Just War Ethics in the Obama Nobel Prize Speech

As has been widely discussed, and Roger Alford at Opinio Juris notes, President Obama’s Nobel Prize speech drew extensively upon just war ethics.  I will try to come back to this very interesting topic of just war ethics later on, but not before the … corporate finance and IBT exams are graded!  Meanwhile, the distinguished neoconservative Catholic theologian and critic George Weigel, a leading interpreter of the just war in the conservative tradition, comments on the deployment of just war theory in the speech.

Weigel led the charge against the American bishops’ 1980s pastoral letter on peace and nuclear arms, on the grounds that the bishops formally claimed allegiance to just war criteria, but in any actual case somehow concluded against war – “functional pacifism,” he called it, and it was an apt description.  The formal apparatus for examining war was just war ethics, but somehow the calculus was set in every case so as to rule out war.  It is a charge that is echoed in secular analytic settings today – I, for example, have sometimes criticized the human rights monitoring community of setting standards that in principle allow the United States to engage in war, but in the important actual situations, the use of force always turns out to be wrongfully performed; functional pacifism is, from my standpoint, a useful characterization.

In the linked essay, Weigel makes a similar point about its use today, including in part in the Obama Nobel speech – although, he notes, other things in the speech cut different directions.  The original Augustine-Aquinas framing of the theory, Weigel argues, was a theory about just order and legitimate authority, tranquillitas ordinis as against the transcendental peace of the end of days; in recent decades in the United States in particular, it has been taken as a set of hurdles against war itself, which legitimate leaders must satisfy in order to undertake armed conflict:

In fact, however, the classic just-war tradition began, not with a presumption against war, but with a passion for justice: The just prince is obliged to secure the “tranquility of order,” or peace, for those for whom he accepts political responsibility, and that peace, to repeat, is composed of justice, security, and freedom. There are many ways for the just prince (or prime minister, or president) to do this; one of them is armed force. Its justified use can sometimes come after other means of securing justice, security, and freedom have been tried and failed; but it can also sometimes mean shooting first …

[T]he notion that just-war analysis begins with a “presumption against war” (or, as some put it, with a “pacifist premise”) is simply wrong. The just-war way of thinking begins somewhere else: with legitimate public authority’s moral obligation to defend the common good by defending the peace composed of justice, security, and freedom. The just-war tradition is not a set of hurdles that moral philosophers, theologians, and clergy set before statesmen. It is a framework for collaborative deliberation about the basic aims of legitimate government as it engages hostile regimes and networks in the world.

The President’s speech was not functional pacifism in just war guise, however.  Weigel is warning against understanding just war ethics in that way, including an interpretation of its deployment in President Obama’s speech.  The tradition most at work in the speech is Niebuhrian realism.  It is a form of moral realism that has elements of just war ethics but also a much stronger sense of traditional realism – the “world as it is” of the speech – and which run against just war ethics as functional pacifism.  There are tensions between this moderate moral realism and stricter versions of just war ethics, however, depending on the elements of each that one might emphasize.

However, perhaps more important is that although to American ears, the just war tradition and its requirements seem, today, quite ordinary and natural, it is both a relatively new way of speaking about war in the American political tradition; also one that to European intellectuals and its international elites strange if not disturbing in the age of the UN Charter; and finally one that is not embraced directly by the Vatican.

With respect to the American tradition, it needs to be understood just how obscure just war ethics was prior to its resurrection, first by Paul Ramsey and his student, the distinguished historian and theologican James Turner Johnson, and then, in the wake of Vietnam, by Michael Walzer in Just and Unjust Wars.  It was emphatically not the ethics of war that informed the United States earlier than Vietnam – the long running tradition of the United States from the Civil War forward was ‘moral realism’ about the use of force, in both its jus ad bellum and jus in bello senses.  What is this moral realism and how does it differ from just war theory as a formal apparatus?  It is less formal, to start with – a much more open moral architecture, with fewer criteria, and so more accepting of judgments about the “world as it is.”  Perhaps the best single line statement of it would be, slightly oddly, from Thomas Berger’s novel, Arthur Rex, in which the Lady of Lake tells Arthur the essence of his duty as a ruler:  “Maintain power in as decent a way as would yet be effective.” It is, of course, harder than it looks.

Niebuhr should be seen in important ways as the heir of that tradition, rather than the formal machinery of just war ethics – not all genuinely “moral” approaches to war derive from just war ethics, after all.  Walzer’s remarkable achievement was to place a modern, secular version of the theory at the center of US political thinking – consider that a book from the moderate left in America could eventually find its way to become a standard text in the US military academies.  But it also needs to be understood that Walzer’s version of just war theory is not really the Christian just war tradition, either – not just because he makes it into a secular theory, but because he makes it a theory of modernity and its emphasis on freedom, rather than one of God’s love, including the love of those who fight against aggression against their own community or another’s.  For Walzer, just war theory is a theory of individual rights as an expression of their liberty; and therefore the highest obligation of the just war is to resist unjust aggression.  That is not the highest obligation of Christian just war ethics, which is a theory of justice but not always “rights.”  (I discuss these differences over at my now-dormant personal blog.)

With respect to Europe, well, although the desire to be polite towards President Obama constrains comment, look back and review what European intellectuals and public lawyers said at the time, not just of Iraq, but Kosovo, Afghanistan, and even the first Gulf War.  There was a considerable concern that the Americans placed just war theory over the positive law of the UN Charter that was supposed to have overtaken, so to speak, moral argument with a formal legal structure.  This was now law, not ethics.  European intellectual views have tended to look at just war ethics with a certain suspicion that it is an American moral discourse that allows the United States to reach conclusions, and public support for conclusions, that might be rooted in moral argument – but are not rooted in international law of the Charter.  They are almost certainly right about that – skeptics like me see no convincing way to reconcile the Charter with how states behave, or with moral argument about the use of force, and so oddly share the views of the international lawyers on this matter.

And as for the Vatican – well, I am not a Catholic or Catholic theologian, but in following Vatican statements concerning the use of force, I have long been struck that the Vatican does not follow just war ethics as even the formal apparatus of analysis.  Summarizing roughly, it seems to follow more closely the European line about the primacy of international law, or anyway a certain, thoroughly unrealistic, but literal, reading of the Charter.  I have sometimes wondered if the Vatican’s refusal even to speak the formal language of just war ethics – the five or seven standard criteria – was not intended as a very long term message that, although Americans associate just war ethics with Catholicism, it is not the law of the Church, but only one tradition within it concerning the use of force.  I believe Weigel would concur in the observation that the Vatican has abstained from signing onto just war ethics as the formal apparatus for analyzing resort to war.

(I’ll add that over at my now-mostly-dormant personal blog, I have a lot of posts on just war ethics, Walzer, and related topics.  Look under the just war theory and Walzer tags.)