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Book Review: Democracy Goes to War – British Military Deployments under International Law

Nigel D. White, Democracy Goes to War – British Military Deployments under International Law (Oxford: OUP, 2009) ISBN-13: 978-0-19-921859-2 

Nigel D. White, Professor of International Law at the University of Sheffield, in this book presents a clear doctrinal narrative on a very sensitive issue of the use of military force and peacekeeping.  The book specifically analyzes the deployment of British troops after the end of WWII when a ‘new world order’ supposedly began to develop that was to be based on the prohibition of the use of military force in international relations.  White found inspiration for this work while contributing a chapter on British doctrine and practice for another book, Democratic Accountability and the Use of Force in International Law.  In the course of that work he realised that it ‘was impossible to do justice in limited space to both legal and political debate on matters of great constitutional and international importance (Preface).  White’s current book provides a thorough insight from the British perspective on the participation of its troops in peacekeeping to nation building operations, and how such decisions are made at a domestic level.  Emphasis is laid upon the British deployment in Korea, Suez, Cyprus, the Falklands, Kuwait, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq.  This work is divided into 11 neat chapter that deal with domestic constitutional framework of Britain (Ch. 1), international legal frameworks governing the use of military force from the British perspective (Ch. 2), international institutions (Ch. 3, 4 & 5), case studies (Ch. 6,7, 8, 9, 10) and a conclusion (Ch. 11).  All the chapters are closely knit and well connected.  

Chapter 1 provides a systematic review of the nature of British parliamentary democracy and how it imposes a constraint on waging wars.  The author focuses on a question of decisions to go on war, and shows how over the years the constitutional prerogative in the UK as well as the role of executive has increased, leaving the power to wage war in the hands of a government.  The British unwritten constitution provides the Prime Minister (the head of Cabinet) carte blanche powers on the issues of foreign affairs, deployment of troops and waging wars.  The author raises a significant question, ‘whether growing democracy in the UK has necessarily made the decisions to deploy troops to conflict zones better regulated?’  Highlighting Britain as a parliamentary democracy, the author argues that ‘the executive governs through Parliament’ (p. 14).  Hence, the traditional expectation that the political pressures from MPs and the electorate would place government under pressure on issues such as ‘not to go on wars’ is not necessarily true.  

Chapter 2 explores the British perspective on international law related to use of military force.  The author points out that ‘in recent years, Britain has been more willing to challenge or perhaps flout international law’ as the cases of Kosovo (1999) and Iraq (2003) suggest (p. 32).  The author argues that the position of Britain has been problematic since the framing of the UN Charter that created a ‘new world order’.  To discuss it more profoundly, the author provides an insight into the changing international law and the British position from the Cold War to post-9/11 period.  He argues that such a change is the concerted attempt of superpowers including the UK to develop exceptions to the international law in the post-1945 era.  For this reason the author refuse to see the British position as a continuation of the Cold War approach of the superpowers that tend to deceitfully establish that they are operating within the bounds of international law but simultaneously place power before law.  The author, therefore, visualizes the attempt to develop international law by Britain on use of force in cases of Kosovo and Iraq as not necessarily an effective law, which is not capable of forming a clear precedent for the future.  

Chapter 3 discusses the attitude of Britain, as a permanent SC member and original member of the NATO, towards deployment of troops through the international institutional framework in post-1945 era.  The discussion in this chapter makes an interesting comparison between the UN as NATO calling the former an idealist and latter a realist global security system.  The author draws a corollary between the keeping of veto in the SC and creation of the NATO.  He argues that to balance the power Britain and allies had to revert to a fully realistic approach to international relations and that led to the creation of the NATO.  On the other hand the author also maintains that the veto-locked SC was also a realist approach that was able to avoid the conflicting practices during the Cold War.  However, White claims that with the end of the Cold War the NATO was willing to use force and take action without the Security Council’s approval and that became a reality in Kosovo. 

Chapter 4 contends Britain’s position, as a permanent member, in shaping the idea of coalitions acting under the authority of the UN as in case of North Korea and Kuwait.  This approach is certainly an alternative to more centralized application of military force as provided in the UN Charter.  Interestingly the author describes acceptance of the coalition military action by the UN and providing it a required SC authorization as a remedy in situations where Council is engrossed by a veto deadlock.  He describes participation of the UK in such actions as its duty, as the permanent member, to uphold the Charter principles when they are challenged.  Since the situations such as North Korea and Kuwait were seen as exceptions rather than a general rule, White argues for this reason Britain along with the European states co-operated in defence and security matters through NATO as well as EU.  The author claims that in situations where UN SC cannot uphold the Charter principles, the authority to protect passes to regional organisations.  He asserts that the legitimacy to use military action is nonetheless dissolved if action is taken unilaterally or only with a few allies as in case of Iraq.  White correctly perceives that organisations like the EU need to build its military capability and act on the behest of the SC when enforcement action is necessary, which will make the working of SC effective. 

From chapter 6-10, British involvement in Bosnia, Falklands, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Iraq is highlighted.  The author aims to discuss in these chapters whether Britain’s actions in these cases were in breach of international law.  To arrive to a conclusion the author uses both judicial as well as political accountability means.  The discussions over the British involvement in Bosnia in chapter 6 highlights whether it reflected the significant shift in the British policy regarding peacekeeping, as it was purely the NATO-led operation and not under the UN authority.  Skillfully the author shows that although the stabilization forces could provide more security however it necessarily is not an effective way to promote self-sustaining peace.  International scholarship has criticized this type of peacebuilding by calling it transplantation of ‘political ideological of industrialized democracies’ and also questioning its ‘long-term effectiveness’. The discussion in chapter 7 on the Falklands successfully shows how Britain is unwilling to discuss the issue of sovereignty as part of its international obligation to settle disputes by peaceful means. However, Britain is willing to justify its military operations by using the argument of self-defence.  

Addressing the issue of Afghanistan, in chapter 8, the author asserts that although it might appear to be a clear-cut case of collective self-defence, it unquestionably is ‘an attempted development of the right to self-defence to allow states to respond to terrorist attacks, in particular to take action against states harboring terrorists’.  The author strongly argues that the invasion of Afghanistan does not appear to be taken within the UN Charter as it was a preemptive attack.  He maintains that the response could have been proportionate by focusing on the terrorist bases rather than launching an attack against the State in breach of its territorial integrity.  An interesting issue of causal link is raised by the author and he argues that it was not the government of Afghanistan that sent Al-Qaeda to launch 9/11 attacks.  Using Afghanistan as a representative case, the author adroitly demonstrates that how liberal democracies such as Britain is prepared to expand as well as create new exceptions to the ban of use of force, which now extend to pre-emptive self-defence.  Britain’s action in Afghanistan does not necessarily fit well within the international law however at a domestic level this military action was not completely devoid of an initial legitimacy that generated a supportive public view allowing Britain to have a long term sustainable military deployment there.  The author shows that in case of Iraq, even though subsequent actions were supported by SC, the initial action lacked a legal basis so British military action did not generate a favourable public view that led to the questioning of its continued military commitment.  

Chapter 9 discusses the Kosovo case and the NATO led 1999 bombing aiming to study the future of humanitarian interventions which is a controversial justification to expand the use of force.  The author successfully shows that the British view on humanitarian intervention is in stark contrast to international community’s view as laid down in the World Summit outcome document of 2005.  This document clearly mentions that ‘responsibility to protect is firmly based on the Security Council not on the other organisations’ which clearly includes the NATO.  White explains that the chain of events in Kosovo right from 1999 led to its declaration of independence on 17 February 2008.  He argues that the act of declaration of independence breached SC Resolution 1244 (1999) which reaffirmed the ‘commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia’.  The author argues Britain justified the recognition of Kosovo as a State by relying on an incorrect interpretation of Resolution 1244.  

Chapter 10 provides a meticulous review of the involvement of Britain in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  This discussion considers the interesting legal and political debates surrounding the invasion of Iraq and the subsequent occupation and attempted rebuilding of Iraq.  The author declares the Iraq crisis witnessed the breach of international law by liberal democratic states.  The lack of the Security Council’s executive function left it ‘hanging onto its role by a thread’.  In his discussions, the author agrees that some flexibility is necessary to protect human rights as well as to deal with the new challenges such as terrorist attacks. However he cautions that removing legal barriers would lead to the breakdown of legal order as enshrined in the UN Charter.  He argues that the British government’s action in Iraq was dubious and misleading both at an international as well as domestic level.  The British government’s motivation to attack Iraq was to make parliament believe that Sadaam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that presented an imminent threat hence legitimizing supporting the war.  In the long-term however, Britain compromised its legitimacy and was not able to persuade the public of its role in post-invasion Iraq and its commitment to future deployments. 

This book has various positive attributes.  The first strength of this work is the clarity of analysis on the subject matter of the British deployments overseas.  Each chapter opens with a lucid introduction which is followed by division of each chapter into orderly sections. Each chapter is nicely summarized by an effective conclusion that has a clear connection to the next chapter.  Secondly, the representative cases chosen on the use of force assist the reader to understand different facets to the British deployment of troops and peacekeeping.  The author interplays this dynamics to illustrate that in Britain much has not changed at legal and political level to decide on the waging of wars.  This work demonstrates that the attitude of British government towards the UN use of force over the years has become cynical.  Today, Britain is prepared to create a dangerous precedent by ignoring the question of sovereignty and justify the right to pre-emptive self-defence.  The third strength of this book is that the author examines the influence of international law (including regional mechanisms) on the British domestic politics by following the interesting debates that were generated in the parliament by cases such as Suez crisis, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq etc.  

Fourthly, the book considers a significant question of whether or not democratic accountability is effective in upholding the principles of international law.  In exploring this issue the author makes a contribution to the current reform proposal that is aimed at improving democratic decision-making.  This work skillfully uses the concept of democracy to generate an intellectual debate on political decision making related to deployment of troops and aspect of peace, security and the human rights that are linked to it within the international law.  The author shows that west has perceived the crisis situations such as Afghanistan and Iraq as a threat to their security.  At the same time Britain while acting in so-called collective self-defence compromises the very concepts for which it deploys army.  In my view this argument is a circular one and do not resolve a relationship with the State building and democracy.  Therefore, it is an insouciant attitude on part of Britain to justify these values through military deployments.  

The major strength of this work is that it raises very important questions regarding deployments, particularly showing that it is significant that a process of accountability be put in place to hold ‘the government and executives of international organizations’ responsible for waging wars that are in violation of international law.  The author correctly advances an argument that such a ‘process of accountability’ is urgent as more wars in the contemporary world are waged by liberal democracies, which demand a greater level of judicial responsibility. 

Overall, this book remains a valuable contribution to understand the British deployments around the world.  White’s book is a commendable piece of research and a must read for academics, students and social scientist in the field of law, politics, social science and security studies. 

Buy this book  here

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