The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Monday, June 14, 2004
 

Pre-emptive war and slavery: comparable evils?


Humans have done beastly things to one another ever since there were such things: their ancestor hominids likewise.

Until 1750 or thereabouts, no one in Western Europe who counted came out against slavery; by 1850, no one in Western Europe who counted supported it. Yet the years of abolition had also been the years in which the factory system - in which men were merely hands [1] to be used and discarded as business required - had taken root in Britain, and France and Germany were catching up.

The end of slavery by Western European powers certainly has socio-economic causes - but, I hypothesise, a key component was a recognition that ownership of own human by another was morally wrong to a special degree.

(The idea I'm groping for one might approach by analogising from piracy - which was a crime jure gentium, so serious as to be a crime recognised by all jurisdictions around the world - in theory.)

The particular evil lay in the arrogance with which a man who owned other man would naturally be imbued; such a special status tended to be sacrilegious - surely only God was above men in that way? - and to led to acts of licentious cruelty degrading to the perpetrator.

I would suggest that the usurpation by the United States of a right to wage pre-emptive war [2] falls into the same category. Now, it's true that the doctrine of balance of power practised, in one way or another, more or less from the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 till the start of World War 1, was dependent on the waging of pre-emptive war [3].

What is different now is that, in the balance-of-power era, all powers - several powers, in any case - typically participated in securing the balance. (One can think of the coalitions against Louis XIV in the War of the Spanish Succession and against Napoleon.) Whereas, today, only one power arrogates to itself the right to invade any country which it deems to threaten its interests.

The present Administration has made (in UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's favourite expression) a complete Horlicks of its venture in pre-emptive invasion. But it would be fatuous to assume that the notion will die with that Administration. Indeed, some will be grateful for Bush and Co for having tested out the machine on their behalf.

A subject to return to, I fancy.

  1. The word commonly used in the North of England for factory workers - in Charles Dickens' Hard Times and Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole alike, from memory.

  2. Or preventative war - the neutralising of a potential enemy just in case - without any imminence of attack from that enemy.

  3. By intervening early to curb the aggregation by one country of power and territory to itself, the scale of warfare required to return Europe to equilibrium would be minimised. Not only was pre-emption authorised, but the earlier the pre-emptive attack, the better!


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