Images of War and Peace: Just War Theory with a Realist Edge

By K. David Du

Nationsmith writer K. David Du asks whether there is a need to redefine the Just War Theory and prescribes his recommendations on what must change.

            War. No word better confides to its listener the horrors of human nature. Whether the word is “guerre” in French, “krieg” in German, war in the human psyche is something negative, something to be afraid of, or something to be avoided by use of both diplomacy and bargaining. From heads of states, businessmen, local politicos, and so on war is to be avoided due to the chaos it brings to a country, how it destroys infrastructure, and most importantly, the high cost of human lives and the suffering of survivors. That’s the reality of war. It’s a dirty business.

The image of war I subscribe to is a hybrid of Realism and the Just War Tradition. The idealist inside me wants to believe that wars are fought for just causes, that every war can be fought upon the lines of the rules of warfare jus ad bellum and in bellum, but the realist within me believes otherwise. The old rules of JWT are obsolete and in order to be relevant again, must change from an archaic system that believes wars are fought by the armies of antagonist states to a streamlined system that takes account the reality that wars in the 21st century aren’t fought exclusively by states, but also by asymmetric non-state actors that cannot be bound to the rules of war created under the auspices of international law, laws of nation states or the morality of the Just War Tradition. This paper concerns itself mostly with nation states and their military and how in the 21st century if they are to continue use JWT derived “rules of engagement” regulations of their soldiers they must edge towards a realistic position when in armed conflict with non-state actors.

There are two JWT criteria that are important in the understanding of my hybrid image of the images of war and peace, last resort (jus ad bello) and discrimination (jus in bello). I choose these both criteria because each in the JWT have important moral concerns before war in the case of the last resort criterion and during war in the case of the discrimination criterion and both criteria need reforms in the 21st century in light of the new reality of asymmetric warfare. Under the JWT, last resort is the principle that slows down the process of going to war by asking the potential participants to make a series of efforts to avoid war. The intention of the principle is to retard the process of going to war so that, in some cases, war never breaks out (Fotion 19) and discrimination is the principle that demands that those who participate in war should distinguish between legitimate targets and non-legitimate targets (Fotion 23). Both of these principles are important because one concerns itself with the prevention of war by negations and bargaining until the last reasonable resort (with war being the worst case scenario) and the other concerns itself that soldiers or combatantsmust be able to distinguish between other combatants and non-combatants such as women, children, unarmed men and the elderly. This extends to infrastructure such as factories, roadways and bridges which both have the capability to be used for civil use and martial use, and under JWT they fair game as legitimate targets due to their dual use.

But in the 21st century, such distinctions cannot be so easily discriminated and last resort seems moot when concerned with non-state actors due to their lack of legitimacy or recognition of the Geneva Convention.

Therefore, with the context set in the 21st century, the relationship between war and morality, whether war can be justifiably regulated, must also concern itself with the core assumption of Hobbesian State of Nature:  Human beings are motivated chiefly by desire, anxiety and pride. Left to their own devices and without any authority that will check or control those impulses, they must always be in conflict with one another. Where there is neither rule of law nor anyone with the power to enforce it, anything goes (Graham 25). This State of Nature contends that where there is a lack of laws or a sovereign to enforce those, it is the rule of the jungle that people will concede to. Fight or flight, Darwinian self-interest, and survival of the fittest are critical to understanding the Hobbesian paradigm. According to the Hobbesian model, in the human state of nature, there are no negative or positive morals, only neutral ones that concern themselves with self-interest and survival.

Realism takes the view further and puts it into an international context that concerns itself with ideas of sovereignty, lack of global hegemony, and the national interests of states. The idea of sovereignty concerns that each state has the right to make its own laws, rules and regulations within its borders, that it has a right to enforce its territorial integrity and national determinism. The lack of global hegemony is another core concern of realism: aside from treaties created and signed by member states, which can be broken, there is no government sovereign over the nation state, creating a world context of competing interests and goals and anarchy. Lastly, the national interest is pivotal towards understanding Realism in the international context that states have interests that are geopolitical, economic, or martial and they are competing with other state and non state actors over scarce resources or political capital (the currency is power). The national interest and their underlying political actions under realism are considered value neutral in morality: What are the moral value of national security, the welfare of a state’s citizens, and the pursuit of economic prosperity? None, other than that is the duty of the state and its bureaucrats to ensure these conditions are met in the national interest. (Graham Ch.2)

Therefore, with both assumptions of individual human nature and the realistic context of international relations, it is easy to understand the JWT might be frailer than once thought. It is an ideal that in war justice must be upheld, that the ultimate aim of the JWT is the elimination of war as a tool of statecraft. The reality of the matter is, the state of international relations is a zero-sum game, with both state and non-state actors vying for control of fuels such as petroleum and precious materials such as diamonds, rare metals, and arable land which are scarce. That’s reality and a star trek-like utopia is beyond anything resembling reality.

That does not mean the JWT has lost its bite, wars can still be fought justly when the antagonists are state actors are under the scrutiny of international organizations that keep them in check such as powerful military alliances such as NATO, the United Nations Security Council, or super-powers such the United States and the European Union, if their collective or national interests are at stake, which are convincingly, very realistic expectations of the Balance of Power. Consider this, member states of these organizations voluntarily join and they aren’t part of a singular world government.

My hybridized image of Realism and JWT concerns itself with a few salient points of interests. As stated before, it is grounded in Hobbesian human nature, the international context of Realism, and economic scarcity. There is competition over political, economic, and social capital. Parts of the JWT tradition I find important are legitimate authority, proportionality (jus ad bello) and the likelihood of success. First, I must rule out why a Just Cause is not on my list: any nation state or non-state actor can find justification for war with any cause that can be logically argued. However, the remaining Jus ad Bello criteria are easily integrated with Realism: legitimate authority concerns itself much with who holds sovereignty and power within a country, which is often the state. Proportionality and the likelihood of success is also another tool states often use when considering their decision to whether or not go to war. Therefore, before war, the sovereign must make use the calculus of both proportionality and likelihood of success in order discover the toll war would take on its economic, political, and human costs. An unwinnable war is not a war a realist would like to undergo, nor is a war where the costs are too high to consider going to war. It is the rationalism of Realism that allows it to make use of JWT.

Now when concerned with the earlier criteria of last resort and discrimination, I believe that they can still be justifiably used when states are antagonists of each other. Negotiation and the use of military uniforms allow for either criterion to be honored in the battlefield. However, in the case of state actors fighting against non-state actors, there is asymmetry within those two requirements for a just war. Non-state actors such as guerillas, rebels, insurgents, terrorist cells, and criminal organizations lack legitimate authority figures, therefore, in the case of last resort, who is there to negotiate with, when there is no singular head of these militant organizations, but rather many decentralized, competing, and fragmented factions vying for power?  In the case of discrimination, how can you discriminate between combatants and non-combatants if non-state actors fight without the use of military uniforms or consider if these non-state actors use irregular and unconventional tactics such as terrorism, infiltration into areas considered civil or non-combatant, or the use of homicide bombing tactics that target both combatant and noncombatant targets?

There is a way out for nation states to go around these problems and it requires a modified version of both last resort and discrimination. Last resort, when used against non-state actors needs to be toughen up: nations contemplating entering into a war with non-state actors should not be obliged to negotiate or try other diplomatic means before striking with military force (Fotion Ch.9). Therefore, a preventive strike against non-state actors is permissible in this model and perfectly protects the state’s rights to its territorial integrity, sovereignty, and works in the national interest. It has also been done before, for example, police raids against drug traffickers, FBI raids against suspected terrorist cells, and the US Army’s use of special operation task forces against Al Qaeda and Taliban mujahedeen in Afghanistan.  While fighting in a “struggle” against non-state antagonists, states must fight an uphill battle due to the difficulty in discriminating combatant targets from non-combatants. Due to the nature of these actors and their tactics, soldiers should not be held to a higher standard of discrimination, be permitted to inflict a greater degree of collateral damage (Fotion Ch.9). Doing so, soldiers will be able to be more effective in fighting non-state actors; it is in their interests and their state’s interest to preserve as many their soldier’s lives as possible. In a fight for survival, whereas the opposing force is using ‘unfair’ tactics, soldiers should be given the leeway to protect their comrades and themselves. Also, the use of traditional JWT discrimination can be used by realist states as something of a PR move, though it is just to discriminate targets, it is in the self-interest of these states to prevent as much collateral damage as possible.

Pacifism is the opposite of the aim of the realistic/JWT hybrid. According to A.J. Coates, Pacifism is the “blanket condemnation of all things military. And it distrupts the kind of moral regulation of war to which just war theorists aspire: war is considered out of the reach of morality…” and the goal of pacifism is the “eschatological goal of a world without war,” (Coates, Pacifism 3). Some pacifists also believe that there are no conceivable circumstances in which war is morally permissible while others, known as absolute pacifists, have a deep moral skepticism about the moral regulation of war and its lack of moral limitations and believe that the furtherance of the industrial-military complex leads to more moral degradation and corruption. It becomes the deadening of moral sensitivity and moral responsibility. Therefore they believe, due to the lack of morals in war, in which JWT can easily degenerate into militarism.

In response to both mainstream pacifists and absolute pacifists, the same is true of pacifism. It can degenerate into a form of militarism, in terms of violent anti-war riots and demonstrations. Pacifism, in contrast to Realism, has many similarities such as the belief that war cannot be morally regulated and is similar to JWT in its belief that a world without war is the best case scenario. There are also some striking dissimilarities between Realist-JWT and Pacifism. First, pacifists have an internationalist point of view; they believe every life is important. But the dilemma is for those that renounce the use of war, how can people defend themselves without a military? Pacifism also believes in a world of cooperation, good faith in negotiation, and positive-sum game as the ideal world and ignores Hobbsian human nature, the world has scarce resources and both nation states and their non-state components are fighting over these resources.

Pacifism, then, tries to distance them away from the necessity of a military and believes there is little distinction between the militarism of a warrior from the protective role of the soldier. The last resort for pacifists can never be the last, qualified last resort and extreme use of discrimination of combatants from non-combatants may cause the lives of soldiers in the battlefield.

In conclusion, I have revised the Just War Tradition to become compatible with the reality of the Hobbesian state of human nature, the realistic context of 21st century international relations, and that respect the scarcity of resources.. By changing classic JWT notions of last resort and discrimination and adapting them to the new paradigm of state versus non-state warfare, I believe realist tactics are best when dealing with hostile non-state actors. Also, I detailed how old JWT criteria and concepts can be used in the realist context. I have also contrasted this hybridization of Realism and JWT with the folly of Pacifism and its danger to both national security, the national interest, and of course, the lives of soldiers.

That is my image of war.