In a recent column here at The Week, Damon Linker responded to my book In Defence of War by concluding that "just war thinking, even at its very best, is an intellectual, moral, and theological fraud."
As Linker paraphrases them, my criteria of a morally justified war are these: "[It] must be undertaken with the intention of establishing a just peace.... It must be aimed at protecting the innocent against unjust aggression. It must have a reasonable chance of success. It must be declared and waged by a competent governing authority. And it must be undertaken as a last resort."
Linker reckons that these criteria are toothless, since Americans always think that their national intention is right, that success is possible, that they have the relevant authority, and that they only get violent as a last resort. Thus just war analysis merely ends up telling them what they want to hear.
I disagree. The just war tradition does have bite.
Now, it is true that, in my view, many British and American wars are indeed justified — including the First World War, the Second World War, Kosovo, and Iraq in both 1991 and 2003.
But that doesn't mean that Anglo-Saxons always find themselves on the side of the angels. According to my reading of just war criteria, the British were quite unjustified in bombarding Canton in 1841 to avenge their humiliation by imperial officials and to hoist the benefits of free trade (in opium) on the Chinese. They were also wrong to invade Zululand in 1879, since, notwithstanding humanitarian motives and intentions, the invasion lacked last resort.
If just war analysis can say no to some British wars, there is no reason in principle why it cannot do the same for American ones. I myself have doubts about the American War of Independence. It is not obvious to me that the lack of direct representation in the imperial parliament was an injustice so grave and intractable as to warrant bloodshed.
I also have doubts about the federal prosecution of the American Civil War. Had it aimed first and foremost at the abolition of slavery, it would have been just. But it did not: Lincoln's primary concern was to preserve the integrity and power of the United States.
Beyond what he perceives as just war reasoning's general toothlessness, Linker complains that it is too morally idealistic, seducing nations like the U.S. into assuming the role of global policeman and judge to the detriment of its own national interests. "Our government's highest duty is to us," he writes. "It can have no duty to the citizens of another nation."
I agree and disagree. To be sure, a national government's primary responsibility is to serve the interests of its own people. And national interests — say, in security and material prosperity — can be morally legitimate. But the pursuit of those interests to the exclusion of all other considerations would amount to the kind of ruthless nationalist realpolitik that Vladimir Putin is now playing so successfully. Putin cares not a fig for the plight of the people of Syria, nor for the minority rights of Tatars or Ukrainians in Crimea. He cares only to restore the power of Russia. If Linker really wants America to adopt Putin's cynical realism, all I can say is that such an America would inspire fear and hate, not love and admiration. And what is hated provokes opposition.
Consider this historical example. In May 1940, with its army smashed in northern France, Britain was offered the possibility of peace negotiations with Germany. Had it seized this opportunity, Britain would probably have been able to hold on to its empire longer and avoid most of the half million imperial war deaths that prolonging the fighting eventually cost it. Without British resistance, the annihilation of European Jewry would probably have been completed and millions of Slavs reduced to slavery. If we follow Linker's logic, the British government had no duty to the suffering peoples of foreign lands.
Fortunately, Winston Churchill persuaded his cabinet colleagues that if Britain cared only to keep itself safe and fat, it wouldn't be worthy of survival. He understood that the only nation worth caring about is one that devotes its power to defending and promoting humane civilization — and is willing to take the risks and bear the costs.