In 1954, Sir Winston Churchill famously advised an American audience that "to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war".

Churchill was of course someone who knew about "war-war".

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His political career had encompassed both world wars and he had been a great leader of Britain in World War II; no one knew better than he did the price that is paid when countries go to war.

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He also knew how major conflicts could start unexpectedly.

He would have remembered that it was the 1914 assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that precipitated Austria-Hungary's declaration of war against Serbia – and that in turn caused the Central Powers (including Germany and Austria-Hungary) and Serbia's allies to declare war on each other, thereby launching World War I.

If he had been alive today, Churchill would no doubt have been alarmed at the similarities between that episode and the stand-off that recently occurred between Russia and the West over Syria.

In this latter case, there was the same build-up of tension between great powers, and a precipitating event – this time, the use of chemical weapons by Assad's regime against civilians in Douma – prompting a warlike response from the United States, Britain and France; all the ingredients were there to set in train yet another major conflict.

There was of course no shortage of hotheads who were keen to see military force used by the Western allies and who were quick to dismiss any thought that diplomacy might have had a role to play.

It is understandable that the West felt that they could not allow such a criminal act by Assad against his own people to go unchallenged; but it is still regrettable that their first recourse was to arms, rather than an attempt to persuade the United Nations to authorise a sanction that was appropriately condemnatory but less risky.

Sadly, of course, the United Nations had revealed itself to be impotent in such a circumstance, by virtue of Russia's willingness to use its veto in the Security Council to preclude any sanction that would harm the interests of its Syrian ally.

It might nevertheless have been useful to force Russia to own up to its willingness to support an ally that had made itself an international outcast through its use of chemical weapons against a civilian population.

In all of this, our own Prime Minister – new as she is to the international scene and to issues of war and peace - showed amazing maturity and good judgment in recognising both the need to take a stand against chemical warfare but also the desirability of turning first to diplomacy as a solution.

"Shoot first, talk later" is a good policy for small boys in the playground, but it is a dangerous course in the real (and nuclear) world.

It is also the favoured option of those simple-minded commentators who see themselves as hard-headed realists, "telling it like it is" and debunking the illusions of the "idealists" (those, that is, who would prefer not to go to war).

Warmongers like these should be asked about Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan and whether those wars validate the view that military force always guarantees the best outcomes.

War invariably creates more problems than it solves, and that is to say nothing of the suffering and loss endured by those who actually have to wage it on the ground.

Churchill himself, the architect of the ill-fated Gallipoli adventure, would be the first to acknowledge that it is easy to launch military attacks from the behind a desk, when the main brunt is borne by others, and the outcomes are far from certain.

The gravest risk facing mankind is that there is never any shortage of those ready to "let slip the dogs of war."

Diplomacy and working through international agencies may be less thrilling to armchair warriors but that is where we should be putting our efforts.

The United Nations was created by the victors in World War II as a means of reducing the chances of a further world war.

It is far from perfect, but we have avoided the worst for nearly three-quarters of a century. We would do better to address its frailties rather than give up on it.