Just War Revisited - Archbishop's lecture to the Royal Institute for International Affairs
Tuesday 14th October 2003A lecture by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, to the Royal Institute for International Affairs, Chatham House.
In October 2002, George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington DC, a prominent Roman Catholic scholar and commentator, delivered a lecture on 'Moral Clarity in a Time of War' (published by the Center as a pamphlet in 2003). This was a response to various statements from religious leaders in the run-up to the conflict in Iraq, most of which, in Weigel's judgement, exhibited a deplorable ignorance or misunderstanding of the just war tradition; Weigel sets out not only to dust off what he believes is the authentic heart of the tradition, but also to defend a reading of that tradition which would offer secure moral grounding for a pre-emptive US action against Iraq, or any comparable 'rogue state'.
It is a formidable and sophisticated essay, building upon the author's earlier work on the theological definitions of peace and order and upon the extensive work over several decades of James Turner Johnson on just war in the modern age. With much of Weigel's critique, I am in sympathy. However, I believe that his account of the tradition is in one respect seriously questionable, and that his defence of pre-emptive action cannot be accommodated as easily as he thinks within the terms of classical just war theory.
First, though, my points of agreement. Weigel refers to recent work in the US on the need for a 'warrior' ethos of a fundamentally pagan kind to sustain us through the trials of late modern international politics; we need – so this style of argument maintains – heroism, ruthlessness, patriotic fervour and a profound suspicion of moralistic or idealistic rhetoric that clouds our sense of what is possible in tragically constrained circumstances. As Weigel notes, this is effectively to say that morality has no public voice, that what he calls 'statecraft' is beyond the reach of moral, especially religiously moral, principle; and he rightly rejects this as an unsustainable view for any religious person. Just war theory is a form of statecraft (i.e. it is an aspect of political ethics, how to do right in the conduct of ordered community life); it is a way of saying that war is not some monstrous aberration in human life, for which all standing orders are suspended, but a set of actions requiring the same virtues as political life in general. 'The just war tradition is best understood as a sustained and disciplined attempt to relate the morally legitimate use of proportionate and discriminate military force to morally worthy political ends' (p.5). Interestingly, Weigel here echoes, without mentioning, the argument of Oliver O'Donovan about certain justifications of nuclear deterrence – that the Cold War advocates of massive deterrence involving indiscriminate targeting were, like pacifists, refusing to see war as an activity among others with a possible ethical structure. The apologist for deterrence of this kind assumes a sort of Manichaean view that war was of its nature irrational and apocalyptic, avoidable only by threats of total annihilation (see O'Donovan's Peace and Certainty, Grand Rapids 1989).
Against this mythology, Weigel rightly claims that we must think about war as a 'moral category' – war considered as essentially a public enterprise, as opposed to private violence (p.6). But here my doubts begin. He accuses recent writers on the subject of presenting the tradition as having a 'presumption against violence' and thus making it a 'casuistry of means-tests', a set of hoops to be jumped through; and one result of this is to focus attention unduly on what are usually called the ius in bello issues of restraint on the methods to be used in conflict. In fact, the tradition has no such presumption, and must be understood as beginning from questions about just cause, which are directly related to the defence of the political good of a society against aggression, or the punishment of aggression against another or of some other flagrant evil. Such aggression, Weigel suggests, doesn't have to be an actual event of military violence: the mere possession of weapons of mass destruction by a state whose regime may properly be mistrusted as an enemy of justice constitute some sort of sufficient cause for intervention. And terrorist networks are enough like states to present even more obviously legitimate targets for pre-emptive action: though they are unlike states (even very bad states) in being not a mixture of good and bad, but 'unmitigated evils whose only purpose is wickedness – the slaughter of innocents for ignoble political ends'(p.13).
So to my first caveat. Weigel denies any 'presumption against violence' in the tradition; but this is an odd reading of, say, Aquinas's discussion in the Summa (II. IIae, 40). Formally, it is a consideration of those conditions under which what would otherwise be gravely sinful would not be so. It is true to say that there is no specific discussion here of violence (to which I shall return in a moment); the focus is on the Scriptural warnings about warfare, the sinfulness of disturbing peace and so on. But it would be quite fair to say that St Thomas is granting that there is a prima facie case against war, which is only resolved by appeal to the duty of the ruler to preserve peace internally and externally by the literal use of the sword (something explicitly allowed in Scripture). Private use of violence is wrong because a private person always has the alternative of resorting to law to seek redress; but if (as we might say) law itself is threatened, the public good undermined, there is no higher court to look to.
Some of this is illuminated if we turn to Aquinas's discussions of violence (in I.IIae.6.iv and II.IIae 66.viii and 175.i). Violence is an external force compelling certain sorts of action, a familiar Aristotelean definition; as such, it is bound to appear as against nature or against justice (since it takes from someone what is theirs, intrudes on their territory, restricts the exercise of their freedom of choice and so on). External acts may be subject to violence, though the freedom of the will can never be affected in itself. There is, however, a recognition that external force is sometimes used to accelerate a natural movement; in which case it is not exactly violence in the pure sense. The implication is that action which intends what is natural to human beings even if formally coercive is legitimate; so that action which employs violence of some sort for the restoration of a broken or threatened social order does not have the nature of sin. This is the basis on which a large part of Aquinas's discussion of legal penalties (in II.IIae 64 and 65) rests.
Public good is what is natural to human beings, the context in which they may exercise their freedom to realise the image of God. Confronted with action that is inimical to order, action that is 'inordinate' in respect of public goods, the restraint on another's freedom, the intrusion into what is theirs and the privation of their personal resources that we should normally call violence, is not sinful. But in the nature of the case, only those charged with preserving the public good are competent and legitimate judges of the public good. An act of private redress, private vengeance, vigilantism or whatever may purport to punish inordinate behaviour but it only deals with the offence to the individual, not the offence to the social body; thus it fails to heal the social body, or even makes the wound worse. The private person must never use the violence that the ruler can rightly use, as they have the right of redress by due legal process.
The point of this long excursus into somewhat technical matters is to establish that Weigel's claim that there is no 'presumption against violence' in classical just war theory within its context needs a good deal of refining. The ruler who administers the law may use coercion for the sake of the common good, in domestic policing and in international affairs. But such coercion will always need publicly available justification in terms of the common good, since otherwise it will appear as an arbitrary infringement of natural justice. The whole point is that there is precisely a presumption against violence, which can be overcome only by a very clear account of the needs of the common good and of what constitutes a 'natural' life for human beings.
Now Weigel is clear about some of these wider considerations: he writes (p.10) of 'the long, hard, never-to-be-finally-accomplished "domestication" of international public life ... the quest for ordered liberty in an evolving structure of international public life capable of advancing the classic goals of politics – justice, freedom, order, the general welfare, and peace' as the 'inner dynamic' of any pursuit of the national interest by the US administration. My problem is that by denying that there is a presumption against violence in the tradition, he denies himself the most significant touchstone in the tradition for discerning the rationale of using force: external constraint on human liberty is normally a bad thing, but it is not so when human liberty is exercised against the liberty of others or indeed against one's own dignity as a social and moral being. The point is that coercion is simply not to be justified unless it is answerable to a clear account of common human good. Even the security of a specific state has to be seen in the light of this broader framework. So to provide an account of coercion as a moral tool, we have to have a robust account of the balance of liberties in an ordered society, just as Weigel wants – but one, I suggest, in which it is understood that violence, as an external limit on the freedom of another, is essentially anomalous because the essence of healthy social life is the voluntary restriction of any one agent's liberty in the corporate act of social life. More specifically still, Christian doctrine, in describing the optimal human community as the Body of Christ, with all its biblical associations, considers the social unit as an exchange of free gift before it is a community ruled by coercion. As and when coercion is exercised, it is in response to situations in which certain citizens or sub-groups are prevented from proper social action by the arbitrary violence of others. This is intrinsic to the exercise of law in our world, where voluntary self-gift is not exactly automatic.
This begins to suggest that the active reconstruction of justice in a society is not an optional extra to military engagement; but it also reinforces the point about which I agree most earnestly with Weigel, that war as a moral option is a tool for the promotion of specific social goods. As such, however, it is subject to the usual criteria by which means towards an end are to be judged – to considerations of 'prudence', in the language of scholastic ethics, the fitness of means to ends. Or, more plainly, military options have to fight their corner against other ways of securing or restoring justice. And another worry about Weigel's lecture is that it assumes we have already got to the point where such a discernment has happened; not only coercion in general but military coercion has emerged as the only possible course. In what he says about terrorism (p.15), Weigel makes this assumption explicit: there is no point in asking what responses are appropriate to terrorism. 'In circumstances where there is plausible reason to believe that non-military actions are unavailable or unavailing, the "last" in "last resort" can mean "only"'.
This suggests, uncomfortably, that there are circumstances where you will know almost automatically when it is a waste of time to consider non-military options; and the implication of earlier comments is that where terrorism is concerned this can be taken for granted, since terrorists have no recognisable political aims, or are devoid of political rationality. The assumption that an enemy can be regarded as devoid of political rationality is briefly but effectively discussed by Oliver O'Donovan in the essay I have already referred to. He argues that the principle of 'total' deterrence (the nuclear threat) is presented as the only realistic option in the face of 'an enemy...who cannot be made susceptible to the codes of honour and rational political interest' (p.27); but, he replies, this is to locate original sin or radical evil outside oneself (corporate or individual), to assume that it is unproblematic to identify political rationality with one's own agenda; and this is the opposite of 'realism'.
Here is an awkwardness in Weigel's case. The terrorist, he says, has no aims that can be taken seriously as political or moral; but this is a sweeping statement, instantly challengeable. The terrorist is objectively wicked, no dispute about that, in exercising the most appalling form of blackmail by menacing the lives of the innocent. Nothing should qualify this judgement. But this does not mean that the terrorist has no serious moral goals (what about the Irgun?). It is possible to use unspeakably wicked means to pursue an aim that is shared by those who would not dream of acting in the same way, an aim that is intelligible or desirable. The risk in claiming so unproblematic a right to define what counts as politics and so to dismiss certain sorts of political calculation in combating terrorism is that the threatened state (the US in this instance) loses the power of self-criticism and becomes trapped in a self-referential morality which creates even deeper difficulties in the application of just war theory.
I spoke earlier about the need for a ruler or government to be exposed to assessment by larger standards of the human good than simply national interest. Weigel is clear that the US is de facto the only power capable of taking the lead in the struggle for world order, and is sceptical of an international tribunal in which 'the interests of the French foreign ministry and the strategic aims of the repressive Chinese government' dictate the determinations of the Security Council. The point is not without substance; but who is to adjudicate the interests of the US government and its strategic aims, which cannot automatically be assumed to be identical with the detached promotion of 'world order'?
This is by no means an anti-American argument, as the same could be said about any specific government assuming the identity of its interests with 'world order'. Weigel is unconvinced that any kind of international consensus is imperative for just war theory to be applicable to a US intervention against rogue states or terrorist networks. But, granting the weakness of international legal institutions and the practical difficulties entailed in activating them credibly, it is important to allow that no government can simply be judge in its own case in this respect. Indeed, this issue takes us back to one of the absolute fundamentals of just war theory: violence is not be undertaken by private persons. If a state or administration acts without due and visible attention to agreed international process, it acts in a way analogous to a private person. It purports to be judge of its own interest.
The private person has redress in a higher court; do states? Aquinas and later just war theorists were writing in a context where what we understand as international legal structures did not exist (outside the Church, whose standing in such matters was a matter of complex dispute in the Middle Ages). There is a principle which allows the lower jurisdiction to act if the higher is absent or negligent. Does this apply in the modern context? I do not seek to settle these questions here, only to note that their significance for restating anything like a just war theory seems to be underrated by Weigel. Even if the international structures do not exist or lack credibility, the challenge remains as to how any one nation can express its accountability to the substantial concerns of international law.
As to the appropriate structures for this in the middle to long term, that again is a question I cannot seek to settle here. But, if I may pick up a suggestion which I outlined elsewhere earlier this year, there is surely a case for a Standing Commission on Security within the UN structures, incorporating legal and other professionals, capable of taking expert evidence, which could advise on these questions and recommend UN intervention where necessary – instead of complete reliance on the present Security Council framework, which suffers from all the problems Weigel and others have identified. This is one way of recognising that in the present world of global economic interdependence, colonial and postcolonial relationships, instant communications and so forth, it is more than ever essential to have institutions that express and activate some commitment to a common good that is not nationally defined. A significant part of what I have been arguing is that the just war tradition in fact demands this kind of internationalism, in the sense that it makes a strong challenge to violence as the tool of private interest or private redress; and 'privacy' of this kind is most definitely something that can be ascribed to states as well as individuals.
Weigel concludes his lecture by appealing for a recognition of where just war theory should fit into the processes of democratic decision-making. He rightly says that it represents an ethic designed to serve statesmen; but then proposes a really startling theological novelty. 'A charism of political discernment is unique to the vocation of public service', he writes (p.16); and the subtitle of this last section is 'The Charism of Responsibility'. This is a gift denied to church leaders and other religious spokespersons, so that a measure of modesty is appropriate in such persons when they participate in public argument.
This is related to, though not identical with, the more prosaic point (made, for example, in Simon Lee's recent book, Uneasy Ethics, London 2003) that religious leaders don't know what governments know and therefore have no privileged extra information that would enable them to make more morally secure judgements than their rulers. But this needs some further thought. Fist of all, there is no such thing in moral theology as a 'charism of political discernment'; a charism is a gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed for the building up of the Body of Christ, and wisdom is undoubtedly a gift of the Holy Spirit. But there is no charism that goes automatically with political leadership. A political leader may or may not be open to the gifts of the Spirit; democracy itself assumes, though, that the professed wisdom of any leader or any party is challengeable.
What we can properly expect in political leaders is not charism but virtue – the virtue of political prudence, as defined earlier in this lecture, understanding what means are appropriate to agreed ends. Like all virtues, this requires good habits, which are formed by appropriate teaching and learning, and which do not simply reach a plateau of excellence but need daily renewal and exercise. Now governments of course know things that citizens don't (it would be a bit worrying if they didn't); but it needs to be said, with appropriate modesty, that others know things that government doesn't. Lawyers, NGO's, linguists, anthropologists, religious communities, journalists, strategists, military and diplomatic historians, all know some things that may not instantly appear on the radar of any government, and the democratic process is about making sure that government hears what it may not know. This is not a claim to superior expertise overall, but simply to a voice in the debate and a freedom to exercise discernment on the basis of what is publicly available for judgement. Any appeal to universally superior knowledge, let alone some sort of charism of office, risks pre-empting real political or indeed theological debate in this area.
So, finally, my unease with Weigel's in many ways welcome and excellent essay is that it slips inexorably towards a weakening of the freedom of moral theology to sustain the self-critical habit in a nation and its political classes. By sidestepping the subtleties of the analysis of violence in the traditional theory, it ends by leaving the solitary nation state battling terror or aggression morally exposed to an uncomfortable degree; and it attempts to get out from under this by appeal to a not very plausible theological innovation in the shape of the 'charism of responsibility'. If the just war theory is to be properly reconsidered –not, indeed, as a checklist of moral requirements but as part of a wide-ranging theory of political good and political coercion – it needs to be replanted in a greater depth of soil. And it needs to see itself, as Weigel correctly says, as part of a protracted argument about statecraft; but in that argument, many voices have a proper place, more at times than government might find comfortable.
© Rowan Williams 2003