Peace Through Law? The Failure of a Nobel Experiment
19 Pages Posted: 14 May 2008 Last revised: 17 Jul 2008
Collective-security ideas that emerged from the First World War nobly sought to end the carnage depicted in Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front. The collective-security movement sought to create a system that protected the status quo by making existing national borders sacrosanct. Any violation of those borders would be treated like a criminal attack under a domestic legal system. But those who devised these rules could not have anticipated the very different threats confronting the international system today. Large, multistate conflicts have receded in the wake of the stability provided by the Cold War superpowers and now by the United States and its allies. International terrorism, failed states, rogue states, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction have emerged as the most serious threats to international security. Preventing these new threats from maturing may call for use of force that does not respect the territorial integrity of all nations to the same extent.
All Quiet on the Western Front reflected the reaction to the horrors of the First World War. It depicted war not just as destructive but also as utterly senseless. Such views led to the effort to replace balance-of-power politics with collective security as the new organizing principle in international relations. Collective security, however, has not worked because it sought to radically alter nations' definition of their self-interest in terms of power and security. Pursuit of the idealistic goal of world peace through international law diverted focus from more realistic measures that could have prevented the return of war in Europe. The experience of the interwar and postwar periods should serve as a cautionary tale for those who seek to solve the world's problems with a renewed faith in international law and institutions.
Keywords: International law, international security, collective security, law of war, international systems, war and peace
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