Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor: The doctrine of pre-emptive strikes will only invite aggression

From a lecture by the Archbishop of Westminster at St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, in London

How ironic that the first "great" war of the 21st century should occur in the birthplace of our civilisation – Iraq. We must pray that the first great peace of our century is peace in the birthplace of our Christian faith – the Holy Land.

The history of Western and Eastern Europe in the last 60 years is a salutary reminder of the inadequacy of many of our traditional responses to belligerence and expansionism. And the events of recent months also suggest that we have a long way to go in our search for peaceful, but persuasive, means to resolve conflict. The grave risk we face today is more than the threat of terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. It is also the increasing sense of insecurity and the temptation to shoot first and ask questions later. The doctrine of pre-emptive strikes risks proliferating beyond the boundaries intended for it by its promoters. It is hard to see how this can be in anyone's interests.

Today more than ever – with the availability of dangerous weapons and the means to purchase and transport them – we must guard against succumbing to any kind of reasoning that appears to favour violence and aggression over peaceful persuasion and negotiation.

If we – and I refer particularly to the developed, democratic and largely Western countries – are not very careful, and self-critical, our belief in our own rectitude could so easily become, or appear to become, arrogance – the failure to recognise another point of view, or an alternative approach. We have an unfortunate tendency to regard ourselves as morally superior to our brothers and sisters in poorer parts of the world.

We confuse prosperity and power with moral force and right thinking. In fact, economic prosperity, diplomatic clout and military strength do not always aid the active listening that is key to negotiation or the willingness to seek compromise and understanding. I do not believe this is a good place to start building a more peaceful world. It begins with a recognition of shared vulnerability, weakness and failure.

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