War and Separatism

MATTHEW EVANGELISTA – The role that separatist groups play in shaping United States and western policy is greater than it may appear at first glance. 

In your book, Unarmed Forces, you discuss the susceptibility of national governments to influence by transnational groups — often comprised of scientists and humanitarians — during the Cold War. Those forces, however, seemed beneficent. Has the way in which US foreign policy is pressured by external interest groups changed? 

In my book, I focused mainly on groups that sought to influence US (and Soviet) policy on issues related to nuclear weapons and the East-West arms race.  Most of the groups that organized transnationally — the Pugwash movement of scientists, for example, or International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War — were trying to get the superpowers to cooperate and to reduce their military programs, and they had their greatest successes when Mikhail Gorbachev became the leader of the Soviet Union and was open to their ideas.  Paradoxically, though, once Gorbachev had opened up the Soviet system and reduced central control, the Russian opponents of military restraint were also able to voice their views and to forge transnational links with like-minded counterparts in the United States.  So, for example, you had Russian and American proponents of continuing to test nuclear weapons or develop strategic defense systems working together for the first time.

With the end of the Cold War, more groups have been organizing transnationally to influence US foreign policy, on a wide range of issues.  For example, a coalition of nongovernmental organizations and sympathetic states produced a treaty to ban anti-personnel landmines in a very short time (the Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty of 1997).  The United States did not sign it, but has adhered to its provisions and has contributed a large amount of money to de-mining operations.  On the more bellicose side, transnational organizations have sought to influence US decisions on whether to go to war — in the case of the “humanitarian intervention” in Libya, for example, or calls to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.

You outline the idea of the “war paradigm” to explain the United States’ reliance on broad military force against transnational terrorism. Has the US traditionally relied on armed ‘aggression’ to affect desired change abroad; how has this ‘penchant’ for force evolved?

In my book, Law, Ethics, and the War on Terror, I contrasted the “war paradigm” to the “law-enforcement paradigm” — not a distinction original with me.  I had in mind the way that the United States reacted to the threat of transnational terrorism associated with the 9/11 attacks.  Other countries had dealt with terrorism through surveillance, policing, and traditional methods of law enforcement — as well as through military action.  The United States itself had made broad use of law-enforcement techniques and had succeeded in convicting prominent terrorists in normal civilian courts.   The administration of George W. Bush, however, tended to favor military force as a way to confront terrorism — the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, where the al Qaeda terrorists had been given safe haven by the Taliban, and the war in Iraq in 2003, even though Iraq had played no role in the 9/11 attacks.  As the greatest military power the world has ever known, the United States does seem prone to use force abroad more than most countries.

Many times terrorist organizations fight against the government of their own country, as well as ‘enemies’ abroad. Is the rise of “state-sponsored” transnational terrorism — like in Afghanistan under the Taliban, or as some would argue in Iran today — a new development, requiring equally new solutions? 

State-sponsored terrorism of the sort you mention is not a new phenomenon.   Countries have supported terrorist attacks against their enemies many times in the past and have encouraged and funded internal opposition forces that used terrorist methods (random targeting of civilians, for example).  One possible difference in the current situation is the ease and speed of communication and travel that allows transnational terrorists to organize their crimes across borders and against many targets.  To the extent that new solutions are possible, they would entail greater cooperation between governments — not only to hunt down, prosecute, or eliminate terrorists, but also to work to remove the sources of terrorists’ support.   Many people may agree with the grievances that motivate terrorists, but only a minority uses violence to address them.  Removing the grievances breaks the link between terrorists and people sympathetic to their causes who would not otherwise support such violence.

The idea of “self-defense” defines modern US foreign policy. Has this singular focus altered this country’s understanding of ‘just conduct in war’ (jus in bello)?

It is very common for countries that go to war in self-defense or for a just cause to assume that the methods they use to fight are also just.  They sometimes blur the traditional distinction in Just War Theory (the basis for the contemporary laws of war) between jus ad bellum (the justice of the resort to war) and jus in bello (the justice of the conduct of warfare).  But morally and legally states should adhere to both of the two principles.   So, even though, for example, al Qaeda was responsible for the deaths of thousands of US civilians in the 9/11 attacks, that does not diminish US responsibility to avoid disproportionate harm to Afghan civilians in its military campaign against al Qaeda or the Taliban.

 In 2006 you argued, “If the current American behavior, rather than the efforts of nongovernmental organizations, shapes the norms and laws that govern the conduct of war, the implications for the international system and for our ethical standards could be very serious.” Six years later, have these “implications” proved as serious as you suggested?

In most respects, yes, and largely because the Obama administration has continued the policies of its predecessor rather than repudiated them.  A key example is the use of unpiloted aerial vehicles or drones to kill suspected terrorists even far from any recognized battlefield.  This constitutes an expansion in time and space of the notion of war.  So even though officials of the current administration criticized the concept of a Global War on Terror, the policies reflect pretty much the same approach.  The implications for the use of drones, for example, could be that many countries and non-state actors would consider using them outside of normal military operations on a specified battlefield in a recognized war.  The technology is available now for such widespread use, and there is ample reason to consider that the global proliferation of drones would redound to the disadvantage of US and international security.


MATTHEW EVANGELISTA is President White Professor of History and Political Science in the Department of Government at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he teaches courses in international and comparative politics. He is the author of five books, including Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War (1999), winner of the Marshall Shulman prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies and the Jervis-Schroeder Prize from the American Political Science Association

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s