Global Policy Forum

Are wars ever just?


By Costas Douzinas

April 21, 2009

Neo-liberal capitalism, globalization and cosmopolitanism came to prominence at around the same time in the last 30 years. Combined, they have led to the gradual decline of the modern edifice of domestic and international politics, which was based on ideological struggles and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity. This coincided with the end of decolonization and the relative rise in confidence of the developing world, which created, for the first time, the prospect of a successful defense of its interests.

The apologists of the emerging cosmopolitan order claim that it is genuinely democratic, founded on judicial equality, the constitutional protection of individual rights, representative government and market economics. "Humanitarian" law, the old law of war, combined with human rights law, has created a new "humanity's law", which restricts government brutality both during war and at peacetime. Its indicators are everywhere. Sanctions are imposed on states to protect their citizens from their evil rulers. Human rights, democracy and good governance conditions are routinely inserted into trade and aid agreements with developing countries. Last but not least, in humanitarian wars, we kill humans in order to save humanity.

The concept of a just war

Throughout history, kings and rulers have added a veneer of high principle to murderous campaigns. In the west, the quest for moral justification has taken the form of the "just war" theory. However the lack of an arbiter who could sift through the conflicting rationalisations of the warring parties has made the just war one of the hardest moral mazes. As the poet Wyndam Lewis put it: "but what war that was ever fought, was an unjust war, except of course that waged by the enemy."

The "just war" theory was developed by the medieval church, in an attempt to serve Caesar without totally abandoning its pledges to God. A just war restores a violated moral order. Theologians concentrated therefore on defining criteria for determining the goodness of a war (the jus ad bellum). In the 17th and 18th centuries emerging international law abandoned this search and accepted that the declaration of war is a sovereign prerogative and developed rules of proportionality and necessity regulating its conduct (the jus in bello). This law of war assumed a minimum respect for the enemy - a necessary precondition if atrocities are to be reduced. The constraints and regulations accepted by European sovereigns did not apply, however, in colonial wars against "savages".

After the second world war, Nazi leaders were indicted for crimes against peace and the UN charter established a distinction between aggressive and defensive wars.

This attempt to ban certain types of war was paradoxically accompanied by an assumption of inviolability of state sovereignty, allowing the great powers to claim the high moral ground against their adversaries while shielding themselves from criticisms of their own abuses. After the collapse of communism, the new order has resolved this contradiction, we are told, by eroding the claims of sovereignty in order to protect people from their own governments.

The protection of human rights and the security of populations provide the postmodern just cause for war, but this erosion of sovereignty applies only to weak states. The overwhelming military, economic and technological superiority of the hegemonic powers aligns moral argument and brute force.

Humanitarian wars

The business of governments has always been to govern, not to act morally. This does not change when legal and moral arguments replace theological dogma. Human rights conventions are full of abstract and even contradictory concepts. The question of whether what happened in Rwanda amounted to genocide (yes, according to NGOs on the ground, no for the UN security council) is not answered by treaties but instead by politicians and diplomats interpreting them in the context of state interests. Law, like foreign priorities, economic arguments and military logistics, is only one consideration governments take into account before deciding how to act. The claim that law can give right answers to hard political problems is a facade for depoliticising difficult political judgments.

Similar considerations apply to international institutions when they act as a committee of governments. Before the Iraq war, both the right and left insisted that a security council resolution would weaken objections. Three members of the council, however - China, Russia and the United States - consistently violate the rights of their own citizens. No liberal would support the treatment of Tibetans or Chechens, or the death penalty so generously meted out in China and the US. Yet they were happy to accept these governments as the final arbiters of international legality. A few months before the war, I asked a high-ranking Chinese official if China would exercise its veto. He replied that his country has no interests in Iraq and by supporting the US it expects to be rewarded in trade relations and its own human rights difficulties. A few days later China joined the WTO. When Hillary Clinton recently pleaded with the Chinese authorities to continue their country's support of the American economy without mentioning human rights, she was not diverging from standard foreign policy. Morality and human rights are wheeled out when they support state interests, and are easily discarded if they create real or imaginary imagined constraints.

Popular humanitarian concerns have had some influence in domestic politics. But Rwanda, Darfur and Gaza indicate that humanitarian action and inaction are determined by the strategic interests of hegemonic powers. Human rights were conceived in the 18th century and still remain a defence against the domination and oppression of individuals by public and private power. But when they become tools of western universalism or communitarian localism their purpose is undermined. The Universalists believe that cultural values and moral norms should pass a test of universal applicability and logical consistency. They often conclude that if there is one moral truth and many errors, its holders have a duty to impose the truth on others. Communitarians start from the opposite observation: they believe values are context-bound and often impose them on those who disagree with the oppressiveness of tradition or culture.

The individualism of Universalists forgets that we all come into existence in common with others. Being in common is an integral part of self: the self is exposed to the other, the other is part of the intimacy of self.

But being in a community with others is the opposite of common being or of belonging to an essential community. Most communitarians, on the other hand, define community through the commonality of tradition, history and culture; the various past crystallisations whose inescapable weight determines present possibilities. In Kosovo, Serbs massacred in the name of threatened community, while the allies bombed in the name of threatened humanity. Both principles, when they define the meaning of humanity without remainder, find everything that resists them expendable.

The humanitarian rhetoric marks a return to "just war" theory without a universally agreed criteria to replace religious doctrine. A semi-permanent state of crisis has been proclaimed - the war on terror which will not cease just because the name has now been abandoned. It was accompanied by global emergency powers (like our anti-terrorist and surveillance legislation and the American Patriot Act which, according to Human Rights Watch, "dictators need do nothing more than photocopy").

These laws have created a cosmopolitan civil society not of freedoms but of security measures, under the principle of reversibility of terrorism and the responses to it. The greatest success of terrorism is to turn the whole of humanity into potential suspects.

Systemic violence

The best time to demystify ideology is when it is taken for granted, invisible premises come to the surface and become de-naturalised. The crisis of neo-liberal capitalism allows us to question the wider combination of economic, political, legal and cultural practices that have dominated recent history and offer the opportunity of imagining a different world.

Cosmopolitan neoliberalism is presented as globalisation with a human face. Most empires, states and legal systems are founded through violence, war or revolution. The same applies to our "humanitarian" world order. Its founding violence is carried out in Iraq and Afghanistan but also in the systemic violence of its political economy. Under the "Washington consensus", pressure was put on states to deregulate and open their financial sector, privatise utilities and reduce welfare spending. The liberalisation of trade and the imposition of stringent intellectual property controls by the World Trade Organisation increased the imbalance by creating knowledge-rich and knowledge-poor countries. The promise that market-led, home-based economic growth will inexorably lead the south to western economic standards is the noble lie of international politics.

Neoliberal policies had the opposite result: the gap between the north and the south and between rich and poor has never been greater. According to Oxfam, more than a billion people live on less than $1 a day. An estimated 35% of child mortality across the world is attributable to poor nutrition.

The systemic violence of global injustice is invisible to humanitarianism and is treated as the natural and inevitable destiny of the "less civilised" parts of the world. Humanitarian intervention will not confront the economic and legal regimes that condemn millions of people to death by treatable diseases, lack of food or basic life necessities. The west's ability to turn civil and political liberties into economic and social rights was based on huge transfers of value from the colonies.

Humanitarian dignity and equality promises to militate for reverse flows from the metropolis to the former colonies, but this is not politically feasible or ideologically acceptable. Gordon Brown denounced the Washington consensus, but the G20 emphasis on saving banks rather than people indicates dominant priorities.

Despite differences in content, colonialism and aggressive cosmopolitanism form a continuum - are episodes in the same drama - which started with the great discoveries of the new world and are now carried out in the streets of Iraq: bringing civilisation to the barbarians. Their claim to be spreading reason and Christianity gave western empires their sense of superiority and their universalising impetus. The urge is still there; the ideas have been redefined but the belief in the universality of our world-view remains as strong as that of the colonialists. Neo-liberalism, good governance and low intensity democracy for export are the current expressions of the cultural package of the west. Like earlier ones they are both redemptive and aggressive, promising the best and often delivering the worst.



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