The Peace of Westphalia was a series of treaties among the European states that ended the Thirty Years’ War, with its enormous carnage, and established the principle of national sovereignty—that a nation is sovereign over its population. This meant that a Protestant nation, for example, had no right to make war against a Catholic nation merely because the Protestant nation very much wanted the citizens of the Catholic nation to become Protestants.
The results of the Peace of Westphalia have not always been pretty. After Hitler took power and before World War II broke out, Germany’s persecution of its Jewish population was implicitly acknowledged by the United States, and (as far as I know) by all other nations as well, to be Germany’s business, and not a casus belli. The most dramatic post-World War II example of that kind of hands-offness was the refusal by the United States to intervene in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when, in the midst of a civil war between Hutus and Tutsis, the dominant ethnic groups in Rwanda, the Hutu population in a period of about 100 days killed between 500,00 and 1 million Tutsis, before being decisively defeated by the Tutsis. The Hutus were armed mainly with machetes, and the United States could have prevented the genocide with modest military means and little risk, but, in keeping with the Peace of Westphalia (though I don’t think that was ever mentioned), did nothing.
Five years later, however, the United States intervened in a civil war in Yugoslavia between the Serbian majority and the people (mainly of Albanian ethnicity) of the province of Kosovo. We sided with the Kosovans, and as a result Kosovo became an independent country. Our intervention flouted the Peace of Westphalia, though again I don’t recall the Peace having been mentioned.
We flouted it again when we intervened in the Libyan civil war in 2011, on the side of the rebels against Muammar Gaddafi. And we violated the spirit though not the letter of the Peace of Westphalia just months ago in threatening withdrawal of aid from Egypt in the wake of the Egyptian Army’s ouster of the elected Muslim Brotherhood government. The threat was contrary not only to the spirit of the Peace of Westphalia but also to U.S. national interests; for the Muslim Brotherhood spells trouble for the United States, and the Egyptian Army does not. Moreover, it is naïve to criticize the Egyptian Army for ousting a democratically elected president (Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood), as if it were any business of ours whether a foreign country is a democracy or an autocracy or something in between. We have friendly relations with a number of nondemocratic countries, and indeed such countries frequently are our allies; think of Saudi Arabia, the other Arab monarchies, and a number of autocratic African and Central Asian nations. We never tried to dislodge Franco, for example, or for that matter the Cambodian nut government (the Khmer Rouge) that killed 2 million Cambodians without cause. We became friendly with Mao’s China. We even had good relations with Saddam Hussein before he invaded Kuwait (relations unperturbed by his poison gas attack on the Kurds in 1983, which killed two or three times as many persons as Assad’s recent attack killed). We had excellent relations with the successive Egyptian military dictators Sadat and Mubarak, relations that I imagine we will soon re-establish with the new Egyptian military dictatorship.
Which brings me to Syria, which the President wants to bomb as punishment for the Syrian military’s use of poison gas against civilians believed to support the rebels in the civil war that has been raging for more than two years and that has caused some 100,000 deaths and a flood of refugees. It is something of a puzzle that poison gas should be considered a weapon of mass destruction that no nation should be permitted to have, because it is not a very effective weapon—except against civilians. Be that as it may, the Peace of Westphalia was intended to eliminate a nation’s mistreatment of its population as a ground for war against that nation, and thus to reduce the frequency of war, certainly a laudable aim.
Syria is a dictatorship, but it is not a threat to the United States. On the contrary, it will become a threat to us only if Al Qaeda, which is prominent in the rebellion, takes over the country, or a significant chunk of it (for Syria may fragment). An irony of our threatened bombing of Syria is that it may strengthen Assad’s position by doing little damage and thus making it look as if he’s successfully defied the United States, and by inducing Russia, China, and Iran to increase their aid to him in order to make us look ineffectual. Conceivably our government secretly desires survival of the Assad regime in a weakened state; even a Syria divided on ethnic lines. We were not troubled by the Syrian dictatorship before the rebellion broke out—we will be troubled if Al Qaeda takes over the country. Al Qaeda and affiliated extremist Sunni groups endeavor to commit terrorist acts inside the United States; Assad and his Shiite allies do not.
Partly because of the information revolution, which brings vivid images of war into our cell phones and laptops, it has become difficult from an emotional standpoint for the mighty United States to be seen as standing aloof from grave abuses of human rights in foreign countries, though we managed to do that in the Rwandan and Cambodian genocides, and in other genocidal episodes as well, and Assad doesn’t need poison gas to kill civilians. It doesn’t help that the consequences of our bombing Syria are not easy to foresee, and that wars develop their own momentum.
I would prefer that we refrain from military activities that do not hold substantial promise of advancing at reasonable cost policies reasonably deemed essential to the security and well-being of this country. In other words, we need to prioritize—cold-bloodedly.