Just war and realism

All the approaches to war that we have discussed so far lean heavily upon moral judgements. The more convincing forms of 'realism' tend to mistrust this central reliance on moral judgement and to strive instead for a more 'dispassionate, objective' attitude to 'the phenomenon of war'. Self-styled realists tend to be a mixture of two ideal types which are in theory starkly contrasted. One type might be called 'the reductionist'; the other type is the pragmatist. One of the ways in which realists differ from one another is that reductionism and pragmatism can be mixed together in a variety of ways.

According to the reductionist, political and/or military realities can be reduced to a small number of fundamental forces or factors, notably self-interest and/or power. The fine words of politicians are a mask and the reductionist is not deceived, even if the politician succumbs to self-deception. When the politician talks the language of just or holy war what is really happening is an assertion of power or self-interest. However coherent and morally attractive the just war tradition may seem, it is ultimately unrealistic. The war to evict Iraq from Kuwait may have been called just but the reality was that the US acted to protect its interests and power in the Middle East. The fine words were empty rhetoric, as can be seen by examining how Washington has acted in other situations where just war requirements have not coincided neatly with the realities of power or interest. This is the view of the reductionist.

According to the pragmatist, there is only one valid simple, generalized response to political questions, and this is that issues are rarely clear cut. Issues become political often because they are an awkward mix of categories: power, interest and justice all scrambled together in a way that only a political decision can unravel; and the unravelling can at best be a partial satisfaction of any of the demands that make the question an urgent one. If moral demand A can be met it can only be at the expense of moral demand B, and seeing to A will also involve furthering interest C at the expense of interest D and advancing the power of E at the expense of F's power.

Clearly, the reductionist and the pragmatist disagree in theory. The reductionist holds that the phenomena are basically simple—'It's all power really'—whereas the pragmatist insists on irreducible complexity—'Who knows what may come to the fore in the next controversy?' We must therefore ask why these apparently contradictory approaches tend to combine in practice. An example may suffice to clarify the issue. Consider the dilemma of a morally concerned foreign secretary in a modern democracy. Her or his own experience may well conform to the pragmatic pattern of irreducible complexity, but there is bound to be a problem of how to explain this to public opinion, which is notoriously unreceptive to the detail of foreign affairs. Furthermore, what broad guidelines are one to employ in analysing the flood of new problems and new opportunities constantly impinging on the foreign office? As regards public opinion, it may well be that what most needs emphasis is the all-pervasive importance of the international balance of power. When public opinion is swept by a gust of moral enthusiasm, the grinding demands of long-term intervention may need to be faced. When public opinion is disaffected and inclined to dismiss foreign problems as the product of domestic interest groups (such as the military—industrial complex), then the inescapable involvement of one's country in the world balance of power may need to be stressed. In innumerable such ways, the most appropriate simplifying map of the world may be a reductionist one. Being human, a politician who speaks reductionism for such reasons may easily forget the tensions between reductionist and pragmatic forms of realism and be drawn into the oversimplifications of simple-minded reductionism, especially if there is a strong tendency in this direction within the political milieu.

How, then, does realism relate to the classic just war doctrine? The pragmatist's most searching question to the classic doctrine concerns its understanding of the relation between principle and prudence. Just warriors are usually well aware that just war principles do not apply themselves but have to be brought to bear upon the disorder of everyday reality by a quality of mind and character which is traditionally called both judgement and prudence. This comprises both the intellectual penetration to grasp complex realities and the moral strength to resist such temptations as sentimentality, arbitrary harshness and impatience. Whether the just war doctrine delivers any judgements that are absolute (e.g. that noncombatants are never to be subjected to direct attack is a controversial question within the just war tradition. But however that may be, the doctrine's tendency is undoubtedly towards the imposition of prohibitions and restraints on the resort to and conduct of war. A pragmatist cannot but ask whether this restrictiveness is too rigid and narrow. The pragmatist believes that decision-makers are constantly assailed by a large number of incompatible demands which cannot be reduced to any simple formula. The start simplicities of the classic just war doctrine are bound to strike the pragmatist as one of the many factors to be taken into account, rather than as the authoritative framework for decision-making.

This pragmatic questioning of the basic simplicity of just war doctrine becomes the more sceptical to the extent that a realist mixes pragmatism with reductionism. Many pragmatic realists believe that most of the inputs into different decisions about war are considerations of self-interest and/or power, and that a good deal is known about how it is necessary to behave in order to flourish in a power-political world. Many a realist is therefore in the interesting position of sharing many of the concerns of the just warrior while believing that the classic doctrine is over-simple. A more accommodating attitude to such imperatives as the need to preserve the balance is the beginning of wisdom; or so the realist tends to believe.

How is the just warrior to respond? In our discussion of the pacifist, we saw reason to think that the most responsible of pacifists may be those who take an informal role in peace-making in international society. The State, we thought, could not be so straightforward in its support for peace. The just warrior, it seemed, might fairly claim to be shouldering the heavy responsibilities of State. Now we hear the realist saying that in actuality decisionmakers have to be pragmatic and respectful of such sordid requirements as the balance of power to a greater extent than the classic just war doctrine can allow. There is no easy resolution of this painful tension in our public life. Perhaps the most that one can say is as follows. Politics is the clash of a great many somewhat indefinite ideas. Some of these ideas, such as racial purity, are pernicious and must be combated in all their forms, but a great many are more ambiguous. Words such as 'justice', 'freedom' and 'the national interest' admit of many interpretations and most of those who engage in politics have core allegiances which are their sticking points, their resigning-matters. Different politicians have different core allegiances but it would be an ignoble and fruitless politician who was so radically pragmatic that she or he had no sticking points whatever. Those for whom the classic just war principles sum up certain basic allegiances have a peculiarly intelligible and challenging set of sticking points, as we may see by reminding ourselves that their basic demand is that the coercive apparatus of the State be organized and operated in such a way as to avoid violating the will of God ('May the Christian without sin wage war?'). Whatever we think of more 'flexible' attitudes, we can hardly doubt the grandeur and rigour of the just warrior's position.

Furthermore, we must remember that there are no sticking points in realism as such: pragmatism says be flexible and reductionism directs attention to considerations of power and/or interest. Anyone who was a pure realist would be on a slippery slope to the readiness to do anything whatever in the service of interest and/or power. Few would doubt that these are false gods and our discussion of holy war provides ample material for informed speculation about what actually tends to happen on the slippery slope to the service of mere interest and/or power. What tends to happen is that some such thing as the national interest (alias 'survival') becomes identified with the will of God; opponents are marked out as enemies of God, and war without limit against them appears to be sanctioned. The more moderate realist is faced with a danger that is the reverse of that which the pragmatist attributes to the just warrior: if the classic just war doctrine is too rigid, greater flexibility brings with it the risk of a slippery slope towards the readiness to permit anything in war.

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