The Just War Ethic: Its Role in a Changing Strategic Context


Thursday, April 29, 2004, 4:30pm to 6:00pm


Starr Auditorium, Belfer Building, Kennedy School of Government

Speaker: J. Bryan Hehir, President, Catholic Charities USA and Distinguished Professor of Ethics and International Affairs, Walsh School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

Summary by Kyla Ebels Duggan, Edmund J. Safra Fellow in Ethics

Father Bryan Hehir began his lecture by announcing three ambitious purposes: to examine the development and content of the just war theory, to assess its implications in our current context, especially with respect to the conflict in Iraq, and to evaluate its prospects for the future.

Hehir began with a sweeping historical account of the ethic's development, emphasizing its varied sources in theology, philosophy, and policy-making. This varied history has bequeathed us a pluralist just war doctrine, better understood as a tradition of thought, making it difficult to authoritatively identify the content of the doctrine. Nevertheless, Hehir made an attempt. At its base lies a presumption, though not an absolute prohibition, against the use of force. The doctrine then raises and answers three questions. First, why, or for what purpose may one use force? Second, when, or under what conditions is this permissible? And third, how, or by what means, may one engage in acts of force?

With this, Hehir moved to survey the changing international context to which the just war ethic must now speak. He addressed two aspects: the political organization of the international order, and the strategic questions that arise in that order. He noted that the ethic has weathered several major reconfigurations of the international order. Augustine formulated it in the context of an empire. Aquinas and others developed it in the midst of a predominately Christian society. Grotius faced the rise of the sovereign state. In current times, this order has changed once again with increasing international interdependence and the founding of the United Nations.

Strategically, Hehir sees us as living with the legacy of three recent changes. First, the Cold War increased the availability of weapons of mass destruction. Second, the 1990s gave us an unfinished debate about humanitarian interventions. And third, the 21st century brought the threat of terrorism. All three shifted theorists' attention back to questions of jus ad bellum, the justification for war, that were largely set aside during the early modern period. Discussions of the first Gulf War, the debate about humanitarian intervention in the 1990s, the response to 9/11, and the current conflict in Iraq all centered on these kinds of questions.

Hehir cited the first Gulf War and the response to 9/11 as ideal types of just wars, due to a confluence of moral, legal, and political factors. Both responded to acts of aggression. Both were authorized, the first by United Nations resolution, and the second by appeal to the UN charter and wide-spread international support and solidarity. And both had well-defined targets and goals. Other challenges arise around the debate about humanitarian intervention in the 1990s, including discussion of Bosnia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, and Kosovo. These cases raise a problem of international jurisprudence that pit moral claims and recent international agreements against existing positive international law. Traditional international law grants almost sacred status to state sovereignty, while newer agreements allow intervention on behalf of human rights. Moreover, after the Cold War many major nations reconceptualized their interests more narrowly. Thus while the main aim of just war theory had been to restrain state actions, during the 90s it was used to prompt states to act on behalf of humanitarian causes.

The task of those making this argument was to locate the norm of non-intervention, and weigh its significance. Almost no one wanted to dispose of a principle that had played an important role in international relations. Nevertheless if no consideration could override the value of non-intervention, then there could be no case for humanitarian military action. Theorists and policy-makers turned to the just war doctrine as a model, treating the norm of non-intervention, like the norm against the use of force, as a presumption. The effect of this was to expand the understanding of just cause for war. Whereas before this had been limited to defense of one's own or other states against aggression, now it was taken to include response to genocide, ethnic cleansing, and failed states. But there was another side of the tension driving this debate: There was a need to set limits on these new causes to avoid overturning the norm of non-intervention completely. The debate of the 90s did not produce consensus on how to set these limits before 9/11 interrupted this debate.

Before assessing the implications of this for the current Iraq war, Hehir offered his own assessment of how to limit causes of intervention. He claimed that human rights violations per se are not a strong enough reason to override the presumption of non-intervention. That is because almost all states are guilty of such violations, so allowing this as just cause would upset what Hehir takes to be a very fragile international order. In general, while Hehir supported several interventions during the 90s, he is impressed by the instability of international relations, which he understands as essentially anarchical. This makes him wary of setting precedents that make it more difficult to restrain the violent action of states in the future.

With this background, Hehir turned to Iraq, and claimed that the doctrine tells against the war, which fails all three tests the doctrine presses. The first of these is that of cause. The US government based the case for war on an appeal to weapons of mass destruction as the problem and regime change as the solution. This is not a traditionally recognized just cause for war. Hehir believes that expanding the causes of war taken to be just to include non-proliferation amounts to too much of an overturning of the non-intervention principle. In an anarchical international society we must place a high value on constraint of conflict.

On the second question, that of authority, regardless of whether previous UN resolutions were technically sufficient to authorize the war, Hehir believes that the US exceeded the bounds of its proper authority by asserting that it fought the war in the name of the international community, while failing to secure international support. On the final question, Hehir took the relevant means to be preemption. He distinguished between preemption as a tactic within war, in a battle situation where a threat is imminent, from preemption as a policy, which involves initiating a war in order to avoid a speculative threat. The latter, he claimed, was not justifiable.

Hehir concluded by assessing the future of the doctrine, invoking an Augustinian thought with which he began. Given human nature, we will continue to face the possibility of conflict, and thus the need for a just war doctrine. But, as has always been the case, continuing changes in the international context will demand that we continually develop new tools within the tradition.