While reading your book Manual of the Law of War, I thought of the Iraqi children bombed with depleted uranium and the Libyan people, the Palestinian people… Etc. I remember Colin Powell who lied to us live in the UN. Are the imperialist wars against the peoples legitimate?
Imperialist wars » are neither legitimate nor legal. Only defensive wars, against aggression (art. 51 of the UN Charter), and wars of national liberation, against colonialism (a concept precisely defined by the relevant UNGA resolutions), as well as the use of armed force authorized by the UNSC under Chapter VII of the Charter, are legal. Some States also claim the right to intervene against « terrorism » and the « proliferation » of « weapons of mass destruction » or to overthrow governments that seriously violate human rights. But only the self-authorization of the UNSC makes the state’s use of armed force outside of self-defense lawful. There is also a principle of non-interference in any civil war, which is rarely respected. Obviously, each State tries to invoke a just cause and to put international law on its side, and no one claims to be « imperialist » or « aggressive ». The States being equally sovereign, their allegations are also equally sovereign… I do not believe that Iraqi children were targeted by depleted uranium bombs. As for the Libyan people, they suffered a civil war with Franco-American intervention alongside the insurgents against the Gaddafi government. The tragedy of the Palestinian people is intimately linked to the implementation of the Zionist project for over a century. As for lying, it is the most common vice of the human species, the species endowed with intelligence and speech: who has never lied?
The Law of War (volume 1, 2, 3): a treatise on the use of armed force in international law. Isn’t international law a farce, or just the right of the strong to crush the weak?
International law does not have the same structure as domestic law, because it does not derive from sovereignty, and therefore from a verticality endowed with a power of sanction (State/individuals); it derives from a plurality of equally sovereign States, and therefore from a horizontality, with the only supranational power of sanction falling to the UNSC. But the UNSC itself is composed of States: fifteen, including five permanent ones with a « right of veto » (art. 27-3 of the Charter); the UNSC adopts its resolutions by nine votes out of fifteen without the express veto of one of the Five, neither the absence nor the abstention being considered as a veto; if there is no consensus in the UNSC, the latter is struck by paralysis. The UNSC then falls silent, the States speak, and each one makes its own allegation. On the other hand, there is no compulsory judge in international relations: the jurisdiction of the ICJ depends on the prior and revocable acceptance of the States. But inter-national law does exist: there is the dialectic of the permitted and the prohibited, as well as transgression, which presupposes a rule. This is the essence of law. International law has as its sources conventions, thus the concordance of will of the States, and customs, that is to say a general State practice carrying general legal conviction. Law is susceptible to instrumentalization, by the Great as well as by the Small or Medium. International law does not authorize any crushing, but intends to repress it. International law protects. It is the antithesis of the « right of the strongest ». It moderates power relations, without suppressing them. If international relations were nothing but a jungle, how and why would there remain dozens of small states? The UNGA has created a right to decolonization by force. Is this the « right of the strongest »? Ditto the derogatory treatment in international trade law that developing countries enjoy.
Why does the world turn a blind eye to wars like the one in Yemen led by Saudi Arabia and the Emiratis? Don’t these wars only serve the interests of the military-industrial complex?
The « world » does not close its eyes. The conflict in Yemen, part of the Saudi-Iranian antagonism, is known and deplored. However, it is true that in the Western world, Saudi Arabia is spared virulent criticism, for oil and financial reasons of course. Saudi Arabia, more precisely, Saudi-Wahhabi Arabia, is a Janus: on the religious level, it feeds a Salafism hostile to the West; on the economic level, it stabilizes the oil-gas markets, liberalises its sales in dollars, and entrusts its defence to the United States. In short, it is close to the West – despite its anti-modern ideological-religious commitment.
I interviewed many military officials and intelligence officers, among them Colonel Andrew J. Bacevich. I asked him a question, can he disobey an unethical order, and he answered in the affirmative. Don’t you think that a military man should disobey his leaders in a war that serves the interests of the powerful, a war that serves an oligarchic minority?
Military personnel, and civil servants in general, have a legal obligation to disobey an order, issued by a superior, that is manifestly illegal or of a nature to harm the public service. If they obey, their responsibility may be engaged, all along the chain of command (superior/subordinates, subordinates/superior). But the rules to which the military are subject are those of jus in bello, not jus ad bellum, in other words, they are judges of the modalities of armed conflict, not of the causes or goals of armed conflict. This is also implied by the subordination of the military command to the civilian government. The use of armed force is decided by the latter; if the government orders the use of prohibited weapons or orders prohibited armed actions, the military must disobey. What is a war « in the service of an oligarchic minority »? Every state has a government. In this respect, every state is « oligarchic ». Every government will claim a just cause. It is up to the UNSC to confirm, or to deny, if there is a consensus in the UNSC. But a military man cannot be the judge of whether to keep the peace or to go to war! That is not his responsibility. What is within his competence are the means of using armed force.
Another of your very interesting books History of War. What is war? What is it for? Who does it serve?
I define war, or armed conflict, as the collective implementation of hostility by the use, regulated, of armed force resulting in more or less durable and more or less intense fighting, thus causing victims. The functions of war in human history, or even prehistory, are multiple. Let us remember the political function, which is threefold: to win, to dominate, to change. One resorts to armed force in order to win over a rival, or to consolidate one’s power or to weaken the opposing power, or to modify the status quo – especially in the absence of a competent judge or in the event of the impossibility of obtaining a change in a peaceful manner. You are Algerian: France refuses to grant independence, nationalists resort to arms to force France to give up Algeria. This recourse serves well to change and to win.
Geopolitics of Eurasia: before and since 1991. In your opinion, is the cold war really over?
The Cold War ended in 1990 with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, German reunification without neutralization (the FRG remains a member of NATO and the EC, now the EU), the conversion of the USSR into a capitalist democracy and its dissolution in 1991. Liberalism and America won out in every respect. For ten years, post-Soviet Russia followed the West. Then, from 1998 onwards, tensions will rise and crises will multiply, giving birth to the arm wrestling between Moscow and the West, essentially on the subject of the former USSR, the issue being the maintenance in the pan-Russian fold or the tipping over into the Western attraction. This arm wrestling, this conflict, in the shadow of nuclear deterrence, takes the form of a « cold war », i.e. the implementation of hostility by all means short of the use of armed force (boycott, embargo, arms race, espionage, cyber-operations, informational struggles, support for allies against allies of the adversary…) But there is no Cold War, because Russia, which is not communist, does not oppose the West with another economic and social system, and Russia is not at the head of a camp facing the West.
You are a great researcher on defense issues. Don’t you think that the destabilization of Libya was not a serious political decision?
The overthrow of Gaddafi without the recovery of his arsenal and a controlled political transition was a catastrophic mistake. President Sarkozy made it (along with Brown and Obama); Presidents Hollande and Macron, from January 2013 to the present, are paying for it, and so are the Africans of the Sahel.
I am Algerian. Algeria and the Algerian army are the target of jihadist groups deployed in Libya. Don’t you think that Libya has become a sanctuary for jihadists that threatens not only Algeria, but the entire Mediterranean basin? Is it not in everyone’s interest to neutralize these jihadist groups?
Yes, unfortunately, Libya has become a sanctuary for jihadism, and the latter is threatening the entire region, including Algeria. It is indeed in the interest of the states of the region, of France and of all those who refuse jihadism, to eradicate it and to cooperate to this end.
Contemporary Military Strategies is a very rich book that offers us a Clausewitzian analysis of military strategy. Today, we are witnessing asymmetric warfare and concepts such as 4th generation warfare. What do you think of this evolution in the art of war?
Irregular wars », opposing partisans and soldiers, also called « asymmetrical wars », have appeared for a long time. We can go back to the Spanish guerrilla war against the Napoleonic army in 1808. In the twentieth century, everything that is resistance to occupation or anti-colonial struggles, or civil wars and various insurrections, including jihadists. A great strategic mutation followed: the « war in the population » (General Smith), rather than between states, and the objective of « pacification », rather than « victory ». Partisans deploy and conceal themselves in the population, or use the natural environment to camouflage themselves and launch attacks. It is therefore necessary to adapt the regular army to the irregular counter-war, in terms of weapons, methods and procedures, or to help the local armies in this adaptation effort if one intervenes alongside them. This transformation is well known; as far as the French army is concerned, its experience in this area is considerable, since since 1945 it has never stopped fighting irregular (non-state) forces, from Vietminh to Daesh. Experience does not, however, prevent difficulty: it is particularly difficult for a regular army, especially a Western one, to confront irregular elements, because the fight is long, it affects civilians, and it lends itself to media emotions.
I have worked a lot on issues related to terrorism. Why do you think the West is not able to fight terrorism effectively? Some countries like the United States supported terrorists in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, some Western governments supported terrorist groups in Syria, Libya and elsewhere. Didn’t some Western governments play with fire, especially since these terrorist groups turned against the West?
The fight against terrorism is long and difficult. It requires the exercise of special police powers. The exercise of war powers only when dealing with militarized organizations. Some states, for example Western states, have supported insurgents, including jihadists, against other states, notably the USSR in Afghanistan from 1980 to 1989, or Syria after 2012. No doubt, no doubt even, from my point of view, this was a mistake, if not against the USSR during the Cold War, at least against Syria (Baathist-Alawite). Indeed, playing with jihadism is playing with fire. From my point of view, the enemy is jihadism, backed by Salafism, and from my point of view again, it is necessary to respect the equal sovereignty of States and non-interference in their internal affairs. It is also necessary to cooperate between willing and interested governments in order to fight and break the aforementioned enemy.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Who is David Cumin?
a graduate of the IEP in Lyon, has a doctorate in public law and is qualified to direct research in political science. He is a lecturer at the Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3, responsible for teaching the Law-Political Science degree and the Master’s degree in international relations at the Faculty of Law, and director of the Lyon Center for International Security and Defense Studies (CLESID). He is also a member of the Board of the Faculty of Law and of the Board of the Virtual Law School, vice-president of the College of Experts in Political Science, president of the Political Science section, as well as a member of the Institute of Comparative Strategy (ISC) and of the Board of Directors of the French Association of Security and Defense Law (AFDSD). He is the author of Unity and Division of South Africa (Paris, L’Harmattan, 2003), Carl Schmitt, political and intellectual biography (Paris, Cerf, 2005), The Thought of Carl Schmitt, 1888-1985 (Paris, L’Harmattan, 2021), French Nuclear Weapons in the Face of International and Constitutional Law (Quebec, Les Classiques des Sciences sociales, online, 2011, 1998), Le Japon, Puissance nucléaire? (Paris, L’Harmattan, 2003), L’Allemagne et le nucléaire (Paris, L’Harmattan, 2013), Histoire de la guerre (Paris, Ellipses, 2014, 2nd ed. aug., 2020), Manuel de droit de la guerre (Bruxelles, Bruylant, 2014, 2nd ed. aug., 2020), Le droit de la guerre. Traité sur l’emploi de la force armée en droit international, 3 vols. (Paris, L’Harmattan, 2015), Le terrorisme. Histoire, Science politique, Droit, 20 points clés (Paris, Ellipses, 2018), Stratégies militaires contemporaines (Paris, Ellipses, 2020), Géopolitique de l’Eurasie, avant et depuis 1991 (Paris, L’Harmattan, 2020). He directed the collective works: Centenary of the (2nd) Russian Revolution. Perceptions and contemporary representations (Paris, L’Harmattan, 2019), Hommage à Pierre Hassner. Les passions dans les relations internationales (Paris, L’Harmattan, 2020). He coordinated the 8th Annual Colloquium of the AFDSD at the University of Lyon 3, September 24-25, 2020, and the Acts of the Colloquium (Paris, Mare & Martin, 2021).