“Just war” principles seek to transform war and peace into moral questions, to move international relations beyond the “realist” conception classically expressed in The Peloponnesian War by the fifth-century BCE Greek historian Thucydides. A realist conceives of wars as a normal if undesirable fact of international relations, a matter of irreconcilable national interests or policies in which the “royal prerogative,” the authority to decide for war or for peace, is an inherent sovereign power of governments. The realist is dubious about the contention that, in a world order still characterized by anarchy, war can be reconceived at its root as a moral matter, although moral considerations can certainly be compelling in one way or another. To a realist, wars have occurred in history because, as the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) said, there is nothing adequate to stop them. To a just war advocate, on the other hand, realism is far from irrelevant, but it is only the beginning of civilizing, that is, justifying and limiting humankind’s most damaging activity.
But just war principles are not at all the same as pacifism. Just war theorists argue that all war is in some sense evil, yet some wars are justified. A universal presumption against war, let alone a national policy of nonviolence, would be not only self-destructive but immoral because sometimes war is both necessary and right, particularly wars of self-defense against aggression.
A just war is a right use of force founded in the moral responsibility of a government for the political community as a whole. In just war thinking, the “Westphalian system” launched in 1648 was based on a great mistake. This system refers to the modern international order consisting of sovereign nation-states, established by the European Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Sovereignty was defined in purely procedural terms, implying that whoever successfully controls a territory should be accepted internationally as sovereign in it. The result was that, until quite recently, dictators used the legal principle of national sovereignty as a shield to protect themselves while tyrannizing their own people. Just war principles attempt to inject the concept of sovereignty with substantive moral meaning.
The just war idea has roots in ancient Israel and was first conceptualized in Catholic tradition by Augustine (354–430 CE), the bishop of Hippo, in The City of God. The Italian natural law philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) gave the classic statement of just war principles in Summa Theologica. According to Thomas Aquinas, a just war is defined by two sets of criteria: whether the cause is just (jus ad bellum ) and whether the methods of combat are just (jus in bello ). Just war is thus an issue of both means and ends: A just war may be fought unjustly and vice versa. While the principles are fairly clear (although not entirely without ambiguity), controversy is inevitable in judging any particular case, a theme particularly well developed in the work of the influential American just war theorist Michael Walzer (2000).
Walzer argued that a just cause for war exists if five criteria are met. (1) The intention must be right, meaning a war must be waged either in self-defense against aggression or it must be an international intervention to aid another people victimized by egregious aggression. Since World War I (1914–1918), certain states (especially the United States) and international organizations (the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO], and the European Union) have invoked a right to intervention on moral and humanitarian, as well as realist, terms. Since the 1990s, the international community, in the United Nations and outside it, has begun to codify not only a right to intervene but also a duty to do so—a “responsibility to protect” peoples in danger, a duty to reverse grave violations of human rights. (2) The decision to go to war must be made by a duly constituted sovereign, that is, a legitimate authority. (3) War must be a last resort, the ultima ratio, undertaken only after all diplomatic means have failed. (4) There must be a reasonable probability of success, the reason being to avoid futile damage. (5) The good to be achieved must clearly outweigh the harm to be done, the intrinsic evil aspect of even a just war.
In terms of the means of combat, a war is considered just if it meets two conditions. The principle of “discrimination” must be respected, that is, distinguishing insofar as possible between combatants and civilians, and strictly limiting the “double effect” or “collateral damage” of killing innocents while fighting. In addition, the principle of “proportionality” must be respected, meaning that damage inflicted must bear some reasonable relationship to the original aggression.
In retrospect, the catastrophic world wars and genocides of the twentieth century paradoxically emphasized both the continued relevance of realist international-relations thinking and the desirability of moving toward just war principles. For example, the Geneva Conventions on protection of prisoners of war and the prohibition of torture may be considered just war treaties. The Holocaust, the atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the firebombing of German and Japanese cities during World War II (1939–1945) have led to a widespread conclusion that genocide or the use of weapons of mass destruction can never be justified.
The American-led Gulf War of 1991 to reverse Saddam Hussein’s invasion and annexation of Kuwait, the European-American intervention in the Balkan wars of the 1990s, and the post-September 11, 2001, war in Afghanistan all were fought as just wars, that is, moral campaigns larger than the evident interest of the international community in reestablishing peace and security. There may be serious argument about whether or not any particular war is a just war (for example the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime). But at the beginning of the twenty-first century it is evident that moral arguments about goals and methods of war are increasingly relevant in the real world of international relations, as opposed to realist Westphaliantype declarations of national interest or policy. This is fundamental moral progress, even as it is obvious that prudence remains the statesperson’s necessary virtue.
The new age of global-scale terrorist attacks has obvious relevance for just war thinking. On the other hand, evaluating the justice of terrorist campaigns, although it may seem simple, is no easy matter. Judgments are not intuitive and the results are a matter of sharp dispute in world politics in the early twenty-first century. While it is insufficient simply to say that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” distinctions can and must be made in the real world or else it is too easy to end up in a situation in which might, or the most effective propaganda, makes right. Gradually, as with other aspects of international law, such as outlawing torture and genocide, increasing consensus about terrorism across different kinds of states, cultures, religions, and world regions may emerge. One example of international agreement on a definition of terrorism is found in the 2004 United Nations report, “A More Secure World.”
Terrorist acts are a tactical means of waging war. In just war terms, terrorism is illegitimate and unjust in itself, no matter how much sympathy this form of fighting may inspire in a civilian population. However, it is important to remember that terrorist groups are unaffected by this, since they reject the customary international laws of war as such, invoking their own, usually religious conception of just war ends and means. Terrorist groups, especially the new phenomenon of global terrorist networks, willfully defy the principle of discrimination by intentionally targeting civilians on a wide scale in an attempt to instill destabilizing fear in governments and populations. There is a sharp difference, at least in principle, between the intentional killing of innocents and military action that kills or wounds civilians in spite of genuine attempts to limit such damage, generally called collateral damage. In just war theory, intentions are fundamental, and the fallacy of moral equivalence—that is, civilians killed are civilians killed, no matter what the circumstance—must be avoided.
On the other hand, the concept of collateral damage can be dangerous because it can become overly expansive. For example, in spite of rigorous attempts to limit the killing of civilians in certain ways, a given state’s overall military campaign against terrorism may involve collateral damage on such a scale, with a more or less hidden intent to terrorize a population and turn it against erstwhile popular terrorist groups (themselves fighting with unjust means), that the military campaign itself becomes state-sponsored terrorism. In other words, terrorism may be a weapon of duly constituted, sovereign authority.
Furthermore, a terrorist group may in fact be fighting for a just cause—for example, it may be a military wing of a national liberation movement seeking national sovereignty and independence against a colonialist foreign power, or one or both sides in a civil war. Success of a terrorist campaign in such a case will not be military victory; rather, its goal will be to demoralize the adversary’s military or political leadership or its home population to the extent that a negotiated compromise or even total withdrawal may result. In such a case, a terrorist campaign that historically was only one aspect of a successful struggle for national independence may be remembered differently than it would have been had the struggle been lost.
In any case, however, terrorist acts on any side remain in and of themselves unjust and illegitimate. It is wrong to take any innocent person’s life, whether or not it can be claimed that a just end is being served. It is a fallacy to contend flatly that “just war trumps unjust means.” At the same time, just war judgments must somehow recognize a situation in which a rebellion’s use of only just means will leave a population more or less defenseless against an even more unjust power—whether the latter is its own government or an outside power. In such a case, agreement might be reachable by saying that, as with war itself, all terrorism is evil but it is always justifiable to choose the lesser evil.
Altogether, just war principles are not—far from it—a single unified doctrine that will easily unite the world politically or could be easily codified in international law. They represent moral guidelines, extending long-established, basically pragmatic, realist laws of war. They constitute a broad set of standards continuing a secular struggle to justify war in human terms and to limit its damage, against which individual cases can be argued and measured. Again, just war thinking does not envisage the abolition of war, because sometimes war is not only necessary but right.
Perhaps the appropriate conclusion at this point is to say that just war thinking is simultaneously a beginning and a hope, above all if, as increasing numbers of thoughtful people agree, war is a cultural phenomenon rather than human fate. Cultural practices may evolve in response to circumstances. In any case, realism and prudence will remain, at least for some time, the necessary foundations of international policy in a world order still characterized by anarchy.
SEE ALSO Civil Wars; Law; Terrorism; Terrorists; War
Elshtain, Jean Bethke, ed. 1992. Just War Theory. New York: New York University Press.
Johnson, James Turner. 2005. Just War, As It Was, and Is. First Things 149 (2005): 14–24.
Walzer, Michael. 2000. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. 3rd ed. New York: Basic Books.
"Just War." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/just-war
"Just War." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/just-war
As widely used, a term referring to any war between states that meets generally accepted international criteria of justification. The concept of just war invokes both political and theological ideology, as it promotes a peaceful resolution and coexistence between states, and the use of force or the invocation of armed conflict only under certain circumstances. It is not the same as, but is often confused with, the term jihad or "holy war," a Muslim religious justification for war.
The principle of a just war emerged early in the development of scholarly writings on international law. Under this view, a just war was a means of national self-help whereby a state attempted to enforce rights actually or allegedly based on international law. State practice from the eighteenth to the early part of the twentieth century generally rejected this distinction, however, as war became a legally permissible national policy to alter the existing rights of states, irrespective of the actual merits of the controversy.
Following world war i, diplomatic negotiations resulted in the General Treaty for the Renunciation of War, more commonly known as the kellogg-briand pact, signed in 1928. The signatory nations renounced war as a means to resolve international disputes promising instead to use peaceful methods.
The aims of the Kellogg-Briand Pact were adopted in the Charter of the united nations in 1945. Under the charter, the use or threat of force as an instrument of national policy was condemned, but nations were permitted to use force in individual or collective self-defense against an aggressor. The General Assembly of the United Nations has further defined aggression as armed force by a state against the sovereignty, territorial integrity, or political independence of another state, regardless of the reasons for the use of force. The Security Council is empowered to review the use of force, and therefore, to determine whether the relevant circumstances justify branding one nation as the aggressor and in violation of charter obligations. Under the modern view, a just war is one waged consistent with the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the Charter of the United Nations.
What has complicated the concept of just war in contemporary international relations is the emergence of "asymmetrical warfare." The term refers to conflict with parties or entities (such as international terrorist groups) who are neither officially connected with, nor owe allegiance to, any particular public authority or state. While these individuals or groups may be dependent upon clandestine assistance from states willing to help them secretly, they are not publicly responsible to them. Since contemplation of just war requires public authorities to act in their official capacities for the common good, that objective is frustrated by the lack of a discernible, clearly identifiable enemy state against which to act. As a result, the international community has attempted to unite in a common effort to declare war against terrorism in general as "just."
Johnson, James Turner. 2002. "Jihad and Just War." First Things 124.
Novak, Michael. 2003. "Asymmetrical Warfare & Just War." National Review online. Text of public lecture given on February 10 in Rome. Available online at <www.nationalreview.com/novak/novak021003.asp> (accessed August 13, 2003).
"Just War." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/law/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/just-war
"Just War." West's Encyclopedia of American Law. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/law/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/just-war
In other religions, war can be regarded as ‘just’ (or at least as justifiable), but the criteria vary. In Islam and among Sikhs, the criteria are formal: see JIHĀD; DHARAM YUDH. In Indian-based religions, there is an overriding consideration of ahiṃsā (non-violence). Nevertheless, in the long cycles of rebirth, there will always be those whose obligation (dharma) it is to undertake warfare in certain circumstances (especially those of defence). This is the classic argument of Kṛṣṇa to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-gītā (it must clearly be the dharma of a kṣatriya to act as a warrior); but it is also found in Buddhism and among Jains. There is no religion in which the propriety of war in some circumstances is not admitted.
"Just war." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 23, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/just-war
"Just war." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved June 23, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/just-war