Ethics & Public Policy Center

The Just-War Tradition

Published in National Review Online on December 12, 2009

In November, the president of the United States ordered a surge of U.S. forces into Afghanistan and called on other countries to do their duty in bringing that war to a successful conclusion. A few weeks later, the same president traveled to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. The notion that the juxtaposition of these two events involves a “contradiction” (as the Washington Post subhead put it, and as the president’s speech tacitly acknowledged) is, in fact, a neat illustration of just how badly the just-war way of thinking has deteriorated in our culture, and just how attenuated the idea of the pursuit of peace has become. In the just-war tradition, as rightly interpreted, the justified use of proportionate and discriminate armed force was always understood to be in the pursuit of peace, which was the fruit of justice, security, and freedom.

By the same token, the defense and advance of the peace of political order of which the president spoke — a notion of peace that can be traced back as least as far as St. Augustine — was always, until recent decades, understood to necessitate the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force under certain circumstances. The pursuit of peace and the rigors of the just-war way of thinking were not thought to be antinomies or contradictions; they weren’t even thought to be in serious tension. Rather, they were understood to be part of the same intellectual and moral problem: How are we to build the peace of order in a world in which men are prepared to advance their aims by the use of mass violence, by the massive violation of human rights, or by both?

Contemporary confusions on this front derive from several sources. One is a vapid idea of peace as the absence of conflict, a condition that (as the president rightly recognized) will never obtain in this world, short of the coming of the Messianic Age — or its ultramundane equivalent, a global totalitarian dictatorship of singular efficiency and ferocity. Then there is the simplistic equation of peacemaking with nonviolence, which (as the president again rightly recognized) is a tool of limited, if sometimes impressive, utility. (Connoisseurs of these arguments now await Colman McCarthy’s excommunication of President Obama from the Church of Nonviolence, with a fatwa that will almost certainly include a condemnation of Obama as a traitor to the cause of two men whose memory he invoked in Oslo, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.) But perhaps the greatest damage to the deepening of the just-war way of thinking in our time has come from the notion, effectively propagated by the Catholic bishops of the United States in their 1983 pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace,” that the just-war analysis of world politics begins with a “presumption against war.”

In this construal of the tradition, the just-war way of thinking begins with a prima facie moral duty to do no harm to others. The moral philosopher or theologian then sets hurdles — last resort, reasonable chance of success, proportionate use of force, non-combatant immunity or discrimination — which the statesman must successfully overcome in order for the resort to armed force to be morally justified. The president’s speech, for all the sense it made in its more robust anti-utopian moments, seemed infected with this intellectual toxin, which is likely to produce policy trouble down the line.

The classic just-war tradition did not begin with a “presumption against war.” Augustine didn’t begin there; Aquinas didn’t begin there. And indeed, no one in the tradition began there until the late 1960s (surprise!), when a Congregationalist moral theologian (James Gustafson) sold a Quaker moral theologian (James Childress) the idea that the just-war way of thinking began with a prima facie moral duty to do no harm. Childress then successfully sold the notion to J. Bryan Hehir, the Catholic theologian and political theorist who was the chief architect of “The Challenge of Peace.”

In fact, however, the classic just-war tradition began, not with a presumption against war, but with a passion for justice: The just prince is obliged to secure the “tranquility of order,” or peace, for those for whom he accepts political responsibility, and that peace, to repeat, is composed of justice, security, and freedom. There are many ways for the just prince (or prime minister, or president) to do this; one of them is armed force. Its justified use can sometimes come after other means of securing justice, security, and freedom have been tried and failed; but it can also sometimes mean shooting first. Two obvious examples of the latter come from modern history.

The first (to which the president alluded in Oslo) was in the case of humanitarian intervention to forestall or end a genocide. (Thus all those liberal synagogues and churches with “Darfur: A Call to Your Conscience” on their lawns might consider whether there is any solution to that humanitarian disaster other than the use of armed force.) The second comes from a more classic instance of an “aggression under way” (as some just-war thinking construes “just cause”), but without a shot having yet been fired. As students of World War II in the Pacific know, a U.S. carrier battle group under Adm. William Halsey was steaming off Hawaii in early December 1941. Suppose Halsey and the Enterprise had run across Admiral Nagumo’s carriers in their stealthy approach to the Hawaiian archipelago. Would Halsey have been justified in assuming that Nagumo wasn’t there to check out vacation real estate on Oahu — and shooting first? Of course he would have been, and from every rationally defensible moral point of view. (The analogy here between my Halsey hypothetical and hard intelligence of Iran loading a nuclear warhead onto a medium-range ballistic missile will strike some as suggestive.)

So the notion that just-war analysis begins with a “presumption against war” (or, as some put it, with a “pacifist premise”) is simply wrong. The just-war way of thinking begins somewhere else: with legitimate public authority’s moral obligation to defend the common good by defending the peace composed of justice, security, and freedom. The just-war tradition is not a set of hurdles that moral philosophers, theologians, and clergy set before statesmen. It is a framework for collaborative deliberation about the basic aims of legitimate government as it engages hostile regimes and networks in the world. The president’s lifting up of this venerable moral tradition, which has deep roots in the civilizational soil of the West, was entirely welcome, if not to the Norwegian Nobel Committee and other bears of little brain. The next step is the retrieval of the classic intellectual architecture of just-war thinking and its development to meet the exigencies of a world of new dangers and new international actors.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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