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February 05, 2007

Quotes of the Day
Posted by Rosa Brooks

In Regarding the Pain of Others, the last book she published before her death, Susan Sontag quotes Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas: "War is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped." Commenting on Woolf's remark, Sontag asks: "Who believes today that war can be abolished? No one, not even pacifists."

Is that true? I think it is. When I was a child, I genuinely believed that war could be abolished-- that humans could find better ways to resolve disputes-- that the US government could and should work towards the abolition of war. I've never been a pacifist: it has always seemed to me that some things are worth fighting for. But I used to think that a world without war was not an impossible dream.

True, I haven't believed that since I was ten or so-- but at various points in recent history, many adults, including many serious, hard-headed thinkers, have believed in and sought a world in which there is no such thing as war. After World War One, for instance; and again in the immediate wake of World War Two. But today, in this world of proliferating conflicts and proliferating complexities, can any serious people maintain that war can be utterly abolished?

And if the answer is no, have we lost something by losing that hope? Or gained something?


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We can never eliminate the possibility that some other country will launch a war.

What we can do is adopt a policy fully consonant with traditional just war doctrine--that we will only use force if we or an ally is attacked (or faces imminent attack), or to prevent killing on a genocidal scale. And then we can demand that other countries follow our lead. In this way, the possibility of war will diminish over time.

Woolf is right: War is the ultimate human rights abuse.

Just because something is not very likely now doesn't mean that it will never be possible. In her day, Woolf might have said "Who believes today that man can travel in outer space? No one, not even fantasists."

Or Lincoln might have pondered in 1862 whether armed conflict between the states could ever really be ruled out. I would say that today it can effectively be ruled out.

Similarly, war between nations could be effectively ruled out under the right conditions. Those conditions might be a more widespread version of the peace that now exists among the most developed nations. The US, Germany, Japan, France, the UK, etc. all trust each other enough and have enough commercial, cultural, and diplomatic ties that war between any of them is very unlikely. Another scenario might be a more universal version of the EU, where member states have achieved some level of political and economic unity, and are therefore very unlikely to go to war with each other.

One of the principal problems with US foreign policy is a tendency to have fixed (often flawed) assumptions about human nature and international relations, and to fail to imagine a better world.

One of the principal problems with US foreign policy is a tendency to have fixed (often flawed) assumptions about human nature and international relations, and to fail to imagine a better world.

One of the principal problems with US foreign policy is a tendency to have fixed (often flawed) assumptions about human nature and international relations, and to fail to imagine a better world.

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