Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

More Equal than the Others

Winter 2002


"The Case Against Preemptive War"


Paul W. Schroeder

American Conservative, Vol. 1, No. 2 (October 21, 2002), pp. 8–20


The American Conservative is off to a brilliant start. Paul W. Schroeder's article is the best analysis I have seen of the current crisis in America's relations with Iraq. Schroeder ranks as one of the world's foremost diplomatic historians. He has specialized in European diplomacy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but he is also the author of an excellent revisionist study of the situation leading to Pearl Harbor, The Axis Alliance and Japanese-American Relations, 1941, written so long ago as 1958.


Schroeder brings to his analysis of current war hysteria a key concept from his study of European diplomacy: the concert of powers. The system of international diplomacy that reached its highest point in Europe between the Congress of Vienna in 1815 and the onset of World War I in 1914 depended on two basic principles: First, "the system must consist of independent units (in the main, states) coexisting in a coordinate system of equal juridical status and rights" (p. 16).


In seeming, though not actual, contrast to the first principle, the European powers endeavored to act in union; they shunned unilateral initiatives and sought to achieve international consensus. "The second major direction of development [of the international system] . . . is the movement toward the association of independent units in international relations into unions (leagues, alliances, confederations, associations, etc.) for common vital purposes that could be realized only through such associations, the most important of these being stable peace and security" (p. 16).


Bush's bellicose stance defies both of these principles. One nation has no right, in the international system just sketched, to dictate to another what weapons it is allowed to hold. Iraq's offense is that "under the leadership of someone we consider an international criminal, [it] has purportedly been trying persistently to acquire the same weapons that both we and most of our best friends and a number of neutral states already possess, namely, weapons of mass destruction. . . . To put it bluntly, Washington declares that there is one law for the United States and other states of which it approves, and another law for all the rest. It is Orwellian: all states are equal, but some, especially the United States, are vastly more equal than others" (p. 17).


As if this were not enough, the United States insists on its right to launch an attack on Iraq on its own volition. If other nations agree with us, so much the better; if not, we will act alone. A more complete defiance of the principle of action by a concert of powers would be hard to imagine.


But does any of this matter? Iraq, it is alleged, threatens the United States through its programs of weapons development. Do we not have a right, nay a duty, to act to defend ourselves? Must we risk our security as a nation because the rules of a centuries-old system require this?


Schroeder contends that adherence to the traditional system is a great good, to be given up only in the direst emergencies. Should the United States endeavor unilaterally to impose its commands on other nations, inevitably other nations will see its conduct as a threat to their interests. "[W]e cannot want a world that operates by these rules [of unilateral action]—but that is the world we would be promoting" (p. 18).


But once more the question arises: Even if Schroeder is right about the immense value of the standard international system, what if our interests are directly and immediately threatened? Can we not act? Our author responds by denying the premise that this question presupposes.


Iraq, compared to the United States, is a country of insignificant power. How can it pose a direct threat to us? "The more one thinks about it, the more implausible it becomes to claim that the United States, a superpower with an historically unprecedented position of unchallenged military superiority, is threatened by an impoverished, ruined, insecure state halfway round the world" (p. 12).


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