When is Going to War Justifiable?


When is going to war justifiable? It’s a question we find ourselves asking often, or at least should.  Anyone keeping up with the Republican primary race will find the question raised in most candidate debates, with GOP hopefuls falling on all sides of the spectrum. Some, namely Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), take a decidedly anti-war stance, while others (take your pick) advocate a much more ‘militant’ foreign policy. Libya? Iran? Syria? Iraq? Afghanistan? It is about as divisive a topic of conversation as one can have.

There are two conventional ways of thinking about the justifiability of going to war. There is the traditional, St. Augustine/Michael Walzer-type of “just war” (or jus ad bellum if you want to get fancy), which outlines six requirements for a war to be justifiable: just cause, right intention, proper authority and public declaration, last resort, probability of success, and proportionality (cost/benefit).  The details change a bit with each author, but if you’re interested in a good example, check out Walzer’s classic Just and Unjust Wars.

The second conventional way of thinking about “just war” is the more contemporary realpolitik line of thought, which, in a nutshell, comes down to national interest. If there is no strategic interest at stake, you shouldn’t go to war. To be clear, this does not necessarily rule out intangibles like “prestige,” but the emphasis is definitely on material interests. This line of argumentation should be familiar to anyone who followed the decision to intervene in Libya or during notable humanitarian crises (Darfur, the Congo, Syria, to name a few). That is to say, there were those who suggested intervening in Libya was of little-to-no strategic value to the U.S. (which also explains why there was no intervention in Darfur, etc). 

So when is going to war justifiable? The answer depends on how you conceive of things like the role of the state, the value of sovereignty, the responsibility to protect, and other weighty topics which cannot be discussed here.

In times of economic difficulty and government “austerity,” you can be sure that the realpolitik arguments are much more convincing. Militaries are expensive, both financially and politically. If there is no material incentive, humanitarian intervention often takes a backseat to political expediency.  

More fundamentally, however, is the fact that states don’t seem to officially go to war anymore. While there have been a string of conflicts authorized by the Congress, the United States hasn’t officially declared war since World War II. When is a war a war?

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