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The Monopoly of Violence

By: James Sheehan (430/35800)
Publisher: Faber and Faber ISBN: 9780571220854

In 1899 an International Peace Conference convened in The Hague. The representatives of the world’s most militarised states, for whom the ability to wage war was absolutely central to their prestige, came together to debate the possibility of disarmament, the banning of certain weapons and the crafting of rules of war. History has not been kind to that conference, within twenty years, Europe and much of the rest of the world was drowned in blood by those same powers for whom ‘the monopoly of violence’ was crucial. And less than twenty years after the First World War ended, an even more savage war without limits of any kind took the lives of fifty million people.

Yet since 1945, the European states which had glamourised their military elites, and made going to war the highest expression of patriotism, have renounced violence as a way of settling their disputes. War is now unthinkable, from Dublin to the edge of the Balkans. Violence has been eclipsed as a tool of statesmen. This astonishing reversal is the subject of James Sheehan’s masterly book. It is nothing less than the story of war and peace in twentieth-century Europe, and how the first came to be dominated by the second. European states are now shaped by ‘civilian’ values and institutions. Politicians are measured on their ability to deliver well being and prosperity, not on their capacity to lead nations in war. To citizens of the major European countries in the first half of the century, this would have seemed an incredible, almost utopian prospect.

But Sheehan’s book is also a timely reminder of the differences between Europe and America, at a time when the USA is asserting its right and duty to make war for ideological or self-interested ends. And how Europeans will live in this dangerous, violent world is a question that becomes ever more urgent as the chaos in the Middle East affects the stability of societies with open frontiers and liberal traditions. Will Europe as a whole learn to use some form of military power to defend its own interests, when necessary? Or will it remain in thrall to a USA whose armed might it both respects and fears?

May 2008


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