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In Defense of Realism: A Commentary on Just and Unjust Wars1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 September 2012


A significant portion of Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars is an argument “against realism.” While Hendrickson applauds Walzer for his examination of the just war tradition, he nevertheless asserts that Walzer has characterized the tradition of political realism in a misleading way. Not simply the moral atheism it is portrayed to be, realism recognizes the moral reality of war while emphasizing state security and independence as the most important factors for the protection of citizens and the continuity of the political community. Indeed, Hendrickson identifies many realist aspects of Walzer's own moral arguments. He takes issue, however, with Walzer's treatment of intervention, self-determination, and the legitimate aims of war, stating that Walzer's framework is exceedingly permissive and ambiguous in these areas. Hendrickson concludes that the use of such a just war theory may lead to significant problems in the post-Cold War world.

Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 1997

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2 Numbers in parentheses are to Just and Unjust WarsGoogle Scholar.

3 Realists, of course, are skeptical of women, too; but one must regard as an open question whether the generalizations that classic writers have made regarding the conduct of men in politics and war apply equally to the conduct of women in that realm of action. This is an empirical question, the answer to which is not obvious, and that ought not to be resolved by stylistic convention. The ethical injunctions on either statesmen or stateswomen, however, are certainly the same. When, therefore, the context of our discussion is an ethical requirement rather than an empirical observation, the reader may substitute or add a “she” for a “he,” if she or he wishes, for all the “he's” (and their equivalents) that followGoogle Scholar.

4 Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, Anne M. Cohler et al., eds., (Cambridge U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989 [1748]), bk. 1, ch. 3, p. 7. Raymond Aron, normally considered a realist, made this the epigraph of Peace and War, and it may be presumed that he did not do so ironically. Hamilton's Pacificus No. 4 (1793), in which this passage appears, is excerpted in Graebner, Norman, ed., Ideas and Diplomacy: Readings in the Intellectual Tradition of American Foreign Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), 61Google Scholar. The context of Hamilton's remarks may be recalled: he was disputing the importance that Jefferson had placed on gratitude in the affairs of states. While recognizing that “faith and justice between nations are virtues of a nature the most necessary and sacred,” he was also intent on showing that the United States had no obligation—stemming either from the precise injunctions of the French alliance or from considerations of gratitude—to join with France in the European war.

5 de Vattel, Emmerich, The Law of Nations or the Principles of Natural Law Applied to the Conduct and to the Affairs of Nations and of Sovereigns (Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1916 [1758]), 14Google Scholar. A similar qualification appears in Henry Wheaton. Wheaton acknowledged Machiavelli's “patriotic anxiety” but condemned the “atrocious means” and “violent remedies” he counseled. Policy, Wheaton insisted, “can never be separated from justice with impunity. Sound policy can never authorize a resort to such measures as are prohibited by the law of nations, founded on the principles of eternal justice; and, on the other hand, the law of nations ought not to prohibit that which sound policy dictates as necessary to the security of any State.” (Wheaton, Henry, Elements of International Law, Grafton Wilson, George, ed. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936 [1866]), xvGoogle Scholar.

6 See Walzer, Michael, “The Politics of Rescue,” Dissent (Winter 1995), 3541Google Scholar.

7 Gilpin, Robert G., “The Richness of the Tradition of Political Realism,” in Keohane, Robert O., ed., Neorealism and Its Critics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 305Google Scholar.

8 Whether the risks to intervening forces can be minimized is an issue closely related to the likely conduct of the war, and the experience of the Gulf War raises a further issue in this regard. In his treatment of jus in bello, Walzer gives an account of why it is illegitimate to kill enemy civilians, and why legitimate to kill enemy soldiers. However persuasive his discussion is in the abstract, the experience of the war raises questions about its ethical relevance in circumstances where there exists a gross disproportion between the casualties suffered by the combatants. The battle deaths suffered by Iraqi forces have been revised sharply downward since the immediate aftermath of the war, from around 100,000 at the time to somewhere in the vicinity of 25,000. (Some observers put the figure even lower, at around 10,000, attributing the Pentagon's reluctance to move to a lower figure to its embarrassment at grossly overestimating the size of Iraqi divisions in Kuwait at the time of the U.S.-led ground offensive.) Whatever the precise figure, there can be no doubt that at the core of the American war plan was the intention to inflict enormous casualties, and to press the disparity between enemy deaths and our own to an extent virtually unprecedented in war. (The sorts of disparities that occurred in various colonial wars, where one side had got the maxim gun, and the other side had not, constitute something of a precedent for this, but on a lesser scale). Walzer draws attention to this disparity in his preface to the second edition of Just and Unjust Wars in his discussion of the aerial attacks on Iraqi columns heading out of Kuwait (“the road of death”), likening it to a “turkey shoot.” The importance of that scene in leading American leaders to draw back from pressing the closing of the gate, through which Republican Guard forces escaped, testifies to the importance in war of limitations that spring from a natural revolt against radical disproportion or excess once “the culminating point of victory” has been reached. But there is also the question of whether the demands of jus in bello, or at least restraints imposed by the simple humanitarian consideration that those killed are fathers, husbands, and sons, arise before that point of natural revolt, and require among those possessing technological dominance that due care be exercised to avoid such radical disproportion. Hostile critics will understand this requirement as a wish for greater American casualties. It is nothing of the kind. It is simply to affirm that elementary considerations of proportionality remain of crucial relevance in the determination of what constitutes legitimate means in warGoogle Scholar.

9 Though Walzer assigns a “certain presumptive value” to existing boundaries, he acknowledges that “the boundaries that exist at any moment in time are likely to be arbitrary, poorly drawn, the products of ancient wars. The mapmakers are likely to have been ignorant, drunken, or corrupt” (p. 57). It is a peculiar feature of the legalist paradigm that it accords a near-absolute legitimacy to territorial possessions that were acquired illegitimately—a point to which the revisionist powers in the early twentieth century often drew attention. When Japan withdrew from the League of Nations after the league's condemnation of Japanese aggression in Manchuria, the Japanese delegate famously wondered when it was that the Western powers, having acquired their territories in a high-stakes poker game, had decided that the only legitimate game in international politics was contract bridgeGoogle Scholar.

10 Whether “the right is more precious than peace,” or peace is more precious than right, is a hard question to which Walzer, appropriately, gives no dogmatic answer. It is a hard question, particularly for outsiders, because the debate over it always concerns not simply the immediate crisis but the lessons that future combatants will draw from the way it is resolved. Those who have claimed that the right is more precious than peace have also normally claimed that the failure to defend right will simply lead to wider war and will increase the general incidence of aggression in international society. “Pay now, or pay later (a much heavier price)” is their motto. Those who have claimed that peace is more precious than right doubt the deterrent effects of resisting aggression and think that wars more normally arise from local causes that are morally ambiguous than from the “demonstration effects” of crises half-way round the globe. They suspect that to act on the hypothesis of tumbling dominoes will mean unending war for the outsiders who reason in this fashion. The former group likens aggressive war to a prairie fire that will spread rapidly unless immediate action is taken; the latter group likens war to a forest fire that must burn itself out. (For these metaphors, see Frank Ninkovich, Morality and Power: A History of the Domino Theory in the Twentieth Century [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994]). The former group tends to analogize war, even civil war, to large-scale aggressive war; the latter group tends to analogize war, even large-scale aggressive war, to civil war. The critique in the above paragraph rests partly upon the persuasiveness of the latter group's reasoning, but the issue, clearly, is a matter of informed speculation rather than scientific proof. “Experience,” undoubtedly, “must be our only guide.” But Clio's expression is enigmaticGoogle Scholar.

11 Walzer's discussion of this point at the symposium was restricted to one case—Libya—which does not involve nuclear weapons. We have no desire to impute to him a position he does not hold, but think the issue sufficiently important to justify an airingGoogle Scholar.

12 This is a feature of realism that is insufficiently appreciated in the critical characterizations of it, but which is particularly marked among diplomatic historians with an affinity for realist premises. It may be objected that such a disposition makes realists insensitive to the moral drama of history; but that failing, if it is one, has the advantage, at least, of allowing a more sympathetic consideration of the motives of historical actors. Realists are suspicious of making everything a matter of moral judgment for the same reason that historians have often shied away from making grand moral judgments of the historical scene and actors they seek to illuminate. Both suspect that this procedure will erect a barrier to understanding. And they think that the road to folly is paved with misunderstood intentionsGoogle Scholar.

13 Walzer, , “The Moral Standing of States: A Response to Four Critics,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 9 (1980), no. 3, p. 215Google Scholar.

14 For an instructive account of what may be termed the “Natural history” of humanitarian intervention, see Orwin, Clifford, “Distant Compassion,” National Interest 43 (Spring 1996), 4249Google Scholar.

15 Federalist No. 9 (Hamilton), The Federalist Papers, Rossiter, Clinton, ed. (1787–88; New York: New American Library, 1961), 73Google Scholar.

16 “The Reform of the International System,” in Øxterud, Øyvind, ed., Studies of War and Peace (Oslo: Norwegian University Press, 1986), 227–40Google Scholar.

17 On the circumstances that led to the Palestinian diaspora and the recognition by Israeli leaders that the coherence and viability of Israel depended on a Jewish majority, see Morris, Benny, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem, 1947–1949 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989Google Scholar).

18 Tucker, Robert W. and Hendrickson, David C., The Imperial Temptation: The New World Order and America's Purpose (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1992)Google Scholar.

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