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Air power and the remaking of sovereignty

May 19, 2011

Usually, commentators on international relations and law relate technology and sovereignty through transportation and communication – and in such a way that technological advance makes the notion of “sovereignty” obsolete. Yet among these important factors in determining ideas about sovereignty and its actual practice are armaments. Indeed, one need look no further than the old three-mile coastal water limit to see evidence of firepower’s influence on issues of sovereignty: in the disputes between European states over the extent of their waters, the old rule about sight-of-land yielded to what was about the maximum range of cannon at the time.

Today, debates about terrorism and low-intensity warfare shape debates about sovereignty, through arguing that the sovereign state is not a container of violence and that a state which has failed to exercise its sovereignty in practice is a potential threat to its neighbors. Equally deserving of attention, though, is how the changing military capabilities of leading states relative to their potential adversaries have allowed them to advance their own changing ideas of sovereignty.

Humanitarian intervention in its modern form, particularly as something practiced by the great powers and other leading states against minor states, also owes much of the universality – or potential universalization, at least – to the ability of modern technology to enhance power projection.

Carl Schmitt, perhaps owing to German history and his own experience, was particularly sensitive to the opening of new dimensions of military activity and their effect on the traditional, continentally derived notions of state sovereignty. British maritime power, followed by Anglo-American air power, contributed to the unraveling  of the old spatial order of the earth. Schmitt saw in air power the potential for discriminatory wars against the enemies of “humanity” and the destruction of the old sovereign order. Of course, liberal internationalists, among many others, see this as a good thing.

Humanitarian intervention cannot achieve universal scope without power projection. Breaching the sovereignty of other countries requires military force, and most countries are reliant primarily on land power, and thus cannot do much to enforce humanitarian norms beyond their own immediate neighborhood – and rarely do so without an additional, self-interested motive. India’s intervention in East Pakistan, Vietnam’s intervention in Cambodia, and Tanzania’s intervention in Uganda were examples of land-based interventions by minor states, and only retroactively have they been recognized as the humanitarian interventions they partially were.

The elevation of humanitarian intervention, or at least ideas reshaping sovereignty and international relations which presaged it, began with advances in maritime power which made intervention against “barbaric” populations possible. Certainly Britain and America’s ability to advance humanitarian causes far abroad without endangering their security has something to do with their ability to muster fleets and use them without much imperiling their own immediate security. However, for early humanitarian intervention, sea power could not make quick, clean humanitarian intervention possible. After all, cannon could only reach so far and no precision targeting existed, intervening to rescue a people essentially meant a broader imperial program – which is how John Stuart Mill meant the idea when he challenged sovereignty in his criticism of non-intervention.

Air power, however, has made the prospect of a rapid intervention, both in terms of response time and duration, plausible for policymakers. The ability to strike anywhere with precision and speed, or at least the perceived ability to do so, has led to the increasing use of discrete military operations, of which Libya is perhaps a prime example, as Adam Elkus points out. The kind of quick, easy intervention that was discussed first to save Benghazi, then to cripple the Libyan military, and now to overthrow Gaddafi entirely – all without ground troops – would have been unthinkable in an age of land and naval power.

The record of humanitarian interventions is muddled at best, but it continues to find support among the Western world in varying forms because so far the perceived costs of intervention have been minimal. Even though Libya is far over its expected budget and duration, and the ground fighting is proving far less susceptible to aerial support than initial advocates believed, the costs of these political mistakes are being borne most directly by Libyans. Although this exacerbates the humanitarian crisis which was the rationale for intervention in the first place, it insulates intervening great powers from the negative effects of these new conceptions of sovereignty. So long as military intervention appears safe – if not necessarily easy – the de facto unraveling of traditional sovereign norms through intervention is a relatively harmless procedure for the global great powers.

For the most part, the global great powers and their partners have been “norm makers,” and weaker or revisionist states of the world, the “norm takers,” as far as changes in intervention norms have gone. This may itself change not necessarily because of a reciprocal feeling of obligation or constraint on the part of the leading great powers, but because of a change in the distribution of power and the diffusion of new military technology and strategy to counter the advantages of leading Western states.

Early evidence of this came in 2008 when Russia intervened in Georgia, using many of the same arguments and phrases the West used in its Balkan interventions in the process. It is also apparent in the Chinese conception of its expansive maritime territorial rights. China does not simply believe it is entitled to larger swathes of maritime territory by right of control over disputed islands, it also believes it has a far greater degree of sovereignty over areas it would normally have merely economic influence. Making these views a reality requires military power, and just as air power allowed Western states to conduct interventions to support norms of humanitarianism, anti-access technologies may allow China to extend new kinds of sovereignty into its maritime environs.

The universalization of Western conceptions of human rights and sovereignty will only be feasible if the internalization of these norms by potential targets and violators occurs before they develop enough resources to procure the sort of military deterrents states such as China, North Korea, and Iran possess. The airplane and the modern naval ship are the backbones of global humanitarian intervention. Without their ability to operate unimpeded, the risks of intervention rise dramatically. If anti-access technology and doctrine become more easily accessible, then liberal internationalism, insofar as it becomes married to projects such as R2P and humanitarian intervention, will face some severe problems. Counterinsurgency, nation-building, state-building, and Phase IV operations are the West’s problems today because the West is still extremely lucky. Should that luck run out, and the recalcitrant states of the international order acquire the means to impose serious cost or risk on what would ordinarily be a relatively low-effort military intervention, such as the one in Libya and Kosovo, then cash-strapped and casualty averse Western states will think twice about pushing norms such as R2P or intervening abroad for more altruistic or enlightened conceptions of self-interest.

As Ikenberry acknowledges in his new work, the problems of Hobbes must be solved before the problems of Locke. However, many liberal internationalists believe that the problems of Hobbes merely mandate a global hegemon to prevent major power conflict and reduce the negative effects of the security dilemma to function between major powers. It actually may require much more – military dominance that does not just make offensive wars between or against great powers impossible, but offensive technological advantages against minor states that make intervention bearable. As anti-access technology and other systems and strategies proliferate – along with nuclear weapons – liberal internationalists will increasingly find themselves in need of the full range of the spectrum in terms of military equipment and doctrine. In the long run, there is not likely to be an easy world where the Western world can relieve itself of fielding major, high-cost weapons systems to focus on low-intensity warfare and post-conflict operations. Any serious effort to “remake” sovereignty will also require the advent of military doctrines and systems to maintain the present overwhelming conventional dominance of Western states, and any effort to reduce the military profile of the United States will require a rethinking of its efforts to remake the world order.

Potential targets of intervention do not always learn the lessons Western states intend to teach by intervening. Instead of adhering to international and humanitarian norms, states which believe they have the capacity to adapt will likely pursue the means to deter or counter such intervention. They do not need to be able to defeat the United States or an EU member in a head on fight. They merely need to be able to make such a war of choice politically unappetizing. Without that assured conventional military dominance – which finds its symbol in air power – the age of humanitarian intervention as a universal norm may come to a close.

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