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Peace of Westphalia in the News, 8/2022

Our first article from August is “But Are They ‘War Crimes’?,” which appeared in Commonweal Magazine, a lay Catholic journal. This is a rare article that provides significant background on the definition of war crimes in international law, considers Ukrainian accusations, and assesses which Russia might be guilty of. I find the concept of war crimes problematic, not because there aren’t plenty of behaviours bad enough that they deserve to be prosecuted, but chiefly because they are so hard to prosecute. The International Court of Justice, for instance, was investigating Ukrainian claims of genocide and ordered Russia to “immediately suspend the military operations that it commenced on 24 February 2022 in the territory of Ukraine.” Shockingly, Russia did not appear in court to respond to the charges, nor have they ceased their invasion in response to the ICJ’s injunction. Imagine that. The author says that the clearest example of a war crime is Russia’s aggression in starting the war, and that is one that, again, is almost certain not to be prosecuted as long as Putin remains in power.

The next article is “Don’t Rule Out Intervention in the Solomon Islands” in “The National Interest.” I find it fascinating for several reasons. First, because the subject matter is relatively obscure. The Solomon Islands were an important battlefield during World War II, and its capital, Honiara, is literally built on the site of an American airfield that was fought over for 6 months in 1942 and 1943. (This also provides an opportunity for a shameless plug for my new games, “Archie’s War” and “Guadalcanal: Solitaire.”) The country has no military but still occupies a strategic location near Australia, which has brought it attention recently when the government recognized China (instead of Taiwan) and signed a treaty allowing a Chinese military presence in the island. The other interesting thing about the article is that the author argues for a straightforward intervention by Australia on security grounds, in contravention of the usual rules of international law. The author acknowledges that it would be “illegal,” but argues against claiming some economic justification for intervention, which he thinks is doomed to fail. Instead, Australia should just take advantage of the anarchic nature of international politics to protect its interests. He writes, “There is an unwritten norm in international politics that states respect power” — an interesting observation at a time when people in the West have been urging more and more intervention against Russia in spite of Russia’s ability to bring down the world with it.

The last article I will look at today is “Trump Foreign Policy Redux: Inevitable Failure and Existential Peril” in the journal “Jurist.” The main interest of this article to me is a phenomenon I have observed before, in which established scholars become more and more unhinged in their writing as they get older. Some people are unhinged from the beginning, but most of them are weeded out and lose their platform. Scholars with long publication records, however, are granted a sort of exemption from normal requirements and are allowed to write all manner of things that would not be accepted if they did not have a previous record of scholarly contributions. In this case, I will call attention only to the two obvious problems right in the title. First, we have “inevitable failure,” a term that one would think would be almost excluded from academic writing except, perhaps, to describe over-determined events from the past. What kind of person thinks that anything is inevitable? What kind of scholar is prepared to risk his reputation by declaring something inevitable before the preconditions are even met? Clearly, one who has nothing to fear from being wrong, which is another characteristic of older scholars who launch on these flights of fancy. Second, the concept of “existential peril” is the sort of thing one heard prior to Trump’s first term, and I agree that it was entirely reasonable to worry about at the time. But to call attention to “existential peril” — i.e., nuclear war — at this point is absurd. We have four years of experience of Trump as president and we did not get involved in any new wars. On the other hand, we are in the middle of a crisis in Ukraine which many experts are afraid might lead to nuclear war, a possibility acknolwedged even by our current president. The professor’s gratuitous Latin citation at the end of his article cannot cover up his shallow thinking during the rest of it.

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