Mary Dejevsky: Give war a chance - the lesson from the Olympics

Intervening in other people's wars may delay the inevitable and cost more lives

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It is often argued that sport can be seen as war by other means – for the most part, it has to be said, vastly preferable means. Sport supplies a non-lethal framework in which states can realise their ambitions, work out historical grudges and gain prestige for themselves without violating international treaties or spilling serious blood. The Euro-2012 football championship offered a plethora of examples – England-France, Russia-Poland, Germany-Netherlands, to name but a few – and the Olympics, as always, positively bristles with past conflicts that still haunt the psyche of millions today.

When Mark Cavendish complained that other teams had essentially ganged up on the British riders during the cycling road race last weekend, he lashed out at the German and Australian teams, as though they had somehow had an obligation to assist. And when the Chinese, South Koreans and Indonesians – plenty of grudge matches there – all played to lose their badminton matches in an effort to secure a more advantageous next-round draw, the South Koreans blamed the Chinese for starting it. So there!

At least, you could reflect, the North Koreans were not involved and there were no armies confronting each other at the DMZ. And when all eight players were disqualified by the Badminton World Federation – a decision that threw the medal contention wide open – there was some peevish foot-stamping from the Chinese (on their blogs), along with some criticism of the rules that virtually invite such gamesmanship, but nothing worse. With however ill a will, the judge's decision was accepted as final.

Which is where it might be worth asking whether there is not something useful to be drawn from sport for the conduct of real international conflicts, up to and including wars. If sport can be seen as the pursuit of war by other means, how about turning the idea back the other way around?

Of course, modern warfare already has complex rules of engagement, as codified in The Hague Conventions, which outlaw, among other things, the use of chemical weapons. And the Geneva Conventions set out elaborate rules for the treatment of victims, including non-combatants and prisoners. The Nuremberg trials of Nazi German leaders have their successors in the various special tribunals set up after, for instance, the Bosnian war, and most recently and most permanently in the International Criminal Court.

Those who are brought to trial and their supporters may complain of victor's justice, but an internationally constituted and recognised judicial process is surely far better than none. The lynching of the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, was a graphic illustration of one alternative.

Over the past 20 years or so, however, there has at times been something unsatisfactory about how the processes actually work, even when all the rules are followed. Wars declared over still, in fact, rumble on. Peace treaties take years to draft, even after the firing has stopped. When he was Bosnia mediator, the late US Secretary of State, Richard Holbrooke, resorted to locking the negotiators into Dayton Air Force base. New states and jurisdictions are brought into being that cannot be sustained without outside help. The risk is even greater instability than there was before latent tensions exploded in armed conflict.

And this is where the sporting analogy comes in. Sport is governed by rigid rules that are accepted by all who take part. There is no room for interpretation or discretion, nor should there be. It is no good, in top-flight sport, to plead a bout of flu, or a shoulder injury, or the distracting expression on the face of an opponent. Well, you can, but it will not alter the result. Nor will it qualify you for more lenient treatment or take any seconds, even fractional ones, off your time. The rules are the rules, and modern technology – Hawk-Eye in tennis, for instance, or electronic sensors in fencing – has made it easier for the judges to spot infringements and keep the score.

General acceptance of the rules, whether of sport or war, however, can only be the start. A central feature of sport is that there has to be a winner. Draws and dead heats are vanishingly rare. However unfair the football penalty shootout might seem to be, after 90 minutes of full time and 30 minutes of extra time, with the players practically collapsing on the pitch, it has a purpose: to produce a winner. Similarly, the tie-break in tennis, and the photo finish on the track.

What is more, if there is a winner, then there must be losers – genuine losers who accept that they were beaten by an individual or team which performed better. The result has to be clear enough to discourage subsequent challenge. The other side of a clear result, however, is that the victor must treat the loser or losers decently. How the victor should behave is, essentially, what the Geneva Conventions prescribe. But the prerequisite for a lasting peace has to be the acceptance of the result by all sides: and that means not just by the winners and the losers, but – as in sport – by the supporters (allies) and spectators (major powers and neighbours). A victory worth the name has to carry conviction.

One reason why so many recent conflicts have remained unresolved for so long – Israel-Palestine, the so-called frozen conflicts (Nagorno-Karabakh, Transdniester, South Ossetia and Abkhazia) left over from the collapse of the Soviet Union, as well as Kosovo – reflects, in part at least, the reluctance of other powers to countenance a fight to the end and the popularity, more recently, of the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Tony Blair was an enthusiastic proponent, but it was also cited by Britain and France in defence of their aerial intervention in Libya.

But intervening in other people's wars on behalf of the weaker party, however admirable and humane that might seem, may simply arrest a conflict artificially, distort the power balance, delay the inevitable, and cost more lives. Take Kosovo. It is not at all obvious, even now, that it can survive as a state without outside support, or that Serbia will ever accept the present arrangement. A longer war, with a winner, sealed by a treaty agreed by all, might have produced a more durable result, and might yet have to happen. Where supremacy is at stake, the fight has to be taken to the end, which is why the version that concludes with a medal ceremony is so much better for everyone than any other kind.

m.dejevsky@independent.co.uk

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