Adam Roberts in Sarajevo. CREDIT: Irfan Redzovic
Adam Roberts in Sarajevo. CREDIT: Irfan Redzovic

Legal and Moral International Norms Since 1914

Sep 3, 2014

"What lessons has humankind learned from the events of 1914 in Sarajevo? And are there further lessons that we should have learned, but didn't? Have our legal and moral norms changed (hopefully for the better) in the years since?"

ADAM ROBERTS: I want first of all to give my warmest thanks to the Carnegie Council, to the American University, and to the Gazi Husrev-bey Library. Yesterday many of us had the honor of being shown around the library, which is deeply impressive and proof of the capacity of society to recover from war.

I was here in Sarajevo for a very short visit during the period of the siege. It is very moving to see the reconstruction, not just of buildings, but of society that has taken place in this city. As we now inquire into the crisis of 1914 and what it means for us today, our starting point has to be—and it's been clearly ennunciated—that we are not here to argue for any party line, or to support any candidate or party in elections, but rather to engage in a frank and open discussion of a theme that is very close to Carnegie's heart and to his purpose in setting up the Carnegie Council in 1914.

The topic I have been given—just this little topic of legal and moral international norms since 1914—I will necessarily have to cover in an impressionistic way. In the discussion period this afternoon, please do criticize me, but do not complain at what I've left out. I know.

What lessons has humankind learned from the events of 1914 in Sarajevo? And are there further lessons that we should have learned, but didn't? Have our legal and moral norms changed (hopefully for the better) in the years since? My theses in responding to these questions are very simple and twofold.

Firstly, it is largely as a result of our experience of wars that international legal and moral norms have changed since 1914.

And secondly—and this is the worrying part—sometimes we've learned absolutely the wrong lessons from events, and the capacity of humankind to learn is sadly mirrored by the capacity to learn the wrong lessons. And only over time, perhaps, do we succeed in rectifying such errors.

The first issue I want to raise is one that's been raised by other speakers, including Margaret MacMillan in her wonderful keynote address. And that's on the role of accident in history.

I must start by saying I do understand the human tendency to attribute the blame for terrible events to a single cause or to blame an aggressor or alliance, or to blame a system, be it capitalism or a system of arms races or whatever. However, as a student of international relations, I am very nervous about the tendency to see that every great disaster has a great cause. Firstly, great disasters often have multiple causes. And that's as true of international relations as it is among many other aspects of life. Often things go wrong, whether it's road accidents or hospital disasters because of several things going wrong at the same time.

The First World War certainly had multiple causes, only some of which were accidental. It was largely by chance that Archduke Ferdinand's car took that fatal wrong turning into the street where Gavrilo Princip happened to be. That event was one link in a long chain of events that triggered the outbreak of the First World War. Like Margaret MacMillan—and I'll put my cards straight on the table—I strongly believe that the First World War was not inevitable, and might not have happened if the car had not taken that wrong turning. According to a friend who was very close to him, Gavrilo Princip had no idea that the result of the assassination would be war, let alone world war. (See the remarkable and detailed memoir by a fellow-student in the Young Bosnia movement who was a friend of Princip, Ratko Parezanin, Mlada Bosna I prvi svetski rat [Young Bosnia and the First World War] [Munich: Iskra, 1974]. The book was published on the 60th anniversary of the Sarajevo assassination.) And to his dying day, he could not understand that he had unleashed this horror. I have to say, I have some sympathy with him. All he wanted to do was kill an archduke.

There is still indeed some uncertainty—and one can detect here in Sarajevo as well as elsewhere—about how that event on the 28th of June should be commemorated. I incline to think that Sarajevo would be a very good place to highlight two great themes, both of which can be said to have painful consequences: theme number one is the break-up of empires (about which I'll say more in a moment; how difficult that process is) and theme number two is the role of accident in history.

Here I must make a confession. When I was a rather disobedient and awkward student at Oxford University suffering a history course I disliked, one of the teachers with whom I did get on well was the famous historian A. J. P. Taylor, who famously believed in the role of accident and chance in history. So there is an intellectual background to this belief in chance in history and I was imbued in it.

If that accidental element in public events is one theme I want to emphasize, a second concerns anti-terrorist wars. In the Habsburg ultimatum that followed the assassination after some three weeks of gestation in Vienna, the word "terrorism" or "terrorists" was used twice. And in truth, in the Habsburg way of thinking, it was an anti-terror war, or to use the modern parlance, it was a "war on terror" and the demand that was made on Serbia, including the demand to be able to conduct a Habsburg legal investigation within the borders of Serbia, was very much an illustration of the way in which terrorism can lead to responses that threaten that other principle of international relations, the principle of state sovereignty. And we know sadly from this experience of 1914 that anti-terror wars have a way of going wrong.

I have to make a confession again of longstanding interest and, you might say, bias in this matter. When, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, of the Twin Towers attack in New York, both the British and U.S. governments adopted a doctrine—and on both sides of the Atlantic it was written down in policy papers—that it is always best to attack terrorism at source, I gave evidence to the House of Commons Defence Committee stating that I thought this doctrine was a huge mistake. Among other things, it privileges the terrorist, it gives the terrorist the possibility of absolutely dictating where Western armies will end up, including in some notably un-promising territories, such as Afghanistan.

I'm not saying I was opposed to the intervention in Afghanistan. I was not. But I am against the idea of automaticity, which can leave one pursuing too many campaigns at once, more than is possible. And also, the whole concept denies the possibility that sometimes terrorism is part of a political problem that needs to be addressed in one way or another politically, as well as militarily.

A third lesson concerns the need for norms, laws, and institutions to reduce the risks of a world of sovereign states tearing themselves to bits again as they did in the years 1914 to 1918. By today, 100 years later, we have reached, I believe, some useful conclusions about which particular norms, laws, and institutions can be really effective. But we have reached these conclusions mainly by a process of learning, which is all too human and for which they have a wonderful term for in the West Indies—they call it "learning by burning." And we all have experienced "learning by burning" in one way or another.

The view that sees international life as one of constant upward improvement, including the steady replacement of war by law—that view has run into many difficulties, and efforts to ban war entirely ran into trouble.

Let us consider some of the very questionable lessons that were learned from the First World War:

There was much emphasis, and I regard it in itself admirable, on the need for international institutions. However, the most ambitious of these to date, the League of Nationsestablished in 1919, failed and failed partly because the design of it was shockingly bad and wrong lessons had been learned.

Secondly, there was a widespread belief in 1918-19 that a giant catastrophe, such as a world war, had to be followed by a giant peace conference to settle all issues from above by influential powers. What we got as a result was probably the most disastrous treaty ever concluded—the peace of Versailles/Paris in 1919. (It's an interesting contrast with the Second World War, where we never had a peace agreement at the end of any kind of global character and yet the result was far less catastrophic than the 1919 treaty.)

In the aftermath of World War I, many countries pressed for reparations and they got them in the Peace of Versailles. But that demand, too, contributed to the provoking of further conflict, further feeding a sense of injustice in Germany.Joel Rosenthal referred to that in his introductory remarks. And yet the United States was sadly slow to recognize the fact that this new doctrine could sometimes be even more disruptive of both internal and international order than had been the case for some of the old empires. Now please don't think I'm making a plea for the return of the Habsburg empire or that I'm about to establish a body called the League of Ottoman Empire Loyalists. That era is passed. But we have to concede that there were immense problems in the doctrine of national self-determination for some of the reasons that have been mentioned already, and not least that peoples are not neatly laid out on the map in ways that can be divided up, and new, legitimate frontiers always established.

The United States also learned from its experience in World War I that it should pursue a policy of isolationism, and only the horrors of the Second World War persuaded it to change course.

The growth of pacifism in many countries was a response to the First World War, or more particularly to the combination of the experience of the First World War and the failure of the League of Nations. Pacifism really got going in many countries in the 1930s on that basis and yet pacifists had no convincing answer to the rise of the Axis powers.

At the same time, another consequence of the First World War was that many, including in Britain, pursued a policy of appeasement. And indeed they gave a perfectly respectable notion of appeasement, which is one of the basic tools of international relations, a thoroughly bad name, such that it is now used as a term of abuse whenever any concession is made in international relations.

And yet another wrong conclusion was that the laws of war were considered to be of very limited relevance after World War I and there was remarkably little development in the laws of war in the inter-war period, partly because the laws of war had been of such limited relevance to the course of the First World War. Either they were used as propaganda mechanisms, which in itself was problematic, or worse they were simply irrelevant to the industrial mass killing of soldiers on the front line. There was nothing contrary to the laws of war about such mass slaughter and yet it was that—and here I agree with David Rodin; I don't agree with everything he said, but here I agree with David—that moral question of how can you justify industrial slaughter of conscripted 18-year-olds or even less sometimes was one of the great dilemmas left by the First World War.

What I've given you is a pretty depressing catalogue of the wrong lessons drawn from the tragedy of the First World War. But perhaps one can draw an interesting conclusion from this: that humankind has the ability to learn eventually from the wrong lessons, as well as from bad experiences.

The lessons drawn from the Second World War, and from subsequent wars, strike me as being more cautious in certain respects, but also as far more effective:

The UN was founded on a more realistic basis than the League, and for all its failures, of which citizens in Sarajevo are well aware, it also has some successes. It has failed to provide a system of comprehensive security—and indeed the term collective security never appeared in the charter. But what it has provided, I would argue, is a sort of system of "selective security." There are some tasks it can achieve, and some it cannot and that means that inevitably, we are stuck in a system which contains elements of international organization for security, but also elements of state and alliance systems. It's a very uneasy combination of systems.

Secondly, the emphasis on human rights—predominantly a post-World War II phenomenon—has provided an important moral basis for action by international institutions, by states, and by non-governmental bodies. The pursuit of human rights is deeply problematic at all these levels and often involves elements of inconsistency, hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and rancor. Yet it has contributed crucially to the degree of acceptance that we have today on such basic matters as that doctrines of racial superiority—which in the past have had absolutely poisonous effects in international relations—are simply not respectable today. We may now be free of the worst aspects of Social Darwinism. I think Hitlermade a notable contribution to curing us of the last residues of belief in Social Darwinism.

Also in the post-1945 period, we have learned lessons about limited war, about deterrence. We've focused on ways of mitigating the effects of war or preventing war by preparing for it, but hopefully not implementing the use of the worst weapons. We've learned lessons about peacekeeping, the laws of war, and here, if I may just indicate an element of disagreement with David's admirable presentation, I do think that the fundamental rules of the laws of war, including the right of captured soldiers to be treated as prisoners of war, are rules that cannot be allowed to be differentiated according to what people think the justice of their cause is, or the superior human rights value of their cause. Wars are always about a clash of ideas and soldiers on different sides may quite genuinely believe that they are in the right. There will never be the possibility of getting agreement during a conflict about the justice of the cause of one side or the other.

Lastly, a word about the nature of contemporary conflict and what it shows about the success or otherwise of our norms.

As has already been mentioned, including by David, international war has dramatically declined. In the whole period since 1945, industrial war between major states is an extreme rarity. One of the closest cases to it in the whole period was that between Iran and Iraq—1980 to 1988—but that's very much the exception. We can argue at length about the causes of this Long Peace: alliance systems, nuclear weapons, globalization, the increase in the number of democratic states. They're all part of the explanation and all of these explanations may be correct.

As a consequence of the Long Peace, we are now in another era, like that described by Margaret, of a long international peace getting longer. It is valuable to be reminded—as Margaret did remind us—that complacency about a long peace getting longer can lead to disaster. And we daily face the uncomfortable fact that, although international war is now a rare event, internal wars are common.

This brings me to the last theme I want to mention: post-colonial wars.

Almost all major conflicts since 1945 have had the character of post-colonial wars, whether it be the ending of European overseas colonial empires or the ending of great socialist multinational enterprises, such as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. When an external structure is suddenly removed, it is natural that there is great uncertainty about what is to replace it, and people easily seek security either from other states or from non-state structures—including, as we have heard, ethnic, religious, and other groupings.

In Europe, many of our conflicts of the past generation have had a post-colonial character, including, in the UK, our own experience of conflict in Northern Ireland. The conflict over Ukraine can in part be interpreted as a conflict of a post-colonial kind—sorting out the complexities, the difficulties, the uncertainty about identity that commonly happens in a new state after it is freed from imperial control.

The fate of many countries involved in the Arab Spring provides a further tragic illustration of the truth that it isn't enough simply to get rid of a dictatorial regime. It is necessary to have some conception of how a social order can survive after their overarching dictatorial rule has been taken away.

What should we take away from all this experience that is relevant to the international problems of today? I'm not sure we've all learned the right lessons. For example, the United Kingdom, my own country, could have learned from the events before the First World War, in its failure to deter German attack on Belgium. It could have learned the lesson that a half-hearted involvement in Europe is an unsatisfactory involvement. Yet we seem, from that day to this, to have preserved almost perfectly the idea of a half-hearted involvement and we see it in Britain's activities including on this very day in the questions that are being raised about the candidacy of Mr. Juncker.

Maintaining an international order, which is a big challenge of today, when some powers are rising and others are declining, continues to present problems much like those that were presented in 1914. I think we're somewhat more inventive in handling them, but I'm not wildly optimistic about this.

Above all, and I will conclude on this point, I think the growth in norms that we have seen needs always to be understood against a background of prudent realistic understanding of actual situations. We have created an international order, which can be properly described as a liberal international order, which has many virtues to it. And yet if we subscribe exclusively to the notions of human rights and we accept without too much criticism the notion of humanitarian intervention, we are always at risk of finding ourselves trying to convert societies which may have different traditions or understandings to Western ways of understanding human rights and those efforts are necessarily going to be difficult and in some cases inpermament.

As we have seen in the last few days in Iraq, the Western achievements may disappear quite rapidly in circumstances where they have been badly pursued. If there is any poem that is appropriate to such efforts it is the verse of Shelley's about Ozymandias:

My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!

I'm not saying that despair should be the proper response to all cases of humanitarian intervention, but rather that we should always be aware that that is one possibility and that we are not free from tragedy happening in our times. Our advances in norms, such as they have been, have to be understood in a better way than that.

Finally, I just want to say about Sarajevo, this city is a classic case where outsiders were slow to reach conclusions, slow to adapt their norms to the reality of a situation, slow to intervene during the long and difficult years of the siege. There is sometimes a case for taking strong action when there is a foundation to be built on, as there was here. This is a plea, essentially, not for forgetting norms, far from it, but for applying them in a way that is also sensitive to country and to context.

Thank you very much indeed.

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