“Who are you?  What gives you the right to crawl inside my brains?”

“My name would be something like Grey Area in your language.  What gives me the right to crawl inside your brains, as you put it, is the same thing that gave you the right to do what you did to those you murdered; power.  Superior power. Vastly superior power, in my case.”

- Excession, Iain M. Banks


 Does might make right?


I’ve asked the question before and my answer remains the same.  Might does not make right.  How can it?  But might does tend to determine what happens.  It was not right, for example, that Stalin invaded Finland in 1939.  The idea tiny Finland, politically neutral at the time, could possibly pose a threat to the giant USSR is laughable.  Stalin had no moral grounds, nor even pressing strategic reasons, to invade.  It was nothing more than a despicable land grab.


So what?


International opinion condemned the invasion.  It was the first major crack in the Soviet Union’s pretence at being a genuinely socialist state, as well as morally superior to the capitalist countries and, to their credit, many western communists refused to support the invasion.  Thousands of volunteers made their way to Finland; a number of countries (including Mussolini’s Italy) sent arms and ammunition to support the Finns.  But it was nowhere near enough to save Finland.  Indeed, despite public demand, the nations closer to Finland (and the USSR) were unwilling to do anything that might risk Stalin’s anger.  Sweden, bordering Finland, refused to get involved.   And who can blame them?


Stalin, no moralist, had picked his moment very well.  Finland was nicely isolated.  Hitler was Stalin’s de facto ally.  Sweden was too afraid of Russia to intervene.  Even if Britain and France had been willing to send troops as well as (very limited) military supplies, the logistics involved would have rendered it a very difficult task.  There was, as far as Stalin could see, no reason why Finland should not be rapidly and cheaply turned into just another SSR.  The fact the Finns proved tougher than Stalin had expected, and the Red Army far less capable, does not change the fact the Soviets effectively won the war.


This is, sad to say, a common story in human history.  The strong, as Thucydides cautioned us, do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of the situation, the truth is that the strong can do whatever they please while the weak have to - pardon the expression - bend over and take it.  The Romans had no right nor pressing need to destroy Cartage, any more than Communist China had the right to crush Hong Kong and destroy everything that made the city special, but so what?  No one had the will and the power to stop them.  China could not be forced to uphold the agreements it made, when Hong Kong was returned to their control and that, in the end, was all that mattered.

Why did this surprise anyone?


There is a major cultural difference, in a manner of speaking, between democratic positions and their less savoury undemocratic counterparts.  A democratic system is based on a certain degree of consensus and respect for individual rights, even the rights of those who lost the last election.  An undemocratic system, whatever it may use for political cover, is based on naked force, the iron fist in the iron glove.  There is little sense the opinions of the people matter - and why should they?  The people who rise to power in such a system know, deep in their hearts, that naked force is all that matters.  If you cannot force someone to keep an agreement, through the threat of immediate and painful retaliation, you cannot expect them to honour their word.  Why should they?  Keeping an agreement when there is an advantage to be had by breaking it is not a sign of strength, in such a world, but weakness.  The dictator’s enemies will not fail to take note.


The idea of a rules-based international system, one capable of keeping disputes and warfare within certain acceptable limits (and preventing crimes against humanity), was doomed from the start.  Rules and laws do not have any effect unless they are backed by force, by a power willing and able to enforce the rules.  If the rules, whatever they are, are not enforced, the rules become cheapened and - eventually - worthless.  This destroys confidence in the rules and undermines willingness to play by them.  People ask “why should WE follow the rules when THEY do not?”  And there is no practical answer.  How can there be?


On a national scale, failure to openly enforce the laws creates an impression of shadowy anarchy, where crimes are overlooked or even concealed from the general public.  (Much of the growing fear and hatred of Islamic refugees and migrants stems from a belief the government(s) are unwilling to tackle crimes committed by such people for political reasons.)  On an international scale, failure to uphold international law neutralises it.  Why should anyone take the prohibition against using chemical weapons seriously when Syria used such weapons during its civil war and, despite warnings from President Obama and others, effectively got away with it?  Why should anyone uphold a ban on genocide when China is committing effective genocide against the Uyghurs?  Indeed, why should anyone uphold the laws of war when the other side manifestly does not? 


The failure to bring offenders to book renders the law meaningless.  The Armenian Genocide was the direct precursor to the Holocaust because the Turks effectively, at least in the public eye, got away with it.  One can argue that the post-war Turkish government was hardly a direct successor to the wartime government, and therefore couldn’t be logically blamed for its crimes, but this argument holds no water when one realises that the post-1919 German government was.  Indeed, Hitler made the point that no one did anything effective about the Armenian Genocide and he was quite right.  That genocide paved the way for his genocide.


But upholding the laws is difficult and costly.  It can only be done by regime change (invasion and occupation), or military pressure (air strikes, blockades), or economic pressure (sanctions).  All three options have their weaknesses; it is obviously impossible for NATO to invade China, for example, while decades of sanctions against (pre-invasion) Iraq or Cuba had minimal effect.  They failed because while they inflicted pain on the country, they failed to inflict it on the government.  Worse, maintaining a unified front is difficult when dictators - very adept at scenting weakness - make offers to split the coalition, offers that come with obvious strings attached and yet are very difficult to turn down.  Saddam offered France vast contracts in a bid to keep France from supporting sanctions against Iraq.  There is no easy way to counter such tactics, short of expensive counter-offers.  And few are willing to make the investment. 


This makes it impossible to prevent all but the worst atrocities.  Imagine yourself a Revolutionary Guard officer in Iran, under orders to commit a war crime.  If you carry out your orders, what are the odds of the International Criminal Court holding you to account?  Very low.  On the other hand, what are the odds of your superiors executing you and your entire family for not committing a war crime?  Very high.  What choice do you make?  It isn’t just your life at stake.  It’s your family and your friends and anyone who ever gave you a kind word.  It is easy to say that you would not follow orders, but harder to go through with it when the costs are so high. 


And really, you will tell yourself, would it make any difference anyway?


It is tempting to believe in a world ruled by law, but the truth is we live in a world governed by force.  There is no reason to think that empty words will keep those with power from abusing it, from grabbing what they want and leaving chaos and devastation in their wake.  It may be morally wrong, but so what?  Moral behaviour depends on incentives to be moral and disincentives not to be.  Right now, we seem to offer incentives to be immoral and disincentives to be.  As Heinlein put it:


Anyone who clings to the historically untrue-and thoroughly immoral-doctrine that, 'violence never settles anything' I would advise to conjure the ghosts of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington and let them debate it. The ghost of Hitler could referee, and the jury might well be the Dodo, the Great Auk and the Passenger Pigeon. Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor, and the contrary opinion is wishful thinking at its worst. Breeds that forget this basic truth have always paid for it with their lives and freedom.”


Can we do something about this?  Perhaps, but we would have to start by being honest about the world we live in.


And now you’ve read this far, I have a request to make.


It’s growing harder to make a living through self-published writing these days.  If you liked this book, please leave a review where you found it, share the link, let your friends know (etc, etc).  Every little helps (particularly reviews).


Thank you.


Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2021