History Today:Declarations of War, what are they good for, absolutely nothing.

hands-of-president-franklin-roosevelt-signing-declaration-of-war-following-bombing-of-pearl-harborAs the situation in Syria went from what appeared to be imminent US military strikes to the debated ‘Russian Plan’ with regards Assad’s chemical weapons, there has been discussion of the US’ potential authorization of force and its legitimacy.

The very concept of a declaration of war is an interesting one, and the present discussion of the matter in the US touches on a number of aspects of history.  Formal declarations of hostility obviously have a long history and in many ways are tied to the concepts of Martial Honour.  The idea that to attack an enemy by surprise, in terms of not letting him know he could be attacked, is the act of a coward.  A betrayal in fact, as you act as friend, or at least neutral party, before the attack.  With it’s ties to honour, the very concept has issues that military men have debated since the dawn of the modern era.  Do we let our enemies know we are in a state of war.  What is the declarations function, for both international relations and the domestic audience?

The United States has issued a formal declaration of War only five times in its history.  This is interesting in so far as the US constitution specifically lays out a declaration as one of the powers given to Congress.  The intent there was obvious; to prevent the president as the executive from engaging in personal wars.  To demand that the country could only go to war through the representative will of the public.  It must be recognized though, that the first ‘War’ the US was involved in was the First Barbary War, in which there was no formal declaration, though Congress did authorize the conflict.

The First Barbary War was a conflict between the United States and the ‘Barbary States’ of Northern Africa.  In short the Barbary states were technical client states to the Ottoman Empire, but functionally independent.  The Barbary Pirates had operated for several centuries in the Mediterranean and the East Atlantic, engaging in both piracy and slavery.  The Americans entered the War to stop American ships from being raided and thus to secure trade, as well as ensure their citizens weren’t enslaved.  However there was never a formal declaration of War.

The First formal declaration from the US came in the War of 1812.  The Following were in order; The Mexican-American War; the Spanish-American War; World War I; and World War II.  Since 1945 there has not been a declaration of War, though there have been several Military engagements, ‘Wars’ authorized by Congress including but not limited to Vietnam, Korea, Both Iraq Wars, and Afghanistan.  There have also been many, many more examples of military force and it’s use by Presidential fiat.  Indeed if the intent of granting Congress the power to declare war was to prevent the president from doing so than it has failed catastrophically.

It is interesting to note that Declarations of War have become increasingly rare since WWII.  The idea of the Declaration of War, as stated in the US constitution, was certainly one that emerged from the European conflicts of the 15th to 17th centuries, and is readily coupled with the evolving diplomatic structures of 18th century Europe.  The Aristocratic powers wished structures and rules to judge their engagements.  These rules evolved into the diplomatic structures of the 19th century and eventually International law.  The Declaration of War served to rally and inform the public during an age when information distribution occurred at the speed of a man on horse-back.  To Marshal Armies, to inform allies, and to inform the public of what they might be required to endure.  Even through the advent of the telegraph, railroad and other technologies that improved speed of information and movement of people this held true.

George Friedman argues in What Happened to the American Declaration of War? that what ended the Declaration of War was the emergence of instant communication, and Nuclear weapons.  With the Advent of the potential for a world-devastating conflict that might take less than half a day to play out, the idea of having to resort to congress became meaningless.  The US would have to either launch an attack without alerting the Soviets, or respond immediately to a Soviet attack, and in neither instance could the slow process of a declaration occur, or indeed have any meaning.

Historically I think the effectiveness of the Congressional power to declare War is quite limited.  While there have been many debates on the issue, many of those precede the emergence of Nuclear Weapons, and I think Friedman’s argument does have merit, but that it ignores the flexibility that the country had taken with regards it’s uses of military force even before that point.  What is true is that there have been no formal declarations since the advent of Atomic weaponry, and far more examples of ‘flexible’ interpretations in regards what it takes to get US boots on the ground.  Certainly after the forming of the UN, it has been taken for granted that UN authorization permits US use of Force, as in the Korean War.  This makes a great deal of sense in terms of the law; Congress can sign treaties, the treaties it signs authorize force under the legitimacy of the UN Security council.  I think this same mechanism explains some, though not all of the structures with regards the declaration of War in the last 70 or so years.

In the Nuremberg trials the Allies expressly established ‘Waging a War of Aggression’ as one of the highest of crimes.  It’s what they executed quite a few Nazi’s for.  The order they established post-War sought to prevent such things, though of course the Cold War context that soon followed made operating within these confines difficult.  Both the USSR and USA justified their various conflicts in similar ways; wars of ‘liberation’.  Proxy wars.  Assisting military’s with ‘Advisers’ who just happened to have a few Battalions of Tanks and Soldiers with them.  The desire to be ‘good’ in the eyes of their own population, to support the national mythology, coupled with increased access to information.

There have been efforts to justify conflicts through ‘coalitions’, arguing for international support for a conflict without UN sanction.  The Yugoslav conflict in the 90’s being a prime example of that.  With the NATO force justifying it’s use of force despite the lack of UN authorization, since any of the five permanent members of the security council can Veto such an intervention.  A similar, if increasingly shady, justification was used in the Second Iraq conflict.

The interesting thing in relation to the present Syria situation is how we are observing a new realignment in terms of the international order.  If the Cold War defined much of the 20th century, the last two decades have been a bit adrift.  Many thought the new ‘lone’ super-power of the US would increasingly define global affairs, and while this has been somewhat true in economic terms, in political and military terms despite the US’ overwhelming military power quite the opposite has occurred.  It appears almost as if we are going ‘backward’ to the 19th century and the ‘Old Game’ of multilateral alliances, power exchanges and such.  If the Cold War dismantled the diplomatic norms of the 18th and 19th centuries, than the present era sees some seeking to resassert them in a challenge to the cold warm ‘norm’.  Whether this heralds the reemergence of some forms of declaration, or the evolution of new instruments of international relations only time will tell.  But don’t look for any congressional declarations of war any time soon.


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