Reviewing Samuel Moyn, Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 2021), 416 pp.

Samuel Moyn’s new book, which provides a historical account of how international lawyers invented “humane war” in the post-Vietnam period, has provoked considerable controversy and not only among historians and legal scholars. In responding to John Witt’s lucid critique in Just Security, Moyn says: “I have never written history as anything but politics by other means.” This declaration invites the reader to focus attention on the political project of Moyn’s book.

Moyn claims to reassert the “moral imperative of peace” – that America should end what appears to have become “endless wars” and not start new ones. This seems to be a good moment to shape a broad coalition in support of peace. President Joe Biden’s withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan, while opposed vehemently by some experts and commentators, is broadly popular, even commanding a significant amount of bipartisan approval. Some still think that if we just gave it enough time, we might have turned Afghanistan into a liberal democracy where gender equality is respected. But most of America has learned its lesson about using military deployments to try and reshape or rebuild someone else’s country. The late Senator Pat Moynihan put it simply back in the 1980s: “I don’t know that you restore democracy at the point of a bayonet.” Even less so, create it. If we needed any further reminding that drone warfare is not a technological and humanitarian panacea, the innocent lives lost in our final strike in Afghanistan provided just that.

What is Moyn’s distinctive contribution to restoring the “moral imperative of peace”? Much of his book is an attack on efforts to use international humanitarian haw (IHL) as a means of justifying (“endless”) war. IHL, according to Moyn, has had remarkable success in progressively outlawing the most obviously cruel and brutal aspects of warfare. This increasing humaneness of war, as measured by compliance with evolving IHL norms, overshadows the overarching question of whether war fought within these legal constraints should be legitimized as humane? Wars fought in accord with IHL still have tremendous human costs – dislocation of people, destruction of the environment, deprivation of basic infrastructure like water and electricity, lost access to health care – all of which create casualties beyond fallen bodies on the battlefield. But the point that compliance with IHL shouldn’t become a justification for war, or a substitute for such justification, is nonetheless a strong one.

The question that deserves debating, then, is how significant a contribution to the peace project is the point about IHL and the legitimation of war? Moyn sees it apparently as a crucial contribution because in his view, increasing humaneness is the main or a leading cause of longer or endless wars. There is considerable literature on the variables that affect the duration of wars. Moyn doesn’t address them. The idea that wars can go on and on because they are conducted in accord with humanitarian law is simply a hypothesis and is asserted rather than argued for, albeit with considerable repetition. Here and there Moyn admits that other factors are also at play – including “the existence of real threats in a dangerous world.” (p. 12) Without analyzing in any way the relative contribution of different factors to the ”endlessness” of wars, Moyn asserts with utter confidence: “The intense focus of advocacy groups and administration lawyers alike on the legal niceties of humane detention and treatment contributed significantly to a perverse outcome.” (p. 284, emphasis added)

If considerations other than legitimation by IHL are at least as significant (or more so) in making it difficult to end wars , then Moyn may be diverting attention from what is most needed to advance the project of peace. As Gabriella Blum reminds us in her seminal 2013 article “The Fog of Victory,” wars are terminated by military victory or defeat, or by truce or peace treaty. But what is military victory in the case of the war on terror? The complete elimination of “real threats” or some acceptable level of risk? As for peace treaties, we say we are generally committed not to making deals with terrorists (Trump’s deal with the Taliban, which set the scene for Biden’s ultimate withdrawal from Afghanistan, was much attacked for breaking out from this norm). Ending wars is difficult when it means giving up on victory, as Biden discovered, because that is easily presented as defeat, if not humiliation.

While most of Moyn’s book deals with IHL, rather than these other factors that may make ending war difficult, Moyn also places some emphasis on a renewed commitment to legal constraints on the initiation of war – ius ad bellum. These have been undermined, he suggests, by the war on terror – such as the Obama administration ignoring or stretching the U.N. Charter rules on the use of force in its drone campaigns. The legal constraints, according to Moyn, have also been loosened by advocates of “humanitarian intervention.”

The rules on the use of force in the U.N. Charter (although in some measure a codification of custom) were not designed for an anarchic world of sovereign states: rather, they were intended to work in tandem with the machinery for collective security in the Charter. But that machinery has never functioned very well. Moyn seems to believe that this was due only to the Cold War, and not to any intrinsic difficulty with reconciling collective security and the continuing existence of heavily armed great powers that are sovereign states.

To the young Moyn, the “NATO bombing of Serbia … looked like the final violence necessary to put right a globe that had been disfigured by the necessities of the Cold War but was now on the brink of peace,” to which he adds, “it was legitimate in 1989 to expect a different path.” (p. 7)

What does “legitimate” mean? In 1990, in response to the end of the Cold War, John Mearsheimer published a famous article in International Security, titled “Back to the Future.” Mearsheimer argued that the end of the Cold War would, if anything, make the world more dangerous, by bringing back more traditional conflicts but without the containment created by a bipolar world and the nuclear balance of terror. By the time of Kosovo, nearly ten years later, his predictions had already proven right. Was it ever reasonable to expect that what Moyn calls “the moral imperative” of peace could be successfully institutionalized and enforced in a world of sovereign states? Both liberal internationalists and realists can agree on one thing: that a world of sovereign states is ultimately not compatible with the “moral imperative of peace.” The difference is that liberal idealists imagine a solution such as a global federal union that transcends the nation-state. Moyn’s peace project lacks any such proposal (understandably, because as we shall see, Moyn’s last word is the self-determination of “peoples,” not a pacified globe).

Moyn recognizes that the pre-existing international law framework was not designed to address the global threat of terrorism (especially by non-state actors) and the range of possible responses to it. I can fully subscribe to the thesis that more effort ought to have been put into finding a way of evolving the law on initiation of armed conflict to address in a principled fashion the nature of these threats, while maintaining the moral imperative of peace. But Moyn offers (at least in this book) no ideas for such a framework (some scholars such as Anthony Dworkin have done just this). Instead of constructive suggestions, Moyn simply faults others for not making the effort to reinvigorate ius ad bellum, while he thumps on the U.N. Charter in opposition to President Obama and his advisers.

Those who care about the moral imperative of peace because they eschew the horrors of violence should read to the end of Moyn’s book before enlisting him as a leader of the peace project. For it turns out that Moyn’s focus, and the moral foundation of his critique, is not peace in the conventional meaning of the word – the end of the human misery and suffering caused by lengthy wars that have been legally certified as humane. Instead, his opposition to endless war is in the name of freedom.

For Moyn, the dystopia of “endless wars” is “the potentially nonviolent control of other peoples.” (p. 324, emphasis added) “Humane war is another version of the slavery of our times, and our task is to aim for a law that not only tolerates less pain but also promotes more freedom.” (p. 325, emphasis added) Moyn’s ultimate concern is not peace in the conventional sense – but resisting “domination.” Domination without explicit violence is, for Moyn, “war” in the relevant (pejorative) sense; but the U.N. Charter’s rules on aggression and self-defense have nothing to say to this kind of Foucault-like control. Indeed, as Ruti Teitel and I have pointed out, in sanctifying existing boundaries of states, these rules are if anything an obstacle to the external self-determination of many “peoples.”

Perhaps in referring to the costs of “endless wars” to freedom, Moyn would seemingly be reminding us of the threat to civil liberties from the post-9/11 security state and its global imprint – something that the human rights activists he tends to denounce have in fact done a good job of reforming. This (not the abuse of IHL) is the deepest theme in Moyn’s book and one fully deserving an elaborate treatment that he never provides (though another work, The Counterrevolution by Bernard Harcourt, explores at least the domestic dimension of this).

So why has Moyn given us what are, in effect, a few hundred pages of distractions from his main point, albeit raising some important issues in those pages? For one thing, Moyn has a predilection with what I would call “wonkfare” – addressing his attacks to particular individuals or categories of individuals in the academy, civil society, and government with whom he disagrees. International human rights advocates seem to be routinely on the list, as well as, at least in his book, international lawyers willing to serve in advisory roles on war and peace in moderate or centrist Democratic administrations. Politically, I sense, Moyn and I are on the same side, attracted to some of the rethinking of mainstream American foreign and security policy that has been urged by new progressives, the Bernie Sanders movement in the broadest sense. And yet I find Moyn’s book quite alienating for the rapidity with which he substitutes wonkfare for a sustained non-polemical treatment of the complexities of war, peace, and freedom. The moral impulse for peace is more widely shared than Moyn wants to let on – deploying it in a complex world is what has proven a daunting challenge.

Image: The United Nations headquarters in New York is shown in this photo taken 12 August 2003. (Photo by DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images)