A U.S. soldier in Iraq, 2007
(This piece is the latest of several on Just Security examining The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World, written by Just Security editorial board member Oona Hathaway and her colleague Scott Shapiro.)
Wars used to be justified by their goals. Territorial expansion, restitution or claiming property, securing a throne, and mass religious conversion were all acceptable goals under the tenets of Just War Theory; and they all justified war to begin with, particularly if you ended up attaining them at the end. But since we no longer live in a legal world that sees war as the continuation of diplomacy, when we do end up going to war, it is becoming harder to define our goals. Indeed, our preoccupation with the legality or the justification for war often clouds our ability to see war – and judge it – in terms of goals sought and achieved.
The modern jus ad bellum has aimed to banish war as a legal regime: From an acceptable instrument of self-interest, enforcement and punishment, war has become an evil of last resort, and (absent a U.N. Security Council authorization), carried out in the name of self-defense only. In The Internationalists, Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro trace the transformative moment to the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact, urging us, through a compelling history-of-ideas narrative, to celebrate the Pact’s prohibition on wars as nothing short of revolutionary. Contrary to much conventional thought that dismisses the Pact as an ironic prelude to the worst war in human history, Hathaway and Shapiro see the Pact as “one of the most transformative events of human history” (p. xiii), not only for its normative innovation, but also for its practical role in driving the decline in interstate wars since the second half of the twentieth century.
Whether the watershed moment was in fact 1928, Hathaway and Shapiro are undoubtedly correct to identify – and celebrate – the normative effort to restrict wars to those carried out in self-defense. (The authors are equivocal about the Pact’s tacit allowance for such wars, as opposed to the U.N. Charter’s explicit authorization. However, I know of no recitation of the customary right of defensive wars that denies this right on the basis of the 1928 Pact).
But how much does the defensive paradigm actually restrict nations? As Hathaway and Shapiro acknowledge, self-defense, and its expanded notions that include, inter alia, defense of others, is a highly malleable concept. Indeed, they lament towards the end of the book, “…the growing reliance upon self-defense as a justification for using force… threatens to make self-defense the exception that swallows the rule against war.” Some of the malleability is inherent in any standard. Some is the inevitable result of the fact that today’s world exposes countries and citizens to a wider array of potential threats from a wider array of actors, than ever before. This might help explain, in part, why alongside the decline in traditional interstate wars, the incidence of transnational uses of force is on the rise. And it is not at all clear that such transnational uses of force would not pass muster under the law; or, indeed, what the muster actually requires. Continue Reading »