Commentary Magazine

The Morality of War

A mid the welter of moral argument—some serious, much not—that preceded Operation Iraqi Freedom, two clarifying moments stand out.

The first came on January 26, when Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed a generally hostile audience of the global great and good in Davos, Switzerland. After having made the case for a possible armed intervention in Iraq, Powell was asked by George Carey, the recently retired Archbishop of Canterbury, whether the Bush administration was not overselling the capacity of “hard power” to change what needed changing in the world, and underrating the utility of “soft power.” The terms are the trope of the Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye; soft power, in Carey’s less than luminous formulation, has “something to do with human values.”

Powell, an Episcopalian and long the most reluctant of the administration’s senior officials to use hard power in Iraq, had had enough. “There is nothing in American experience or in American political life or in our culture that suggests that we want to use hard power,” he replied, and went on:

But what we have found over the decades is that unless you do have hard power—and here I think you’re referring to military power—then sometimes you are faced with situations that you can’t deal with. . . . It was not soft power that freed Europe [in the 1940’s]. It was hard power. And what followed immediately after hard power? Did the United States ask for dominion over a single nation in Europe? No. Soft power came in with the Marshall Plan. Soft power came with American GI’s who put their weapons down once the war was over and helped those nations rebuild. We did the same thing in Japan.

Five and a half weeks later, on March 5, Cardinal Pio Laghi—former Vatican ambassador in Washington, personal friend of former President George H.W. Bush, and now Pope John Paul II’s special envoy—met in the Oval Office with President George W. Bush. The President reviewed the administration’s case against Saddam Hussein and the reasons leading inexorably to the conclusion that Iraq could be disarmed only by the use of military force. In response, Cardinal Laghi urged that there must be “another way.” To which the President replied, crisply, that all the “other ways” had been tried and had not worked; anyone serious about the disarmament of Iraq had to recognize that.

Strip away the barnacles attached to the massive peace demonstrations that roiled the West’s major cities in February and March—anti-globalization, anti-Israel, anti-“racism,” anti-McDonald’s, anti-America, anti-whatever—and you will find the same conviction: there had to be another way than military force. Yes, those demonstrations were organized and paid for by the usual suspects on the international Left. Yes, the organizers of the largest political demonstration in British history cared far less about the Iraqi people than about bashing a born-again Texas cowboy and a Labor-party traitor—a point brought home by Jesse Jackson when he denied Iraqi exiles a chance to speak at that demonstration on the grounds that the subject was not Iraq but George Bush and Tony Blair. Yes, those demonstrations fouled the very idea of “peace” by identifying it with a morally odious option: leaving in place an aggressive fascist regime to go on torturing its citizens and threatening its neighbors. Yes, the effect of the demonstrations was to strengthen the hand of unscrupulous and cynical politicians like Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder.

All of that is true. But something else was also afoot in the pre-war debate, particularly among those who came to the argument equipped with strong moral convictions. That something was the resolute refusal to acknowledge that, in the world as it is and as it will remain, soft power must be buttressed by hard power in the pursuit of peace.

The refusal itself is not a new phenomenon; once upon a time, and not so long ago at that, it could be attributed to political naiveté, to a misreading of the Sermon on the Mount, to utopianism, or to some combination thereof. Today, however, it bears a new face, and has marshaled new evidence to advance its claims. Appealing to the manifest accomplishments of the late-20th-century human-rights movement, advocates of soft power adduce such successes as the largely nonviolent revolution of 1989 in Eastern and Central Europe; the Filipino “people power” revolution of 1985-86; and the democratic transformations in East Asia and Latin America. What these examples suggest is that, in some circumstances, there may indeed be another way. What a fair number of people have concluded from them is that, especially where the exercise of American power looms as the alternative, there must always be another way.

The latter idea is hardly confined to the fever swamps of Western political life: Hollywood, the Socialist Workers’ party, the liberal-arts professoriate. The same claim for soft power and “another way” underlies the mental outlook of the present UN system. Soft power as the sovereign remedy for the world’s ills is likewise a point of dogma within a considerable swath of the Democratic party, especially its activist wing, and it is what animated the foreign policy of the Clinton administration. Tony Blair’s difficulties within his own party (and with every major “quality” newspaper in Britain except the Telegraph) show how powerful a grip this idea has on the British imagination. Even in Poland, perhaps the most pro-American country in the world and a nation with deeply entrenched memories of tyranny, polls found that only 20 to 25 percent of the people supported Operation Iraqi Freedom in the days just before it was launched.

And then there are the worlds within worlds of organized religion. To judge by the statements of some of its officials and by virtually every bishops’ conference in the world, the senior leadership of the Catholic Church is deeply reluctant to acknowledge the legitimate role of hard power under some circumstances; were this reluctance to become further institutionalized, the impact of a functionally pacifist Church on the world politics of the 21st century could be considerable. As for liberal Protestantism, it went down the road of such functional pacifism a long time ago, as did the left wing of American evangelicalism. Eastern Orthodox leaders were likewise almost uniformly in the soft-power camp in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom. In an international environment that is increasingly shaped by religious convictions and commitments, the idea of soft power and “another way” is most certainly an idea with consequences.



Perhaps the most ambitious effort, post 9/11, to argue for the necessity of a comprehensive soft-power approach to international conflict is Jonathan Schell’s The Unconquerable World: Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People1 Schell is the author of The Fate of the Earth (1982), a work widely celebrated during the “nuclear freeze” period of the first Reagan administration for its chilling portrait of a planet inherited by cockroaches after humankind had done itself to death because of the follies, and ultimately the breakdown, of nuclear deterrence. The Fate of the Earth was followed by a lesser effort, The Abolition (1986), which laid out Schell’s program for complete nuclear disarmament.

In those days, Schell insisted that the fact of nuclear weapons, not the fact of Communist regimes, was the grave and imminent threat to peace and indeed to human survival. Unhappily for Schell, his theory was massively falsified by the revolution of 1989. Once Communist regimes collapsed, disarmament proceeded apace, and the threat of nuclear war between the former Soviet Union and the West virtually disappeared. Similarly, nuclear disarmament has since taken place in several states (including South Africa, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan), albeit not according to the prescriptions of The Abolition; meanwhile, North Korea has gone nuclear, Iraq and Iran have made strenuous efforts to do so, and a new nuclear standoff exists in South Asia between India and Pakistan.

But Schell has been undeterred, so to speak. With The Unconquerable World, he is back for yet another second chance: in this instance, the chance to put a historical and intellectual foundation under the claim that there must always be another way to do what needs to be done in world politics.

The Unconquerable World does get some things right. Europe’s settling down to four years of internecine slaughter in August 1914 was indeed one of history’s great divides. By contrast, the nonviolent revolution of 1989 was a powerful demonstration that “the moral equivalent of war” (to use William James’s phrase) could change things for the better. Just as Schell writes, moreover, consent is the essence of political stability, and when consent is withdrawn, even the most solid-seeming regimes can crumble. The human-rights movement is indeed a powerful factor in contemporary world politics, and its successes do demonstrate that hard power is not the only form of power. Finally, the expanding world of the democracies is an expanding world of peace, one in which the problem of war has been largely solved.

But Schell misreads the meaning of every one of these truths. Like Barbara Tuchman in The Guns of August, he blames World War I on “the structure of the war system itself.” Not only has this thesis been thoroughly demolished—the principal cause, the sine qua non, of World War I was an aggressive imperial Germany2—but Schell’s obsessive adherence to it leads him to miss the deeper significance of World War I. In fact, that conflict marked the beginning of a profound civilizational crisis in the “Old Europe,” a crisis whose still-reverberating effects are today manifest in unprecedentedly low birth rates and the kind of pusillanimity displayed by France, Belgium, and Germany in the months before Operation Iraqi Freedom.

As for “1989,” Schell insists that these striking events were utterly unanticipated in the West, so deeply sunk was it in the “war system itself.” This ignores the fact that both President Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II intuited in the early 1980’s that the Communist emperor had far fewer clothes than previously suspected, and proceeded to deploy both hard and soft power to accelerate the Communist crack-up. Schell also refuses to acknowledge that Solidarity in Poland, Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia, and the other organized components of the human-rights resistance were able to do what they did because Reagan’s military rearmament program put extraordinary, and ultimately unbearable, economic pressure on the Soviet Union, and because the West’s insistence on deploying Pershing II and cruise missiles, in the face of massive opposition by the “peace” movements of the day, called the bluff on Soviet nuclear blackmail, demoralized the Soviet leadership, and created the strategic environment in which nonviolent resistance could work. In that connection, Schell is also curiously silent about the many ways in which American soft power—Radio Free Europe, financial and logistical support for Solidarity, diplomacy at the UN Human Rights Commission, the work of the National Endowment for Democracy—supported the local human-rights movements. But then, acknowledging this would have been tantamount to acknowledging that soft and hard power can work together, which would rather spoil Schell’s storyline.



Schell is rightly taken with the analyses of totalitarian power and the prescriptions for nonviolent resistance written in the 1970’s and 1980’s by men like Czechoslovakia’s Václav Havel, Poland’s Adam Michnik, and Hungary’s Gyorgy Konrád. But his interest in their thought does not extend to their critique of the Western peace movement (of which Schell was an avatar) for its insouciance about Communist totalitarianism. Nor does he acknowledge the deep truth in one of Havel’s most important essays, “Anatomy of a Reticence”—namely, that Western anti-nuclear activists in the 1980’s had little use for the human-rights activists of Eastern and Central Europe, thinking them dangerous destabilizers unconcerned about “the fate of the earth.” But then, wrestling with all this would once again require him to acknowledge the ways in which soft and hard power can work together, and once again Schell is not prepared to do that.

As Schell notes, “cooperative” power has expanded its sway in the world over the past century, and the democratic world, which embodies such cooperative power within and among states, constitutes a remarkable zone of peace. Yet there is no reckoning in The Unconquerable World with the present dangers to this zone of peace. Islamism is a minor blip on Schell’s threat-acquisition radar, and China’s potential for mischief of various sorts goes simply unremarked. Nor does he confront the problem illustrated in recent months by the behavior of moral popinjays like the French foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, and ex-radicals like Germany’s Green foreign minister, Joschka Fischer: namely, that cooperative power unmoored from sound moral convictions can lead to very unsavory politics. As we were reminded by the spectacle of a France more eager to protect its Iraqi economic interests than to confront repression and aggression, and joining with Germany to threaten Turkey with exclusion from Europe were it to cooperate with the U.S. military, there are corrupt and dangerous forms of soft power, too.

Incapable of understanding the lesson contained in his own instances of the successful application of soft power, Schell is also tone-deaf to the crucial role of culture in contemporary international politics. Over the last 400 years, he suggests, the “war system” has been Europe’s principal contribution to history, thus ignoring law, science, and the arts. The “logic” of this “war system,” he writes, means that wars always “run to extremes,” thus ignoring such contrary evidence as America’s 20th-century military interventions in Central America and the Caribbean, the Korean war, or, more recently, the Six-Day war, the first Gulf war, and Afghanistan. Imperialism, he sums up, is nothing but “a mature, well-developed structure of violence,” ignoring the fact that the British empire, for all its faults, brought the soft power of the rule of Jaw to places where it had never been before (South Asia) and has not been since (the Middle East, with the exception of Israel). And so forth.

Finally, in this lengthy book on contemporary problems of international security, there is no mention of the Khobar Towers bombing, the terrorist attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa, and al Qaeda’s attack on the U.S.S. Cole. Others may remember, however, that each of these incidents took place on the watch of an American administration deeply committed to soft power. What this suggests is that a world in which the accomplishments of soft power are not protected by the availability of hard power, and by the willingness to use it in defense of those accomplishments, is not an “unconquerable” world at all. It is a profoundly vulnerable world.

Indeed, some threats to peace, to freedom, and to the minimum conditions of world order can only be met by hard power. Moreover, while cooperative power is certainly a civilizational accomplishment of the first importance, there are instances in which it cannot be deployed because the adversary will read it as weakness and intensify his aggression. If Israel had chosen “another way” in 1948, the Jews would have been driven into the sea in a mass slaughter. On the other hand, if the Palestinian Arabs had chosen “another way” after the Six-Day war of 1967, they would now be making preparations to celebrate the 35th anniversary of their state. But complexities like these are not to be imagined in the world according to Jonathan Schell.



Where they are indeed imagined, and deeply pondered, is in the body of thought known as the just-war tradition. Contrary to many contemporary confusions—frequently propagated, alas, by churchmen—the just-war tradition is not simply a method of casuistry: a series of hurdles, primarily having to do with the protection of non-combatants, that religious leaders and moral philosophers set for public officials. Rather, it is a theory of statecraft, a method for determining when and how hard power can contribute to securing the political goods of freedom, justice, and peace (understood as order). The just-war tradition, in other words, is about linking good ends to the means capable of achieving those ends. For to will good ends without willing the means to them is frivolity, a form of moral childishness.

In her new book, Just War Against Terror: The Burden of American Power in a Violent World3 Jean Bethke Elshtain lays out the case for moral adulthood in contemporary international politics. She opens her book with a chilling injunction from Osama bin Laden, in which the al Qaeda chieftain calls on “every Muslim who believes in Allah and wishes to be rewarded to comply with Allah’s order to kill the Americans and plunder their money wherever and whenever they find it.”

Anyone, Elshtain suggests, who refuses to reckon with the reality of this bloody-minded charge, or with the threat it poses to the accomplishments of soft power in the United States and throughout the West, belongs in the company of the humane fools in Camus’s novel, The Plague, who refuse to believe that there are rats in the city and thereby make the plague worse. Since today’s plague-bearers are all too real, we “have no choice but to fight—not in order to conquer any countries or to destroy peoples or religions, but to defend who we are and what we, at our best, represent.” In the circumstances faced by the United States, the use of hard power is not simply one option among many; it is a moral duty.

Just War Against Terror takes a classically Augustinian approach to the body of thought out of which it grows. Governments, Ehlstain writes, exist to ensure “civic peace” (Augustine’s famous “tranquility of order,” tranquillitas ordinis). This civic peace is “not the kingdom promised by Scripture that awaits the end-time” but, rather, a humbler thing: a “basic framework of settled law and simple, everyday order.” This—the very conditions for the possibility of civil peace—is what terrorists and rogue states seek to destroy or disrupt, and that is why the first moral duty of governments in the face of such a threat is to stop it. Although it seems an elementary point, it is one that the advocates of soft power seem to have had no end of trouble grasping.

The next step in the just-war tradition is to recognize the moral distinctiveness of war. As Elshtain notes, principled pacifists, functional pacifists (like Jonathan Schell), and hardened realists all agree that war exists in a realm beyond moral reasoning and argument. But the just-war tradition takes a different tack, rigorously distinguishing between, on the one hand, the violence of brigandage, piracy, or modern terrorism and, on the other hand, the proportionate and discriminate use of armed force by legitimate public authorities for morally defensible ends. In other words, war is a moral category, and peace, in Elshtain’s formulation, “may sometimes be served by the just use of force, even as power is most certainly involved.”

The just-war tradition does not, then, begin with a “presumption against war” or a “presumption against violence,” as so many religious leaders and intellectuals since 9/11 and particularly during the debate before Operation Iraqi Freedom have claimed. Rather, it begins with the question of ends. Only after having established the ends that public authority is obliged to seek and to defend does it take up the question of means.

This latter question is of course never easy—especially when it comes to an asymmetrical conflict like the one between a state (the United States) and terrorist organizations that function like states but do not have the “location” of a state in the international system (al Qaeda, Hizballah, Hamas). Still, Elshtain observes, morally serious adults “have to discern where self-defense begins and ends, where just punishment begins and ends, how to distinguish each of these from revenge and vengeance, how to build in limits against foes who preach and practice violence and killing without limits, and so on.” By recognizing that war is a human activity that, like every other human activity, falls within the scrutiny of moral reason, the just-war tradition offers a very different picture of our situation from the one on offer in Jonathan Schell’s image of a “war system” with an innate and irresistible tendency toward “extremes.”

In the event, Operation Iraqi Freedom would pose a test of these two ideas, and would convincingly demonstrate which is the more accurate. As we saw in that conflict, contemporary weapons technologies make it far less likely that war waged by a responsible combatant like the United States will inevitably escalate into mass slaughter, and far more likely that it will take account of the principles of proportionality (no more force than necessary) and discrimination (no direct targeting of non-combatants) demanded by the just-war tradition. Global satellite positioning systems, precision-guided munitions, and stealth technologies are all costly. But far from being indicators of American imperial ambitions or strategic recklessness, let alone Schell’s “logic” of “extremes,” the use of these remarkable weapons, which in Iraq destroyed a totalitarian regime without destroying the country it had held in thrall, indicates American moral and political seriousness.



Because Just War Against Terror was completed before the Iraq debate got going in earnest in late 2002, Elshtain does not address the question of why so many American religious leaders and others made such a hash of the just-war tradition during that debate. Is it because they accept the notion that the tradition begins with a “presumption against violence”? If so, how has that historically false and philosophically dubious idea gained such widespread acceptance, contributing to the insistence among so many that there must always be another way? More momentously, what does it mean for public argument that the just-war tradition would seem to be more carefully appreciated, and far better understood, in our military academies than in our seminaries and divinity schools, our universities and philanthropic foundations?

Such questions are all the more relevant in the aftermath of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Even prior to that action, advocates of the universal applicability of soft power were suggesting that the use of armed force at the dawn of the 21st century threatened to vitiate an entire century’s laborious efforts to erect a world order in which law, diplomacy, and politics would become the normal means of resolving conflict. No sooner had this idea been repudiated on the battlefield than it was immediately resurrected in the wake of Iraq’s liberation, when many of those who had been opposed to the war in the first place now argued that only the UN had the moral authority to oversee the reconstruction of Iraq’s political, economic, and cultural systems.

Set aside the curious notion that the self-consciously amoral, realpolitik calculations of France, Russia, and China (to name three veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council) constitute a superior moral authority. The fact remains that legal, political, and diplomatic means of resolving conflict, morally and politically desirable as they may be, are not always adaptable to threats that cannot be ignored: German and Japanese ambitions in the 1930’s, genocidal ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, an Iraqi regime bent on developing nuclear weapons. A millennium and a half of Western reflection suggests, furthermore, that armed force can and does contribute to the rule of law in international affairs by demonstrating that lawbreakers will pay for their aggression and will not be permitted to destroy the minimum conditions of order in politics among nations.



How could it be otherwise? Imagine a world that had “evolved” to the point where there really were effective legal and political institutions and instruments for resolving conflicts among nations. Even in that world, the rule of law would not be self-vindicating. Human nature being what it is, someone would inevitably break the rules, and would do so at times and in ways that could not be handled by diplomacy. Even in such a world, then, the sanction of proportionate and discriminate armed force would have to remain available, precisely to vindicate the rule of law. “Hard power” and “soft power” are two dimensions of the morally serious exercise of power.

The war that began on 9/11 is, in many respects, a war against deeply entrenched fantasies. The notion that soft power and hard power are antinomies is one such fantasy, on a par with the claim that the Security Council as presently constituted is an inherently superior moral authority. What Americans learned on 9/11 is that the world is too dangerous to allow these fantasies further sway. It is past time for all those who wish to think about world politics in moral categories to learn that same lesson.



1 Metropolitan, 433 pp., $27.50.

2 See, for instance, the masterful essay by Patrick Glynn and the late Paul Seabury, “The Sarajevo Fallacy,” in the National Interest (Fall 1987).

3 Basic Books, 229 pp., $23.00.


About the Author

George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and the author most recently of God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church (HarperCollins).

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