April 12, 2017


The Syrian Airstrike & Sovereign Responsiblity (Marc LiVecche, April 12, 2017, Providence)

On the question of the strike's legality, I admit to an initial, immediate, and rather spontaneous response--a bit like a gag reflex--at Christian carping over whether punishing someone for gassing children is on the legal up-and-up. My native, knee-jerk response is, frankly, I don't care. This is an admittedly insufficient. Laws ought to be followed. But, of course, this begs the question. History is full of examples when what is lawful ought not, in fact, to be followed--the racial laws of Nazis Germany and apartheid South Africa spring to mind. This is to stress that when the moral and the legal conflict, one sticks with the moral.  [...]

But on the point of this being the first attack against Bashar al-Assad, we need to linger. There are those who focus their ire on the bare fact of US government intervention into the affairs of another sovereign state. This objection emerges from a very particular, and to the Christian mind inadequate, view of sovereignty. As James Turner Johnson notes in his Sovereignty: Moral and Historical Perspectives, following the Peace of Westphalia of 1648--that set of international agreements that brought the Thirty Years' War to an end and upon which is built the notion of the modern state--the idea of sovereignty has been firmly linked to the state and the international system based on states. While an oversimplification, two essential characteristics of such an understanding of sovereignty include, first, the possession of an independent territory over which one rules, and for which, second, the ruler therefore enjoys the right of defense. Territorial integrity, then, is the primary concern.  For the Christian this won't do--nor, really, has it ever done.

Sovereignty involves something more than simply running a country--and regardless of whether the ruler is running it well or into the ground. What's missing is the classic just war tradition's emphasis on sovereignty as responsibility for the common good--for the care of the political community over which there is no one greater charged with the cultivation and defense of basic civic peace characterized by justice and order. Sovereignty is not a cover under which individuals or regimes can brutalize their own people with impunity. The Christian tradition provides the means by which we can judge good government from bad and to encourage the former and critique--and resist--the latter. judge It is a perverse view of sovereignty that grants legitimacy to one such as Bashar al-Assad.

It's a couple centuries too late to quibble over Westphalian legality.  The reality is that, for the English-Speaking world in particular, every claim of sovereignty requires that the government be consensual and even that may be insufficient if we determine that the elected government does not vindicate its citizens' God-given rights.

Posted by at April 12, 2017 6:19 AM


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