Unlike the weather, everybody not only talks about war, but many actually do something about it. Some start them, others try to end them, and over the centuries mankind has devised all kinds of rules and regulations in a desperate attempt to control them.
I’ve been invited by the UK Parliament to participate in a Westminster conference debate in March over whether parliaments should have war powers and why. Since Latvia’s constitution gives all the power to the parliament (the voters elect us and we elect the government and president) the Brits have asked me to take the side of the “more power to the parliament” adherents. Someone else will take an opposing position, and the conference participants will take a vote. A very British ritual.
Which means that I have to take some time to study the history, legality, politics, and philosophy of declaring war. How has mankind done it for thousands of years, how has it changed, how is it now, and has anything in this whole warmongering process gotten any better? And what does ‘better’ mean when it comes to war?
One of the first things I learned was that Latvia has only declared war once in its 99-year history, and we “won” it. Back in 1919 the nascent Republic of Latvia formally declared war against Germany, and ended up on the right side of history when the Allies won and the Central Powers lost.
Oddly enough no wars have been “declared” since WWII, although it seems like there are wars of some kind or another going on all around us all the time on almost every continent. Nowadays we call them conflicts, military actions, joint operations, and armed aggression, but none of them have been declared as wars with the constitutional pomp and circumstance that once was common among nation-states.
Although no countries have declared war in over 70 years, every country with a constitution has a formal procedure for doing so. Just in case. Yet it’s difficult to imagine a case where a member of the UN could declare war since the UN Charter seems to forbid it. More or less. It allows for use of armed forces to defend one’s self, and the UN Security Council has authorized military force in places like Korea and Afghanistan, but these are not legally referred to as “wars”.
But most countries have a constitutional procedure for declaring war, and in most cases that declaration can only be made by a parliament. In Latvia, the President can only declare war if the Saeima has taken a decision to do so. The same applies to the use of armed forces in a conflict outside of Latvia. Only the 100 elected representatives of the voting public can decide to make or declare war.
The rational is simple. It’s the one versus many argument. Since war is undesirable, all efforts should be made to make it difficult. One leader – president, monarch, dictator – can do so on a personal whim. A group of elected officials is less likely to do so. Plus, the actual “wagers of war”, the soldiers, are members of society, and thus need to decide if they wish to fight. They also need the blessing of that society to fight. And if that society is united behind its parliamentary majority, there’s a better chance it will be united in conducting a successful war.
In addition, many constitutions assert that citizens have the responsibility and obligation to defend their country. If so, it seems logical that they would have the authority to decide when to defend and how, be it through a military action or formal declaration of war. Since the citizens elected the parliament to represent them, the parliament has the authority to decide – on behalf of the citizens – whether it is time to fight.
The bottom line? Nobody wants to go to war, and 21st century humankind has made all kinds of laws, regulations, and treaties to prevent war. But maybe, just maybe, if war seems necessary or inevitable, we humans make up rules to run it. We hedge our bets. We consider all possibilities. And even if we don’t want to do something, we figure out how to do it if we have to.