Words of War: Challenges to the Just War Theory

By Walzer, Michael | Harvard International Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Words of War: Challenges to the Just War Theory


Walzer, Michael, Harvard International Review


What standards should be met for an intervention to be for "self determination"? Would Kosovo fit under this category?

Intervention in secessionist or national liberation struggles is not at all easy to justify. We cannot rule it out: remember that France's intervention in the American War of Independence was crucial to the success of the American colonies against Britain. But we need clear evidence of the support that the national liberation movement commands among the people it is claiming to liberate--and the support has to be material, not just intellectual or emotional. If people are not prepared to give their time and energy to the movement, to put their wealth at its service, to risk even their lives, they cannot expect foreigners to come to their aid. That kind of support is the first condition of any military intervention. The second condition is necessity: that the movement cannot be helped by any form of assistance short of war and that it will certainly be defeated without some external use of force, like the intervention that the French undertook in 1781. And the third condition is the strong likelihood that the intervention will be successful, and that this success will not be achieved at terrible costs to the people being liberated or to any of their neighbors.

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It seems to me that it is easier to justify intervention on humanitarian rather than on liberation grounds, and that is the operative justification in the Kosovo case. If the oppression carried out by the rulers reaches massacre and ethnic cleansing, then intervention is not merely right, it is morally required. It is still subject, however, to the second and third conditions that I described a moment ago.

When does a political community exist? How long of a struggle does there have to be and when does a prolonged struggle become a humanitarian crisis and the self help test no longer needed?

The real question here is: what form does the material support of ordinary people for the liberation movement have to take and how long does it have to be sustained? We might imagine the answer as falling along a continuum. So much support over such a period of time justifies non-military forms of support and intervention: diplomacy, political pressure, propaganda, economic boycotts, or sanctions. More support over a longer time might justify the use of military force. Liberation struggles are sometimes constitutive of community, but a lot of people hold back, trying not to choose sides or just trying to choose the winning side. The judgments we make about the character of the movement and its standing among the people necessarily have to be made in particular cases, and they had better reflect some serious knowledge of the local history and culture.

But a humanitarian crisis is, as it were, independent of history and culture. We count the murders or the rapes; we imagine the pain. We will still need people with local knowledge to help us (I do not necessarily mean the United States) decide how to intervene and how to organize the post-war reconstruction. But whether to intervene is a decision determined by the perception of human suffering.

In deciding the morality of an intervention, how much should be on just purposes, and how much should be on just consequences, such as how likely a side is to win, or the outcome of the intervention?

All the obvious prudential calculations about the costs of intervening, the probability of winning, and the likely aftermath are morally necessary. They are part of the set of factors that determine whether a use of military force is just. It is not only that we want our political leaders to act prudently; they are morally bound to act prudently. It would not have been just, for example, for the United States to risk a nuclear war in Hungary in 1956 notwithstanding the justice of the Hungarian revolution. We were bound not to impose that kind of risk on the people of Hungary or on Europe generally. …

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