The Proper Role of Professional Military Advice in Contemporary Uses of Force

By Cook, Martin L. | Parameters, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

The Proper Role of Professional Military Advice in Contemporary Uses of Force


Cook, Martin L., Parameters


Since the end of the Cold War, the use of military force in international relations has entered new moral and political territory. Increasingly, the humanitarian and human rights components of international law have emerged as a reason for the use of force. (1) Although humanitarian and human rights law experienced a considerable expansion after World War II, the filter of the Cold War rivalry largely blocked intervention based on it. Since the end of the Cold War (most clearly in Kosovo) major powers have shown a willingness to use force in the name of human rights and humanitarian concerns which trumps or overshadows more traditional understandings of the sovereign right of states over their internal affairs.

To what degree are we witnessing a genuine shift in the moral and political understanding of states and their relationships to their own citizens? Are we indeed witnessing the birth of a "new world order"? Will a universal understanding of human rights form the basis of a successor to the Westphalian system, which purchased international stability at the price of the religious liberties of individuals and established state sovereignty as the cornerstone of international affairs? Is the post-World War II promise that "never again" would the world stand by while massive violations of human rights occur about to be fulfilled?

Alternatively, perhaps we are experiencing a passing moment of misguided international moralism. Perhaps it soon will become abundantly clear that the so-called "international community" lacks both the will and the means to make such modifications to the practice of international relations. Unless and until there is an effective international authority with the military means to act consistently in the name of universalizing principle, erratic, inconsistent, and piecemeal interventions may prevail rather than any genuine movement of the world in the direction of greater enforcement of human rights. If that is the case, perhaps high moral talk of intervention will serve only to increase cynicism. It may soon become clear that the so-called universal principles underlying intervention in fact operate only in regions where ethnic affinity motivates action, where indifference of major powers, or demand for natural resources, attracts the effective attention of the international community.

On the conduct-of-war side of the moral ledger, a wide range of new military technologies (precision-guided munitions, air- and sea-launched cruise missiles, global positioning receiver guidance systems, unmanned aerial vehicles, over-the-horizon targeting systems, etc.) enable the military forces of the United States (and to a considerably lesser degree, NATO allies) to use military force with considerable accuracy and near-total impunity. Because of these technologies, political and military leaders can use military force in circumstances in which, in earlier times, they would not have. Had they only older technologies available to them, they may have perceived interventions as too likely to produce significant friendly casualties and therefore too politically risky to contemplate. Technology has reduced that threshold of concern considerably.

The existence of such technologies raises a number of novel moral problems in its own right. Many have expressed the moral concern that there is something inherently unfair in military conflict that is so completely asymmetric. Has the concern with force protection gone too far in the use of NATO and US forces--to the point of undermining the professional military ethic itself? (2) Has the ability to use force with impunity lowered the moral standard for the recourse to force considerably from the last-resort requirements of just war? Does the ability to strike with impunity from afar allow the US military in particular to be drawn into conflicts in which it may inflict. considerable damage while remaining beyond the range of retaliation--but without a reasonable hope of success that military operations conducted in that manner will achieve the political and humanitarian goals of the intervention? …

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The Proper Role of Professional Military Advice in Contemporary Uses of Force
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