Keith Boyea's Blog

Notes & Commentary on National Security, Current Affairs and Bourbon

War and the Liberal Conscience, or Nothing’s Really New

Thesis: Michael Howard’s book, War and the Liberal Conscience, proved to me that nothing is really new.

There is much to be said about Mr. Howard’s short work, but I wanted to highlight one sentence of a block quote from the book:

The source of war between states lies in their incomplete fulfilment of their function; in the fact there is some defect in the maintenance or reconciliation of rights among their subjects.

That sentence is from T.H. Green, Principles of Political Obligation, which was reprinted in 1922.  I flagged that quote while reading the book because it sounds an awful lot like the contemporary debate about the idea of Responsibility to Protect and sovereignty. I don’t wish to rehash the debate  here, because other people have said more intelligent things on it that I can.

I do however, want to use it as a jumping off point to say this:  After reading this book, I found that even most of my anti-war arguments aren’t new, and in many cases they are hundreds of years old.  I was and am insufficiently modest when arguing, because most of what I say was invented long before I came around.

Howard tracks the history of liberal thinking on war, and intellectuals’ efforts to banish it from the planet. Clearly, the liberals have not yet succeeded.  Things that contemporary liberal thinkers hope to depend on to end wars–transparent government, democracy, international institutions, self-determination, and capitalism among others–have not worked.  For example: open democratic governments catch war fever, international institutions seldom limit states behavior, independence movements often create war, and increased trade has not always meant less war.

My point here is modest: I simply want to point out that as we argue about the role of the United Nations, R2P, and the role of elites in foreign policy, we are participating in a debate that stretches back 500+ years.   From that perspective, the book is worth your time.



Written by keithboyea

October 24, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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