Emile Roemer: 'War is not the continuation of politics, but its total failure'

28 September 2010

Emile Roemer: 'War is not the continuation of politics, but its total failure'

Emile Roemer speaks at the Museum of the Resistance in Gouda
Emile Roemer speaks at the Museum of the Resistance in Gouda

'Is there a future for peace?' This question was answered yesterday by SP leader Emile Roemer at the Museum of the Resistance in Gouda. According to Roemer, as things stand the Netherlands is doing scant justice to its traditional role in the strengthening of the international rule of law: 'The Hague is still the capital of internal law, an inextricable element for practical peace. But from a country that prides itself on strengthening and spreading peace you should surely be able to expect that we should make a real contribution to that peace. Noblesse oblige, is what I'm trying to say.'

The complete speech by Emile Roemer can be read below.

'War belongs in the museum.' That's what they say in the Museum of War and Resistance in Overloon, near my home in Boxmeer. And not for nothing. Where the museum now stands, the only tank battle on Dutch territory during the Second World War was fought. Thousands of Americans, British and Germans lost their lives. The allies left behind a village in ruins.

The battle in my birthplace took place in 1944. Peace lay, once Operation Market Garden began, within reach. Peace was the future which people craved, after four years of horror and war. But for many Dutch people peace remained in the future. There was still the hunger winter to come, during which twenty thousand of them would die of starvation.

For anyone who has experienced the barbarity of war, peace is the longed for future. But what about people like me? Those who have never lived through war in their own land? What does a future of peace mean to people who have never experienced anything else?

We know that war belongs in the museum. We have heard, first-hand, the stories of war. But we look further than our own country. If you want to see war confined to the museum, you'll see all too quickly that a great deal of work remains to be done in the world. After the Second World War, no end has come to the horrors of war. In the Caucasus, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Congo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Since 1945 war has made its mark on all fronts, and a peaceful future sometimes seems further away than ever.

Is there than no future for peace? For us, certainly. At least, if we define peace simply as the absence of war, then in the last half-century peace has been the rule in our country, and war the exception. If we did indeed do that, because appearances can be deceptive.

Without the Netherlands having become in recent decades the theatre of war, violence has persisted. The frontline has moved, but violence remains.

When I became politically active at the beginning of the 1980s, people were on the streets with banners. We were post-war, and wanted to stay that way. That goal has not been achieved.

Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan: these are the post-war wars in which the Netherlands has been involved. By giving political support to military invasions, and even by sending troops. There is thus every reason to keep silence in the face of the question of whether there really is a future for peace. Above all, also, because the Netherlands has a special responsibility in relation to this subject.

In 1899 in our country, in the Peace Palace of The Hague, the first international peace conference was held. In times which saw an arms race, politicians, on the initiative of the Russian Tsar Nicholas II, attempted to consider how the world could be arranged more peacefully.

Far-reaching proposals were made. A freeze on military spending, a ban on the use of torpedoes and the dropping of bombs from balloons and other flying machines. New weapons with greater fire-power than those which already existed would no longer be permitted to be made. There was even discussion of an international form of mediation and arbitration in order in the future to lessen or prevent international disputes. Revolutionary proposals which could have given the twentieth century a quite different face. Proposals of which today's politicians could still not swallow a single point. The Hague remains the capital of internal law, an inextricable element for practical peace. But from a country that prides itself on strengthening and spreading peace you should surely be able to expect that we should make a real contribution to that peace. Noblesse oblige, is what I'm trying to say.

The question of whether peace has a future is one I find stimulating, apart from the history, for other reasons too. For many politicians war is an instrument in the hands of politics. If you've read Machiavelli, you'll know that in his eyes politicians and other rulers might have to be cruel and violent in order to remain standing in an uncertain world in which the law of the strongest prevailed. The 19th century Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz called war the continuation of diplomacy by other means.

With these people you might perhaps win the war, but not the peace. And perhaps I am naive, but in the political tradition in which I grew up, war is not the continuation of politics so much as its total failure. Grab a weapon, and it's clear you haven't had enough of words. It's like hitting your children, no sign of power and authority, but of inability and powerlessness.

My SP colleague Senator Tiny Kox journeyed to Georgia in September 2008 as a member of the Council of Europe. In August 2008 Russian troops had invaded the country. The Russians did this because the Georgian President Sakaasvili wanted to bring two rebel regions of the country, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, under central control, and by violent means.

Tiny, and others who travelled with him, expressed their disappointment with both parties, as neither Georgia nor Russia had attempted to prevent a war. Georgia had hoped and expected that the West, principally the United States, would rush to help. Russia, on the other hand, saw in war with this former Soviet republic an exquisite opportunity to broaden their influence over the region and take revenge for the Western recognition of Kosovo's independence.

All parties to this war came out of it with dirty hands. Together they were responsible for the humanitarian disaster with all of its victims. And while those in power in these countries valued themselves so highly, the local people paid the price. The short war cost more than a thousand civilians their lives. Civilians told of the bombardment which destroyed their houses and killed their families and friends. Of the looting and systematic perpetration of arson which led to mass flight into Georgia. Many villages were emptied of people, and those who did stay on, often old women and old men, spent their nights sleeping outside in the orchards, for fear of looters.

The war in Georgia is unfortunately only one example from many. In every war innocent civilians are the biggest victims. They pay the bill for the failure of politicians who reach for weapons instead of continuing discussions.

For my party this is reason to take at all times a critical stance in relation to wars. Not because without war injustice would be banished, but because wars seldom remove the causes of injustice. Military intervention can often be motivated by the best of aims, but its effectiveness is extremely open to doubt. The philosopher Hans Achterhuis correctly characterised this phenomenon as the so-called 'politics of good intentions'. His central proposition is:

“Whoever puts the victims central without looking at the political context, could well help to make more victims."

Achterhuis went back to 1999, to the war in Kosovo. What happens when politicians think that they can put to rights by means of war what has gone wrong politically? His account is one of the few critical analyses of the now so popular “responsibility to protect.” It is well worth the trouble to read a short passage from his book.

“That the aims in this war (the Kosovo war) were moral and noble, I won't deny. That they were totally unrealised, must also unfortunately be underlined. At the start of the NATO intervention, Clinton said that three goals were being strived for: the end of the violence in Kosovo, the defence of human rights and the creation of a multi-ethnic community. The attempt to achieve the first goal by means of bombing resulted in just the opposite. The killing and driving out of Kosovo's ethnic Albanians only really began with the NATO bombings. The two other goals were even further from being reached. A few weeks after the ending of the war around 160,000 of the 200,000 Serbian and Montenegrin Kosovars and Gypsies had fled. And the many different personal testimonies in the media show that in the driving out of the Serbs ethic motives played a principal role. Individual Serbs who had shielded or helped Albanian neighbours or friends were also driven out. The multi-ethnic state which NATO gave as its goal seems further away than ever and the human rights of a large group of Kosovars have been trampled underfoot. How can such simple victories be spoken of when high ambitions are not fulfilled? Are politics and war about nothing but power? Can we speak here at all about ends and means? And if so, how should we consider the relationship between the two?”

More than ten years after this analysis, the same still stands, in my view. If you have followed developments in Kosovo closely, you cannot do other than conclude that the war did not lead to improved relations between Kosovars and Serbs. And we must also state that Achterhuis's analysis does not apply only to Kosovo, but that there are also important parallels to be drawn with the wars which followed, namely those in Iraq and Afghanistan.

What went for Kosovo goes also for Iraq and Afghanistan. And what's striking here is the variegated nature of the arguments by which these wars were defended. For me there is no doubt that these wars, just as was the war against Serbia, are partly motivated by geopolitical interests. Oil, access to oil in an international struggle between great powers such as the United States, Russia and China, is inexorably linked to these wars.

But the fact that in the end this was fought out on the battlefield is not only due to this, but is also bound up with the arguments which on first hearing sound much more humane and peaceloving: Saddam Hussein was a dictator who used weapons of mass destruction against his neighbours and his own people. In Afghanistan until 2001, the Taliban were in power, a regime which up to then had won international notoriety through their oppression of women and the blowing up of statues of Buddha..

In short, in both countries things had gone very wrong. There was no democracy, and human rights were not valued. The wars which were conducted against these countries could therefore be best promoted by expressing the wish that this bad situation be changed. Bush and Blair, supported in the Netherlands by Balkenende, had taken up arms not for selfish reasons but in order to work towards a better world. So at least, was the story. It worked out differently.

In these wars, also, the high-minded moral goals have not been achieved. In Iraq, since the invasion, thousands of people have died. The country fell into sectarian violence between groups who for religious or ethnic reasons hate each other's guts. Once again the civilian population is the biggest victim. And what makes these wars particularly distressing is that before the war the international community paid far too little attention to the question of how Iraq might be helped back on to its feet. That is, moreover, also one of the conclusions that the Davids Commission drew from Dutch involvement.

From this report we can and must, as Dutch politicians, learn a great deal. About the way in which we deal with international law, which our Constitution says we must support and strengthen. About how in Dutch politics we should be conducting debates and informing ourselves, and about how our country continues too often to join itself to allies in NATO, principally the United States.

It is extremely sad to see that here there is still too little effort being made, while it is so needed. .

Such an analysis also holds for Afghanistan. Under the denominator 'the 3D-approach', supposed to bring diplomacy, defence, development together, the Netherlands has in recent years conducted its mission in Uruzgan. Here too the argument goes further than saying that our own interests must be defended.

Children should be able to go to school, people should live in safety and women and dissidents should not be oppressed. I believe in the sincerity of arguments such as those presented by some supporters. It's just that I don't believe in their effectiveness.

Simply because in Afghanistan we are seeing too many examples of how these fine ideals in practice go off the rails. Bombing innocent wedding guests and in some cases transgressing international law. It is so at odds with what is promoted.

For me it is difficult to imagine that humanity and democracy can be strengthened in countries if the foreign soldiers present ignore precisely these essential elements. Humanity and democracy cannot be imposed with bullets and bombs.

In Iraq and Afghanistan the United States has been accused of applying a double moral standard: international law does indeed apply to everyone, except that is to the United States and its allies. In this manner it is almost impossible to persuade local people in either country of the good intentions of the 'liberators'. It would do international relations a great deal of good if the West would also act according to the democratic and humanitarian principles it disseminates.

In my view we cannot and must not stay silent about this. Wrongly, we all too easily assume that the Western powers in both Iran and Afghanistan form part of the solution. The Western presence, be it military or civilian, acts as a red rag to a bull to insurgents of every stripe, justifying their often horrific activities by allowing them to refer to the still greater evil of the American occupation of their country.

The United States has provided people such as Bin Laden and organisations such as Al Qaeda with a grandiose battlefield on which they can put their words into deeds. Iraq and Afghanistan have now become the schools for international terrorism.

That is also the reality of our 'politics of good intentions.' We have too much faith in our own capacity to bring about social change. It is not without irony thereby to have to note that it is for the most part right-wing politicians who excel at this. The neo-conservative camp around Bush, but also elsewhere, are the most fervent advocates of this thinking. And yet it was for a long time left-wing politicians who were reproached for paying too little mind to the impossibility of arranging the world according to blueprints.

But if we don't offer the politics of good intentions, then what do we offer? Because it is not sufficient merely to state what is wrong. The challenge is to give alternatives so that our by definition limited contribution can in reality bear fruit.

That's a difficult question, but let me list a few points of reference on the basis of which I believe we could go beyond the existing approach.

1. Let's first of all keep to the Constitution

in which it is stated that the Netherlands works on the advancement of the international rule of law. The strengthening of this rule of law does not fit with a policy that directs itself towards the international power order.

That policy, developed over the last two decades, following the fall of the communist regimes, has led in Iraq and Afghanistan to suffered failure. The United States and her allies have undermined the international rule of law instead of strengthening it.

The international system of law is, as things stand, far from perfect. But it is the only system that we have and one to which most countries in the world have committed themselves.

That such a commitment to the Constitution and the international rule of law is not an obvious given is proved by Geert Wilders, who does not favour such a policy. But the Balkenende government has also in this respect no room to talk. Commitment to the Constitution is therefore not so trivial a thing as it appears at first sight. It calls for a more critical approach to the international relations of power than we have for the most part been used to hearing from the Dutch government, and stronger support for, for instance, the United Nations than that given at the moment to that organisation.

2. Military intervention must become absolutely the last option.

Holding to the Constitution is something completely different to forcing other countries over to our side by means of the violence of war. Iraq and Afghanistan are historic blunders which have cost hundreds of thousands their lives and only made the world more dangerous. Military intervention must again become the absolutely final, final option because in practice it is no ultimate remedy but instead leads to an ultimate tragedy.

There are now more Taliban in Afghanistan than there were when the war began. In Iraq people continue to die while the international peace operation is ongoing. We'd prefer not to know that, but disguising the reality and the truth can never be good. A Parliamentary enquiry into the war in Afghanistan is needed, just as the Iraq enquiry was unavoidable. The SP has, as far as the latter is concerned, made its contribution, and will continue to do the same in the future.

3. Seek the solution in the country itself

Give internal opposition, in countries where human rights are abused, a central position in our approach. Instead of thinking ourselves what would be best for other countries, we must seek to associate ourselves with opposition and discussion in those countries themselves. This would probably be in many respects a much slower means, but at the same time one which would be much more fruitful. Because only if changes are effected domestically do social changes have a real chance of success..

As the philosopher Kant said:: Aufklaerung ist der Aussgang des Menschen aus ihren selbstverschuldeten Unmuendigkeit (Enlightenment is the exit of people from their self-imposed immaturity).

Only if citizens take the initiative for themselves, do these changes stand a chance of succeeding. The SP has always worked in a very concrete way on this. In the time of apartheid we actively supported the ANC that worked from the inside on changes in South Africa.

And in Iraq too we have contacts with socialist parties who, swimming against the tide, are working for a better future for their country. In this, we avoid telling them what this or that group should be doing. They know that better than we do. What we can do is support them, morally, through education and through listening to their concrete aspirations. These efforts have taught myself and my party that real peace is a process of long duration, one which must often be fought for against all odds. This does not make us any less optimistic about the future, but it does make us a little more realistic than other parties who think that peace can be imposed from without.

But beyond these three points there are more possibilities for the Netherlands to make a contribution to a better and more peaceful world. Let me list five of them:

4.Civil aid

We can help people in an infinitely better, more civilised and less costly fashion through civil aid than we can with bombs and grenades. It of course remains a source of disgust that the global defence budget is twenty times larger than total global aid budgets. Cuts in development cooperation are stupid, short-sighted and dangerous, which is why I don't want to see any such. Of course we must critically appraise how aid is spent, but it is precisely in times of crisis that I would argue that we should not accept imposing the costs of this crisis on the world's poorest people.

5.Reform NATO

It is high time that NATO was brought up to date. Since the fall of the Wall the most powerful military alliance has been seeking its place in a changing world. Twenty years on we have to say that it has still not done so.

In my view NATO should first of all concern itself with preventing crises rather than provoking them. The new strategic concept, which is currently under negotiation, deserves much more attention than it is getting from Dutch politicians. The SP is in this area exceptionally active. We organised a symposium on the future of the alliance in the Senate, have had a fierce party debate, and written a book publicising our ideas over NATO's future.

6.No new mission

We should learn from our past mistakes and refrain from sending a new military mission to Afghanistan. The argument 'We must do something' should not be restricted to 'we must do something military'. Many development organisations agree with us. For them working in the shadow of a military mission is much more difficult than working without the proximity of soldiers.

We should put all emphasis on civil support. And as far as I'm concerned we can also in that respect set the bar high.

7.Stop cluster munitions

The Netherlands should take immediate action against corporations and banks which continue to invest in cluster munitions. Our country is about to ratify the international treaty against these armaments. Unfortunately many bigger countries such as the United States and Russia are not going to follow suit. But that is no reason not to continue take the lead ourselves against this sort of weapon, one which affects so many innocent civilians.

8.Make Europe free of nuclear weapons

The Netherlands should take the initiative in making Europe free of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapon base Volkel is a stone's throw from my home in Boxmeer. The American nuclear bombs must now be returned. Support for this has in recent years grown ever stronger. Whereas nuclear disarmament was a real theme of the left, now that is no longer exclusively the case. Ex-Premier Ruud Lubbers agrees with me on this, and the liberal German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle also argues in favour of a nuclear weapons-free Europe. Let's seize an already solid momentum and really get rid of these weapons from Europe, beginning with the Netherlands.

We live in uncertain times. The world is changing fast: new powers are appearing and the West seems likely to lose its omnipotence. Whether peace has a future depends on whether we are prepared to leap out of our own shadow, go beyond our self-interest and open ourselves to a world in which every country might fulfil its potential. If we don't do that, peace has no future. But I do not believe this will happen.

This evening I have dared to assert that peace does have a future. Look at our own country and the cooperation with others that we have established on our continent. Aside from any criticism one can have of Europe, we have succeeded in bringing former enemies together.

Europe was once not the cradle of peace and cooperation but the stronghold of hatred and malice. For centuries our continent has been torn apart, with the Second World War as horrific finale. And despite the fact that we have seen in the Balkans how vulnerable peace is, I have a deep-rooted belief in its future.

But take good note that in the end it isn't war which brought these countries together, but dialogue, however difficult that may sometimes be.

My future grandchildren will know war, on their own soil, only from the museum. Their grandpa will no longer be able to tell them about it from first-hand knowledge. Two generations on that will also be the case, I hope, for the children of Serbia and Kosovo.

Little by little the world can be made safer. Not with bombs and grenades but through dialogue and cooperation. But above all we give peace a future by ourselves setting a good example. We can make a start on this today.

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