'Codes of Peace,' and the Resort to War

JONATHAN POWER

July 09, 1993|By JONATHAN POWER

Vienna. -- "On the last day of the war'' -- the great European war of 1914-18 -- wrote Gilbert Seldes, a newspaper correspondent accredited to the American army press section, ''the fields still green, the sun shining brightly, four members of the press section drove into terrain which a few hours before had been a battlefield.

''In that scene of peace and beauty the torn and twisted bodies of human beings seemed so shockingly out of place; yesterday they were a commonplace of war; today they were murdered men. As we stood silent in the unharvested fields and uncovered our heads, the same thought came to all of us. Without questioning each other's feelings, we there pledged ourselves to tell the world, or the many who would read our newspapers, the 'true facts' about the war, so that there would be no more wars.''

The American president, Woodrow Wilson, was charged with the same fervor. While in Paris for the writing of the peace treaty ending World War I, he appointed himself as the American representative on the committee to draft the Covenant of the League of Nations. He was determined to make sure the Covenant insured a long-term guarantee for the peace that had been bought at such high cost.

Would Bill Clinton know what I'm talking about? This erstwhile anti-war protester has now, in a stroke with his missile strike on Baghdad, set aside America's slow but steady return to Wilsonian principles and reverted to acting in narrowly perceived self-interest without concern for international law.

Whereas George Bush decided to pursue his New World Order with recourse to the United Nations (even if with Iraq and Somalia he bent the rules on who would command the forces approved) Mr. Clinton has seen fit to bypass it altogether. Article 51 of the U.N. Charter is crystal clear that the right to self-defense invoked by the White House can only be resorted to when a country is subject to an armed attack, and even then the dispute must be referred immediately to the Security Council.

The day of the strike on Baghdad, I was in Vienna, the home of the Habsburgs, a central player in the politics that provoked World War 1. I could not help reflecting on the early efforts to substitute international law for the self-interest and paramount sovereignty of nations.

The stunning truth is that over the last 100 years states have committed themselves to a far more just, humane and peaceable world than their practice suggests. As Dorothy Jones in her masterful recent book, ''Codes of Peace,'' observes, there is a ''hidden history'' of our century, the record of unnoticed breakthroughs in treaty-making when the great warrior states have adopted apparently minor stipulations that, in fact, represent agreement to significant restraints on their sovereignty.

The League itself rests in a perpetual historical cloud because of its failure to deal with Germany. But it did resolve the Aaland Island dispute between Finland and Sweden (which mattered at the time) and helped keep the peace among Albania, Yugoslavia and Greece (1921), Greece and Italy (1923), Iraq and Turkey (1924-25), Greece and Bulgaria (1925), Colombia and Peru (1932-35). Most notably, throughout an extraordinarily tense situation, in 1935, an international military force kept order during the plebiscite that returned the Saar to Germany.

In fact, as one reads of the debate and discussion at the Paris peace conference and immediately afterward, it becomes apparent that the great issues that so preoccupy us today -- sovereignty, human rights and the protection of minorities -- were atop the agenda then. In the final treaty phrases spelling out responsibility toward vulnerable groups: ''Poland undertakes to put no hindrance in the way of . . . ,'' or ''Austria undertakes to assure full and complete protection of . . . .''

Yet the League failed and Hitler succeeded. The League's sophisticated mechanisms for arbitration and, if necessary, for collectively resisting aggression were never applied as intended because the support of the public was not there.

Now we have the U.N. Charter, an even more sharply drawn and practical document than the League's Covenant. The Cold War froze it into barely animated suspension. At last we have the chance to make it work. But, as with the Covenant, it needs the support of public opinion, the press and parliaments everywhere.

It's not getting it. The U.N. was used too late in Yugoslavia and Somalia, because public opinion and diplomatic minds were not roused early enough. In Cambodia, where it has worked brilliantly, it has been all but ignored by an indifferent press. U.N. activity is simply not given the priority, the sense of urgency and the cash it needs to work effectively.

Add Bill Clinton. If he is allowed unchallenged to launch his missiles without caring one iota for a hundred years of hard-won international law, the U.N. will go the way of the League. And then, like the politicians of 1939, we'll look back and wonder what went wrong.

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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