Friday, July 09, 2010

 

Thoughts on Sovereignty


Students of world history reckon the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, marks the inception of the notion of 'state sovereignty'. This applied to the complete legal control which a government was required to exercise within its borders to be recognised as legitimate by other governments. It also established a rule that states were not allowed to violate the sovereignty of others, unless certain specific conditions applied, like self defence. Inevitably, in an only slightly less anarchic world after 1648, such rules were frequently ignored or flaunted.

The simple fact is that legal equality means little compared to military inequality and a state intent upon using force to advance its interests was seldom been overly scrupulous about rules concerning sovereignty. This was most obviously demonstrated by the likes of Hitler and Stalin and more recently by Saddam Hussein, but in the second half of the last century the rules changed. By the end of it the USA spent as much on its military than the rest of the world put together. And yet the greatest power the world has known was not really able to exercise power: the ability to induce others to do one's bidding. This first became apparent in Vietnam where hundreds of thousands of US troops, horrendous amounts of munitions and repulsive weapons like napalm, failed to conquer a tiny country.

The term asymmetric warfare is often used to describe this phenomenon. We have seen it also in Iraq and currently in Afghanistan where less well equipped guerrilla troops have used a variety of unconventional tactics to bleed the more powerful combatant to the point when they begin to wonder if the effort is worth it. The Taliban know they can lose scores of fighters and still remain in the field while eventually the constant arrival of body bags is eroding the will of the west to continue.

The recent declaration by Cameron that he does not not want British troops to still be fighting in Afghanistan in five years time is a sign that the Taliban are winning; the recent withdrawal from Sangin is another. Asymmetric warfare has revealed that legal sovereignty is ultimately less important than individual sovereignty, the ability of individuals to pursue their own will. No amount of military hardware or activity can quell a people determined to resist. Nixon used to say that 'if you grab someone by the balls, their hearts and minds soon follow'. Afghanistan has shown this is by no means the case.

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