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America’s wars of choice raise issues for allies

The by-now defused crisis of threatened U.S.-led military strikes on Syria raised once again the difficult question of how Washington’s allies should deal with U.S. wars of choice rather than necessity.

Should the United States fall under armed attack, Australia would respond spontaneously, wholeheartedly and unreservedly to fight shoulder to shoulder with kith and kin, as it should. Japan, constitutionally barred from providing combat help overseas, could still offer fulsome diplomatic support.

In an unequal alliance relationship, the same does not hold in reverse: The guarantor may not always find it expedient to come to the military defense of client-state allies. It is therefore in Japan’s and Australia’s twin interest to create a world in which the use of force by major powers is tightly fettered by the constraints of law; and to ensure that if either of them is attacked, the U.S. has the military muscle and political will to defend it.

Actions that damage global norms and weaken U.S. capacity-cum-will to deploy military force overseas are doubly damaging to the balance of normative and security interests of allies. Vassal states will support Washington regardless. Good friends will work to rescue the U.S. from self harm.

In retrospect, in Iraq in 2003, France and Germany proved the better long-term allies in trying to stop, while Australia and Britain chose instant gratification in joining the march to folly.

The Obama administration was intensely irritated that on an issue and at a time when the ethic of conviction and the ethic of consequences intersect, others refused to support punitive military strikes on Syria. But what the rest of the world saw was policy confusion (what exactly would have been the point of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s “unbelievably small” strike?), selective indignation seeped in double standards and unproven allegations, lack of clarity on goals and means, and a determination to enforce humanitarian norms inside Syria’s sovereign jurisdiction by flouting higher-order global norms on the international use of force. The latter are much more critical to most countries’ national security and also to world stability.

In all such cases, Australia is torn between the emotional pull of loyalty to its principal ally, outrage at large-scale civilian killings by a brutal dictator and, in the very month in which it assumed presidency of the Security Council, fidelity to U.N. principles and obligations to promote universal respect for the U.N. Charter law governing both the internal and international use of force.

Geographical location, geopolitical exposure and far-flung civilizational, commercial, strategic and environmental interests give both Japan and Australia a big stake in a rules-based global order. No principle of international law permits one state to attack another to uphold a multilateral treaty.

The legal mechanisms and remedies for dealing with alleged crimes of chemical weapons use, even by nonsignatories, are set out in the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and the 1925 Geneva Protocol. These would signify collective determination to uphold the global norm against chemical weapons use and also strengthen the treaty regimes. Unilateral strikes by contrast would take the world back into the law of the jungle dressed up as international law.

Obama failed to communicate why an attack on Syria is in the U.S. national interest, why it would uphold the principle of international law on interstate relations, how the strikes would weaken Syrian President Bashar Assad without strengthening and emboldening al-Qaida, how they would protect Christians and other minorities from being attacked by Islamist extremists, and how they would end the vicious civil war.

The CWC translates the world’s moral repugnance of chemical weapons into a legally binding treaty. Signed by 189 states, it has been in force since 1997. Only five have not signed — Angola, Egypt, North Korea, South Sudan and Syria. Israel and Myanmar have signed but not yet ratified.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has overseen the verified destruction of more than 80 percent of the world’s declared stockpile of almost 72,000 tons of chemical agents. Australia played an influential role in its negotiation and should use its presidency of the U.N. Security Council to promote universalization of the treaty.

Almost all countries and peoples abhor chemical weapons and support the enforceable ban on its use. But the prohibition on the use of military force against other states except in self-defense when attacked or under U.N. authorization is much more critical to the direct security of Asia-Pacific countries in the shadow of China as it contests the primacy of U.S. influence in the Pacific.

Until World War I, going to war was an attribute of sovereign statehood. The only protection against armed attack was to build national defense forces, which increased the risk of a defeat for the potential aggressor and also raised the costs of victory should it win.

To reduce international anarchy and cross-border armed conflicts, the society of states moved to limit the right to wage wars in the League of Nations and the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact. The U.N. has spawned a vast corpus of laws to outlaw unilateral wars and create a robust norm against interstate aggression. It is not in the security interest of most states to return to the pre-U.N. world of constant warfare.

On top of the stake in the normative world order, Australia, Japan and all other U.S. allies also have selfish interests in ensuring that Washington is able and willing to defend them. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars have overextended the U.S. military, made others less fearful of Washington, damaged its financial health and global reputation, made America war-weary and contributed to the rise of neo-isolationism. All these consequences are inimical to the security interests of U.S. allies and would have intensified with illegal strikes on Syria. We all owe a vote of thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin for rescuing Obama from self-harm.

Ramesh Thakur, a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, is the coeditor of “The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy” and “The Chemical Weapons Convention: Implementation, Challenges and Opportunities.”