An alliance leader must play the role of barbarian chieftain

Sunday, January 31st, 2010

An age-old model explains how states and other groups are likely to approach war in the future, Robert Kaplan says, citing an unpublished essay by Michael Lind:

Lind says that in primitive societies, lawless frontier towns and the world of organized crime, injustice has always been redressed by the injured themselves, or by their powerful protectors; thus, the safety of the weak rests upon the willingness of their protectors to wield power. Indeed, feudal relationships between stronger and weaker states have marked world politics since time immemorial. Even today, civilian economic powers like Germany and Japan and niche states like oil-rich Kuwait and trading tiger Singapore have specific functions in a quasi-feudal Western world order, in which the United States provides military security.

In places where the rule of law does prevail, one is expected to suffer insults without resort to violence. But in a lawless society, a willingness to suffer insults indicates weakness that, in turn, may invite attack. A world without a Leviathan is somewhat similar: An alliance leader must play the role of barbarian chieftain. In theory, international law governs world politics; in practice, relations between great powers are regulated by a sort of Code Duello. Lind notes that “Khrushchev’s conception of ‘peaceful coexistence’ and Third World competition, and the establishment of a Hot Line, were designed to ritualize the struggle for power, not to end it.” Such conventions, he continues, “might be compared to the elaborate rules surrounding the aristocratic duel.” Such a code may not be Judeo-Christian, yet it is moral just the same. For even in a lawless realm, too extreme a response — killing large numbers of civilians in Beirut for the sake of protecting its northern border, as Israel did in 1982 — may be perceived as wanton violence, and thus lack legitimacy.

In any age, a reputation for power must be balanced by one for mercy. A barbarian chieftain may occasionally have to defend immoral clients (like U.S. support for some dictators during the Cold War), but if he does so too often to the exclusion of all else, his chieftaincy may lose respect and consequently be toppled. A future in which rival chiefs risk assassination as never before — with surprise attacks on computer command posts — is one perfectly suited for a Code Duello.

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