51. The dangerous paradox of global security

What do Russia, The United States and Israel have in common? They are warlike states that share a misguided idea that they can both strive for dominance and achieve security. This essay explains how the pursuit of absolute security creates the opposite.

Under international law, the United Nations Charter in particular, all states have both the right to sovereignty and to self-defense. The first implies that states should be respected by others in governing what is within their borders. The second specifically states that if an armed attack occurs, countries can use force to defend themselves against this attack. While cornerstones of global stability, these two rights have also been used as justifications for some of the most violent conflicts of the 21st century. In this essay I will argue that the level of security that certain military powers want is unachievable in an international order based on freedom and respect of sovereignty for all states; just as perfect security is unachievable in a free society. Instead, the actions of these warlike states betray an imperialist attitude that fundamentally rejects the notion of sovereign equality it pretends to protect. I will explain this by first going over the cases of Russia, Israel and the United states, before reflecting on what this means for international relations.

Let us start with Russia; the old love of the far left and the new love of the far right. While we can guess about the true reasons for invading Ukraine, the official reasons for the invasion were twofold: a) to protect the ‘nations’ of Russia speaking provinces in the East (which they almost completely destroyed); b) to protect Russian sovereignty from Ukrainian aggression. The reasoning for the latter was that Ukraine was imminently going to join NATO (a defensive military alliance headed by the United States), and if they did, this would pose a potential threat to Russian national security. It is important to understand this concern from the Russian point of view, even if it is based on double assumptions. More questionable is the solution: if the response to a potential – but unlikely – threat to the sovereignty is to end the sovereignty of another (major) country, it isn’t based on a respect for sovereignty at all. Unless Russia does not first consider itself deeply superior, one cannot justify invading and trying to conquer and destroy a nation of 43 million people because this *might* weaken your own position. By that logic dozens of wars should break out.

Next let us consider Israel, which in the short period matched and overtook Russia in civilian casualty rate in their 2023 Gaza war, both percentage wise and potentially in absolute numbers. Israel correctly claimed to have suffered an armed attack on October 7, when Hamas fighters crossed into their territory to attack state targets but also terrorize and kidnap residents. If we go under the assumption that Palestine is a state and Hamas a government actor, this would trigger their right to self-defense. The problem is that this right has far expired, and Israel has at the moment of writing turned into a genocidal aggressor, committing practically every war crime possible. The problem with their logic is that self-defense is understood as being allowed to do anything to ensure that an attack could never happen again; including destroying the entire state apparatus, destroying the nation, and depopulating the area. By this logic, countries should entirely destroy each other in every (potential) conflict. For example, Syria would have the right to kill every last state employee and their extended family on Israeli and American soil for their current violations of their sovereignty. Given Israel is the original occupier and shows a disregard for human life unseen in the 21st century (even by Russian standards), such logic can only be maintained if one has clear feelings of national superiority.

 Last, we will turn to the United States, which is (in their view) both the victim and main aggressor in various conflicts. Notoriously, the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 under the pretense that their possession of nuclear weapons would pose a threat to their national security, which was both entirely false and the cause of decades of war to come. We should also not forget the attempt to kill Saudi terrorists out of self-defense that were in Pakistan by invading and occupying Afghanistan for twenty years. Even in the 2020’s the United States constantly identifies faraway threats to its own security, to which it responds by – at the moment of writing in March 2024 – weekly airstrikes on targets in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. It constantly acts in ‘self-defense’ in sovereign countries in which it is legally or illegally present. It might help to know that the United States has over 168.000 ‘official’ active troops (228.000 total staff) spread across more than 150 countries. With this in mind, if the U.S. logic of pre-emptive striking potential threats would apply to others, dozens of countries would have reason to strike the United States. The fact that this is not accepted, points to the fact that nations are not considered equal.

This contradictory attitude of sustained aggression to demand absolute security from others is not sustainable. We have already learned this lesson for domestic security a long time ago. As Liberals like John Stuart Mill pointed out in his classic 1859 essay On liberty, there are limits to what we can demand of others while being formally equal. In an open society, we all understand that there are limits to what we can demand to make us more safe, such as not driving in the same street or never expressing disagreement. In civil society, the expectation of security does not come from a total absence of the potential for insecurity, but from a) preventive policies that would take away the cause; b) reactive policies in case it does happen. The paradox is that those who decry cancel culture and sensitivity on the Left nationally, somehow expect absolute security at any cost internationally, even if the cost of that expectation is international insecurity and instability itself. At the same time, they would reject if other countries applied this some logic to them, betraying that it is only consistent in an imperialist worldview.

    But wait a minute, you arrogant international relations professor, what would you do if X smaller country posed a threat to your security? First of all, not live in a country that tries to dominate its neighbors or the world. Russia and Israel might ask themselves why these problems never happen to Brazil or Mexico, respectively the 9th and 12th economies of the world. It might be because they understand that external security partly depends on not behaving aggressively and trying to occupy other countries. Those who have read my previous essays know that I am – in Mexico’s case – not a fan of demilitarization; but I do believe that security resources should go to actual defense, not invasions and occupations. To end this argument, even if I would be entirely wrong on the strategy, It might be worthy to note that the military effectiveness of both Israel, Russia and the United States has been poor in any of their recent operations, with all three facing major tactical defeats. Unfortunately, in many cases the more ineffective the weapons proved to be, the more violence was used to force the desired outcome.

International law is approaching a breaking point in 2024: or we will get a more equal world where the rules make sense to most countries; or we will start a new era of oppression, but this time without any pretention of order. While Russia could still be portrayed as always having been an outlier, the conflict in Israel in particular is a test to the world order itself. If genocide as collective punishment and annexation of entire nation states become acceptable responses to security threats or terrorism, it will be hard to condemn lesser war crimes across the world. What we need is consistency, including from critics, who all too often fall to tribal analysis that excuses this or that country over perceived ideological ties. This is all the more tragic when it is misguided, such as the many Left commentators sympathizing with a Russia that has been far right for decades.

 Addressing the root causes of conflicts (occupation, climate change, inequality, etc.) is easier said than done, but rationally the only actual guarantee of global security. This might imply that some opponents gain advantages and some privileges are lost, but the mechanisms international law tries to protect (including the right to self-defense) are hard to maintain if they underling principle of sovereign equality doesn’t exist in the first place. Power to the peaceful – free Palestine.