Just War Theory: The Only Winner Across Four Grim Conflicts

Just War Theory: The Only Winner Across Four Grim Conflicts

[Hans Gutbrod (Twitter: @HansGutbrod) is Associate Professor at Ilia State University in Tbilisi and Senior Fellow, Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, Seton Hall University. He regularly writes on ethics in international affairs. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.]

In the last two years, headlines from Kabul across Karabakh to Kiyv have brought news of more destruction, suffering and war. At such a time, it can appear that principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) themselves are also in question. Once force is unleashed at such scale, are principles that caution restraint still relevant? Where does this leave those that advocate respect for IHL? 

As it turns out, the just war tradition, which also contributed inspiration to IHL, offers a sound framework for examining four conflicts that have been in the news. Such an examination shows how principles of restraint remain relevant: just war theory arguably emerges as the only consistent winner from these grim wars. The traditional ideas of Ius ad Bellum and Ius in Bello are a remarkably robust framework for assessing attempts at coercion from an ethical perspective. Just war theory, associated with Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century (with many antecedents and later additions), thus illustrates how a multidimensional framework can order complex debates on the world’s most existential issues. That ordering allows a structured debate and systematic scrutiny which draws attention not just to vivid considerations but also to factors that can have long-term salience. 

Afghanistan, Iraq, Karabakh and Ukraine Through a Just War Perspective

Four key conflicts of recent years – Afghanistan, Iraq, Karabakh and the recent Russian attack on Ukraine – illustrate how illuminating the framework remains, for scrutinizing the appropriate use of force. Highlighting its relevance may thus help to generate further respect for the core principles of IHL, even if the just war tradition itself is, of course, not coterminous with IHL itself.

Afghanistan shows that with regards to Ius ad Bellum, an initial just cause (pursuing Al Qaeda after 9/11) and a broadly plausible intention (stabilizing Afghanistan, securing rights for women and also minorities such as the Hazara) may not be enough to be on the right side of history, if one doesn’t also have a reasonable chance of success. As Carter Malkasian has put it, the “very presence of Americans in Afghanistan trod on what it meant to be Afghan… Any Afghan government, however good, however democratic, was going to be imperiled as long as it was aligned with the United States.” This challenge cannot be described as a surprise given Afghanistan’s history, became visible early in the conflict, and the consideration of reasonable chances of success at appropriate proportionality is a core component of the just war tradition. 

With Ius in Bello, Afghanistan also highlights that Western militaries, in spite of major efforts, still struggle with discrimination when facing adversaries that blend into a population that remains skeptical of foreign and central authority, as incisive reporting by Anand Gopal from Helmand has shown. On Western engagement in Afghanistan, there remains a plausible debate on whether a more modest intention might have had a higher chance of success. Such debates fit directly into the framework of the just war tradition, even if they do not make explicit reference to it.

For the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the just war tradition shows up the fundamental flaws of this U.S.-led venture. The supposed cause — weapons of mass destruction — was flimsy and turned out to be false, dealing a damaging blow to Western credibility. The intentions at least in part seem to have been dubious, if one is to take the pronouncements of then U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz seriously, who had proposed to pay for the invasion with oil revenues belonging to the Iraqi people, and who had previously developed a doctrine of US imperial supremacy. The effort lacked basic realism about achieving a more stable Iraq with proportionate means. While Saddam Hussein was a murderous dictator and the prospect of succession to his unhinged sons posed a challenge to the region, and while perhaps Kurdish people in Northern Iraq welcome the comparative freedom they achieved post-2003, just war theory shows how flawed an undertaking the U.S. led itself and its allies into, at an extraordinary cost in lives, money and credibility.

For Karabakh, the just war tradition helps to highlight different aspects of this conflict in the South Caucasus. With hundreds of thousands of internally displaced, it can be argued that Azerbaijan had a just cause for resorting to force in the fall of 2020. After nearly thirty years of negotiations, it had tried many options and at least some claim to last resort could be made. Yet conversely, Azerbaijan lacked a good intention in that it demonstrated little willingness to respect the wish of the Armenians of Karabakh to determine their own affairs. Also, Azerbaijan had legitimate authority only in the narrow sense of having a sovereign government. In many other respects, critics have questioned the legitimacy of Azerbaijan’s autocratic government, pointing to the country’s poor standing in international comparisons of rights and freedoms. With Azerbaijani citizens arguably under siege by their own government, many Armenians wondered who one could make a lasting peace with. 

For the recent Russian attack on Ukraine, the just war tradition shows how broad public sentiment aligns with ethical consideration. Russia’s desire to lay claim to a sphere of influence is not a just cause, much as it can be explained in terms of Realpolitik. De-Nazification and de-militarization are not plausible intentions, and to the extent that there are, as the Kremlin claimed, perpetrators to be held to account for alleged transgressions, a full-fledged invasion is neither proportional nor a plausible last resort. A government which does not allow protest or public mention of the word “war” hardly can claim that its attack is legitimized by genuine support. That not all countries share in strong condemnation is, perhaps, partially a result of the West not having consistently applied the standards of the just war tradition to its own actions. At the same time, the stark departure of the Kremlin from broadly accepted standards suggests that it may be difficult to return to constructive multilateralism in the near future. 

Just War Tradition – Capturing Multi-Dimensional Aspects Across Complex Conflicts

The four cases illustrate how comprehensive the just war tradition is for examining some of the pivotal conflicts of the last quarter century. Without implying equivalence, the framework renders a clear-cut verdict on the invasions of Iraq and Ukraine. The just war framework shows a flawed undertaking in Afghanistan which could perhaps have fared better had it considered how little can be achieved with foreign soldiers. For Karabakh, the framework allows a more nuanced tracing of a conflict that cannot be summarized with a thumbs-up-or-down that is the main mode of reaction on social media. 

The value of putting these cases next to each other is to show how capable the just war framework is across contexts. For each individual case, of course, such analyses have been circulating. (I have written on Karabakh and Ukraine from this perspective.) Disagreements on such assessments remain possible, too. The main purpose of the framework is not to force agreement but rather to ensure that cases are considered on all their merits, rather than debate focusing selectively or people talking past each other as one argues, say, the justness of a cause while another is focused on the chances of success. 

As IHL also puts forward a multi-dimensional framework that counsels restraint, it is helped when a wider public recognizes the value of the just war tradition as an overall approach. Principles of restraint may appear marginalized by brutal conflicts and displacement, from Syria across West Africa, South Sudan and Somalia to Myanmar. As accountability may remain elusive, it can be tempting for a broader public to conclude that IHL has limited reach. By contrast, the four conflicts illustrate that traditions of restraint remain essential for thinking about conflict and for identifying courses of action that can be sustained. 

The Case for Principles and Paradigms

On a meta-level, the just war tradition provides an argument in favor of multi-dimensional paradigms. Obvious as the advantage of such a paradigm is to those who apply it regularly, its use can be novel for those whose engagement with international politics has been a fragmented experience with disconnected concepts. Moreover, ask a classroom of students of international relations or philosophy whether they are familiar with the just war tradition and it is rare for more than a few hands go up. The tradition, therefore, still suffers from neglect, much as Michael Walzer had done to revive it in the wake of the Vietnam war. Work remains to be done to bring this tradition back into public consciousness. Perhaps, too, such multidimensional frameworks could be helpful in reducing tensions before they ignite, for example through an Ethics of Political Commemoration to deal with the memory conflicts that in many cases spill over into actual violence, and which could draw on the just war tradition.

Drawing attention back to the reach of the just war tradition is useful also to reinforce the message that IHL provides an essential framework for thinking about conflict in a comprehensive and more structured way. 

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EU Law, Featured, General, International Humanitarian Law, Public International Law, Use of Force
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