Transitions and Traditions: 
The Use of Force in International Politics

by Erik Owens

The passage into a new century and millennium understandably inspires reflection about past and future events, and one is tempted to declare these early years of the millennium as ipso facto transitional, if only because our calendars display a new millennial digit.  Yet there is considerable evidence that the present state of global affairs indeed merits the term “transitional,” in the sense that the structures and ideas which have guided international relations for centuries have now lost much of their authority and interpretive power, but new systems of organization and thought have yet to take hold.

A central—and perhaps defining—characteristic of global affairs in our present, transitional era is the erosion of state sovereignty.  “Sovereignty” in this context may be defined as a state’s legitimate authority over its territory, people, and laws.  This principle, along with its corollary prohibition of intervention in the “internal affairs” of other sovereign states, has constituted the essential political premise of the modern nation-state system since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648.  The past fifty years, however, have brought about considerable reduction in both the authority and ability of states to control their territory, people, and laws.  The erosion of states’ sovereign authority began in earnest with the establishment of the United Nations, whose charter enumerates “fundamental human rights” that are owed directly to individuals, thereby removing states’ authority—not to say ability—to deny the exercise of those rights.  (The UN’s most conspicuous activity on this front today comes from the international criminal tribunals that continue to prosecute citizens of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia for violations of “international humanitarian law.”  In February 2000, the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia established a new category of “crimes against humanity” when it equated systematic rape—as an instrument of terror in war—with “sexual slavery.”)  The erosion of states’ ability to control their territory, people, and laws is a more recent phenomenon, coinciding with the rise of globalism in the last twenty years.  This accelerating globalization of information and capital markets has fostered an interdependence previously impossible among nations, such that the domestic affairs of foreign nations are now everyone’s business—both literally and figuratively.  As a result, sovereign states often face intense pressure to conform to international standards of environmental protection, religious freedom, criminal justice, and monetary policy, to name but a few issues.

All of this, naturally, has led to debate and confusion about exactly what legitimate interests states and international organizations have in the internal affairs of other sovereign states.  In particular, the question of when and where military intervention is justified (or required, or permissible) has proved to be especially vexing.  A vast and expanding body of literature has emerged since the end of the Cold War that has tried to come to terms with the transitional era in which we find ourselves.  Those searching for a path by which to navigate these choppy waters have found some direction by triangulating between three constellations of traditions about the use of force: pacifism, political realism and just war theory.  All three claim peace as their final end (though their conceptions of “peace” differ markedly), and each explicitly serves as an alternative to the other two.

The pacifist tradition, broadly construed, asserts that there is one over-arching truth that provides a moral compass when considering the use of force: the direct, conscious, purposeful taking of life can never be justified on an interpersonal, social or international level.  Pacifism draws upon theological and moral resources to condemn the use of violence as a means to any end, good or evil, and its proponents have criticized the just war tradition for legitimating violence without limiting it, as it ostensibly seeks to do.

The political realist tradition, like the pacifist and just war traditions, is multifaceted and difficult to characterize in broad strokes; calling it a “constellation” (as above) is one way to indicate the many different forms it has taken.  One of the first, though perhaps not the most emblematic, expressions of political realism is given in Thucydides’ account of the Melian dialogue, wherein the Athenian generals counsel their opponents to “Look at the world as it is…the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.”  Using this perspective, some political realists have argued that there is no room for moral argument about the conduct of war.  “War is hell,” William Sherman famously said—it is by nature an extreme activity that leaves the normal moral order behind until the conflict is completed and a return to the “normalcy” of peacetime is accomplished.  Many other political realists accept in principle that moral arguments about jus in bello (the just conduct of war) are appropriate, but they criticize its uneven application in practice.  Still others have claimed that the just war theory is itself immoral, since its insistence upon limited means effectively serves to lengthen military conflict and thereby extend the attendant suffering.

The third “constellation” of resources for considering the use of force is the just war tradition, which is in many ways positioned between pacifism and political realism.  The just war tradition argues, in contrast to some forms of political realism, that no activity—including warfare—falls outside the moral realm, and that every legitimate use of force is limited in scope, method and intent.  It contends that the concept of justice links the use of force with the moral order (hence the term “just war”).  Unlike pacifism, the just war tradition maintains that the systematic taking of life in war is not necessarily sinful or inexcusable, and that pacifism is itself, in some cases, an irresponsible and immoral position.

If tradition is, as G.K. Chesterton wrote, “the democracy of the dead” (meaning that decisions are made with the counsel of one’s forebears), then those in our time who appeal to the just war tradition must count the votes of a distinguished citizenry that includes Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Hugo Grotius and Francisco Suarez, to name but a few.  Each of these thinkers in his own way recast the contemporary moral and theological inquiry about the use of force in the political sphere, refining in the process what has come to be known as the just war theory.

In its early stages of development (roughly, from the fifth to the thirteenth centuries), the normative elements of the just war tradition were primarily moral and theological, and thus considerations of just cause and right intention (i.e., of jus ad bellum) predominated.  Augustine distinguished between killing in war (in the service of a just cause) and murder; this distinction rested upon the notion that persons qua citizens have a wider range of duties—and thus a wider range of rights, including the right to kill in certain circumstances—than persons qua individuals.  Eight centuries later, Thomas Aquinas considered the question of just war with characteristic thoroughness, explicating the doctrine in the scholastic medieval context while adding self-defense as a just cause for war.

By the time Suarez and Grotius took up the question of the use of force in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, the medieval synthesis of religion and politics had suffered repeated and decisive blows from, among other things, the Protestant reformation and the ensuing wars of religion.  A new conception of state sovereignty, spurred in part by Jean Bodin’s influential concept of sovereign kingship, had begun to take root, and Suarez and Grotius worked to adapt the just war tradition to the nascent body of international law.  Their efforts shifted the normative elements of the just war tradition to the legal arena.  Since multiple sovereign states were likely to claim just cause in the same conflict, and the papacy was no longer an effective arbiter of such competing claims, establishing limits on the conduct of war (jus in bello) became the most promising means to control it.  While the success of Suarez and Grotius’ efforts to limit the ravages of war is debatable, their foresight about sovereignty is not; just three years after Grotius died, the Peace of Westphalia codified the system of absolute state sovereignty that endured well into the twentieth century (and arguably persists in weakened form today).

This brief account of the just war tradition’s historical development is enough, I hope, to illustrate an insightful point that J. Bryan Hehir made at the Divinity School’s recent conference on “The Sacred and the Sovereign”.  Hehir argued that “doing ethics in the just war tradition today is to define oneself in a situation which is similar to another transitional era—the period of time between the fifteenth and the seventeenth centuries, where the key actors were Vitoria, Suarez, and Grotius.”  In both periods the political landscape was shifting at precisely the same time as the religious landscape, and, as a result, the existing norms regarding the use of force were weakened considerably.  In our time, the political shift has come in the form of international organizations that have increasing power to regulate activity within sovereign states.  A variety of international organizations like the World Bank have acquired extraordinary political power and influence, but the United Nations and its ancillary bodies remain the prime examples of this erosion of sovereignty—an ironic fact, given that sovereignty is a prerequisite of membership in the UN.  The shift in the religious landscape in our time is represented by the resurgence of religion as an actor in international affairs, manifestations of which include the promotion of universal religious freedom, the rise in religious nationalism, the continuation of inter-religious conflict, and, to some extent, the growing concern for human rights in all areas of international relations.

Those who seek to chart a new path through the turbulent, transitional waters of contemporary international relations can, as have others in the past, look to the constellations of the pacifist, realist and just war traditions for guidance.  But, in times of transition, traditions must be reframed to accommodate new circumstances.  Several who spoke at the “Sacred and Sovereign” conference explicitly took up this task: General James McCarthy argued that the just war conception of proportionate means should include a prohibition on inadequate force, just as it does with excessive force; Robert Gallucci argued from the political realist tradition that, in practice, explicitly political criteria for military intervention serve as appropriate moral criteria as well; Margaret O’Brien Steinfels posed serious questions about the adequacy of the just war tradition for modern cases of intervention; and J. Bryan Hehir responded to that concern with a proposal for the expansion of the just war doctrine to encompass more fully humanitarian interventions.

Those who work to reframe a tradition—to address present circumstances without relinquishing its central principles—are operating at what John Courtney Murray called “the growing edge of tradition.”  Considerations about the legitimate use of force (or lack thereof), particularly in cases of humanitarian intervention, is an issue at the growing edge of many traditions today.  Managing that growth is our burden, for we live in transitional times.


Erik Owens is a doctoral student in ethics 
at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Next: "The Sovereignty and Frailty of Institutions"

© 2001 University of Chicago (The Divinity School).  
Originally published in Criterion, Volume 40, Number 1 (Winter 2001).  
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