nation” in a region where international movement of various kinds of Arab or Moslem unity frankly make more sense to the lives of ordinary people.
But ever since Westphalia, the rules of the game have been carefully described. What ended the religious war between Europeans has become a legacy that protects those who slaughter in other parts of the world. Those of us who find this reprehensible and want to act are somehow obliged to explain the legality and framework for understanding how intervention might occur, but we cannot.
Meanwhile, the $700B per year military that we have must either stand by and watch the slaughter occur or create some kind of new order in its own image if it is unleashed across Syria. Our position is a terrible one because we do have the ability to put a stop to the killing of the last two years but find ourselves unable to justify it by our own rules.
Globalism is changing the rules for capital, labor, and the way many people live today. Someday, probably soon, the idea of a “sovereign nation” will have to change as well. No one has any idea what will come next – but the horror of Syria has to end.