“Just as they are killing us, we have to kill them so there will be a balance of terror…. We will do as they do. If they kill our women and innocent people, we will kill their women and innocent people until they stop.” – Osama bin Laden, October 2001.
That’s good advice for Israel in Gaza.
What is the alternative to a balance of power in international relations? Idealists scream against violence, but it was violence that overturned the French monarchy and the Nazi regime. Short of violence, European settlers wouldn’t have succeeded against the aborigines and established America or Canada. Police violently arrest criminals. Violence not only defends liberties, but pursues other useful objectives. Germany and Italy were unified in modern nation-states through violence. Ataturk resorted to violence to crush Turkey’s Islamic backbone. Commodore Perry threatened violence to open Japan to American commerce. Violence is an indispensable instrument to both good and evil ends.
Societies change, but many parties refuse to accept the changes—which must, accordingly, be pushed through. There are two theoretical alternatives to violence: good faith negotiations and arbitration. The good faith assumption never worked in history because societal issues are too important. People readily consider others’ interests and forfeit their own in trivial matters because they expect that in other, equally trivial matters, others will give way. Good faith is a way of exchanging favors: consider others’ interests now and expect them to consider your interests in other issues. That scheme can only be implemented in a system of myriad small transactions. In international relations, conflicts of interest are relatively few and of overwhelming importance; such systems do not submit to a statistical approach. A country which gives way on the issue of its borders cannot expect similar treatment from its neighbors. France and Germany, for example, had a single territorial dispute—Alsace-Lorraine; one country’s compassionate consideration of the other’s interest wouldn’t be reciprocated.
Good faith negotiation could lead to a mutually acceptable settlement which doesn’t depend on the expectation of future reciprocity. For example, divide Alsace-Lorraine between the two states. But how to divide, especially when the strength of the contestants is very unequal? To divide in half is unjust to the stronger state. And why would a stronger state agree to the division instead of taking it all by force?
Justice is elusive. Israelis point out that the Palestinians had settled the coastal planes for hardly a century before fleeing in the wake of the Jewish state’ creation; a century is too little to claim tribal sovereignty over the land. Palestinians sensibly counter that the Jews had settled the place for much less time in modern history, and surely have fewer rights to the land. Justice depends on a common set of values and generally doesn’t work between nations whose values are opposite. Cooperation is a modus operandi inside groups; groups compete.
If nations generally don’t cooperate, how about setting up an arbiter? That could work if the contenders see the arbitration as just. A Legal system consists of laws and procedures; laws amount to values. In order to accept an arbiter, contenders have to accept his system of values—the basis for judgment—as just. Since they have conflicting values, however, no third-party value system can satistify both. Jews and Arabs each equally accuse the UN of bending to the other party.
If mutually acceptable international arbiters do not exist, how about creating an internationally acceptable court of law and imposing its verdicts? The UN shows that such an approach is unworkable. How to define “internationally acceptable”? “Acceptable to most nations” means equating the votes of France and Madagascar, evidently an unreasonable arrangement. “Acceptable to most people” would allow the two most populous states, China and India, to rule the world. Civil courts have developed many safeguards against self-interested judges and jurors; in the UN, every party is self-interested and cannot act as a faithful judge. Almost every country is interested in Arab oil supply; no country is interested in the fate of Israel. Guess the results of UN votes on Israeli-Arab matters.
The ability to enforce one’s opinion is the only viable benchmark in international relations. Nor is it bad. Technologically inferior Indians and numerically inferior Irish achieved independence through violence. Violence is an indicator of the depth of people’s interests beyond binary yes or no votes. Violence is often the only way for an insignificant group to be listened to; The Palestinian state happened only due to the PLO’s terrorism. Balances of power rarely erupt in violence; most of the time, parties act according to the perceived threat.
Violence is indispensable now as it was in the Stone Age.