After Syria: the Just War Tradition and the Future of Intervention

Dr Adrian Pabst, Senior Lecturer in Politics, School of Politics and IR, University of Kent; Visiting Professor, Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Lille (Sciences Po), specially for

Following the Russian-US agreement on Syria’s chemical weapons, the prospect of imminent bombings against the government of Bashar al-Assad seems to be receding. But as with Iraq, a UN-led inspection regime is no guarantee against some form of military intervention. On the contrary, the UN Security Council resolution which is currently in preparation may feature a reference to action under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which includes the option of all necessary means – including military force. The latter would surely require a second resolution. All of which sounds eerily familiar.

If Russia and China vetoed the mention of action Chapter VII in the next resolution on Syria, then US, France and other allies would probably feel once again emboldened to launch military strikes in case of non-compliance with the weapons’ inspection regime. Over the next few weeks and months, the slightest slip-up could offer an opportunity to launch bombings – as in 1998 against Bagdad or eventually in 2003 with the invasion of Iraq.

In other respects though, the debate since Iraq has moved on. Liberal interventionism is in retreat, as several Western countries have grown war weary and governments are under growing popular pressure to give diplomacy a chance. More fundamentally, two traditional positions are resurgent: right-wing isolationism (a sentiment shared by many in the USA and the UK) and left-wing anti-Americanism (in large sections of the French, Spanish or Italian society). In Britain, we have seen signs of two positions joining forces on blocking any military strikes against Syria: first, anti-foreigner little Englandism on the right and anti-American non-interventionism on the left.

Both positions are united in their opposition to the ideology of liberal humanitarian interventionism (and its neo-con intensification) because they view the twin principles of national sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs as sacrosanct. However, the problem with both positions is that they end up being complicit with the very violence they purport to oppose. By not intervening on principle in virtually all cases, they fail to deal with conflict and war that could be prevented or stopped. As a result, neither position is ethically defensible.

In this essay, I defend the principle of intervention by using a version of just war theory against both liberal/neo-conservative interventionism and left- or right-wing non-interventionism. My argument is that just war theory imposes strict limits both on the decision to intervene and on the actual use of force. As such, it charts an alternative course to the gung-ho militarism of liberal and neo-conservative interventionists and the abstract pacifism of the non-interventionists.

1. The case for intervention

Recent events in the Middle East and North Africa seem to lend weight to all those who condemn foreign military interventions and defend the sacrosanct value of national sovereignty. Ten years after the US-led invasion of Iraq, horrific violence continues and a tri-partite ethnic structure permanently divides the country. Neither Afghanistan nor Libya are seeing a fundamental shift from authoritarian regimes to popular democracy. Across the wider region, the sectarian cleansing of Shia and Christian populations by fundamentalist Sunni groups (many affiliated to Al-Qaeda) replicates the horrors of ethnic cleansing witnessed on the Balkans and in Africa in the 1990s.

But elsewhere in the world, the pressing need for military and political intervention remains unmet. In principle and in practice, the killings of many innocent protesters in Egypt both before and after the army’s overthrow of Mohammed Morsi represents war crimes and crimes against humanity. Yet the response from all members of the UN Security Council and the international community of states was muted. In recent years, the massacres and ethnic cleansing in Darfur recall the global inaction over Rwanda, and Zimbabwe’s insane campaign against its own people proceeds apace. African governments decry intervention as colonial imperialism and Western liberals struggle not to appear to agree.

However, non-interventionism is both immoral and self-delusory. First of all, it absolves the international community of the "Responsibility to Protect" – a concept adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2005 as part of its response to the catastrophe in Rwanda and before that on the Balkans. At best, non-intervention prolongs war and misery for the victims of political repression and local pogroms. At worst, it is complicit in ethnic genocide and crimes against humanity.

The oft-cited argument that intervention violates international law in general and the twin principles of national sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs is only partially true. The focus on legality and legitimacy must be balanced with a concern for the well-being of populations, both at home and abroad, as well as the respect of all aspects of international law. Indeed, the violation of international conventions on WMDs (such as chemical arsenal in the Syrian case or the Iranian attempt to build nuclear weapons) has prompted countries such as Russia and China to take supranational action – whether sanctions or indeed the threat of intervention.

If we add to this other cross-border crimes such as drug trafficking, arms dealing or terrorism, then the argument against all intervention is unpersuasive. Thus the question is not whether to intervene but on what ground, with what purpose and in which ways. The problem with liberals and neo-cons is not that they intervene but that they practice some of the worst forms of intervention.

2. Why liberal interventionism and neo-conservartive crusades are morally bankrupt

Indeed, during the 1990s liberals invoked humanitarian concerns in order to intervene militarily, starting in Somalia in 1992-3. But the breakdown of UN-sanctioned interventions in Somalia, Bosnia and of course Rwanda led to the widespread discrediting of the United Nations and its military fiat. This coupled with 9/11, led neo-conservatives to ditch multilateral action and to adopt a doctrine of unilateral pre-emption. Iraq was invaded without UN authorisation under the pretext of ‘liberating’ the Iraqis from an evil dictator and making the world safe from the threat of WMDs.

Yesterday Iraq and Darfur. Today Libya and Syria. In different ways they all symbolise the failure of both these projects – liberal interventionism and neo-conservative pre-emption. Liberal interventionism has always been reactive and painfully slow to respond, as evinced by the belated action on the Balkans in the 1990s when it took almost four years before civil war and ethnic cleansing led to agreement on military involvement. Historically, even with the hard-won prize of a UN mandate, liberals have also lacked political courage to commit ground troops and so minimise the "collateral damage" of its alternative: high-level bombing of governmental and civilian infrastructure.

As such, inaction and moral cowardice led to a bombing campaign in Kosovo in 1999 that has ensured a permanently embittered Serbia and a Balkan zone that will need military containment for years to come. Aspects of this campaign such as bombing Belgrade and other cities far from Kosovo where the crimes took place can only be described as a form of collective punishment.

The failure of liberal interventionism to act decisively over Bosnia persuaded the former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair to join the neo-cons and embrace their evangelical crusade. However, this cause is equally bankrupt. The quagmire in Iraq and indifference to Darfur have revealed the true colours of neo-conservatism and its bastard acolytes in Europe – military interventions only occur if they are self-interested and extend the hegemonic status of the invaders.

Liberal humanitarian interventionism was always a poor cover for neo-con regime change. With no idea of how to secure a just peace, incipient civil war has been the only result of pre-emption. This spectre now haunts Western powers in Libya and soon in Afghanistan after the final withdrawal of combat troops in 2014.

In truth, both neo-con unilateralism and liberal war by agreement are similar in terms of outcome – they produce and fuel un-reconciled conflict. Both approaches fail because both seek to repeat themselves in the institutions they create. They thereby deny local ownership of the political process. Both try to establish pro-western puppet regimes and both rely on military force to impose the subsequent peace. Little wonder that not a single flourishing democracy has emerged in the wake of liberal/neo-con intervention – unless one counts the permanent EU protectorate of Kosovo as a country with a democratic system and a vibrant civil society…

3. What the Just War Tradition can Teach Us

But far from justifying non-intervention, this shared failure calls for an alternative vision. The only interventions that work are those that are just. Based on both Greco-Roman philosophy and medieval theology, the just war tradition provides us with conceptual resources to develop a substantive conception of justice, i.e. not a merely procedural or formalistic theory as in the highly influential political liberalism of John Rawls.

The starting point of the just war tradition is the primacy of peace over violence, which is rooted in a rejection of ancient forms of fatalism and randomness – the idea that the world is somehow predetermined by the gods or the rival idea that the world is meaningless. Either way, fatalism and randomness reject the possibility of an ordering of reality towards the good which humankind can try to perfect.

Second, the just war tradition teaches us that the purpose of any intervention has to be to create and preserve peace. With reference to Augustine, Aquinas argues that only the pursuit of peace can ever justify a war. He writes

a just cause is required namely that those who are attacked deserve it for some wrong they have done. So Augustine: 'We usually describe a just war as one that avenges wrongs, that is, when a nation or state has to be punished either for refusing to make amends for outrages done by its subjects, or to restore what it has seized injuriously. Those wars are looked on by true religion as peacemaking which are waged neither from aggrandisement nor cruelty but with the object of securing peace, of repressing the evil and supporting the good' [1].

As a result, preventing the use of WMDs is a necessary but not a sufficient condition to intervene, as military strikes need to be accompanied by a proper political strategy and a credible peace plan.

Third, the just war tradition insists on rigorous standards of justice both in the decision to launch an intervention (ius ad bellum) and in the conduct in war itself (ius in bello). The former include criteria such as a just cause and a just authority to decide on whether to go to war, whereas the latter includes the criteria of proportional use of force. Applied to today, this raises key questions about whether single nations can launch a military intervention simply based on their own will but also whether a body such as the UN Security Council in its current configuration the necessary moral authority.

Fourth, the just war tradition emphasises that judgement and practice are more primary than abstract rules such as a catalogue of purely legal criteria. Linked to this is the centrality of plural sources of sovereignty, which limits the power of each and creates the conditions for a genuine balance of interests between different individuals, groups and nations. Concretely, this means that non-state actors have to play a much greater role in determining whether an intervention can be justified, including religions and non-religious communities. Without their participation, war becomes a formalised state practice, no longer in pursuit of an inclusive order but reduced to an ‘unarbitrable contest of interests’ [2].

Applied to today, these four principles mean that a war is only just if it has a reasonable chance of succeeding, which is defined not in terms of political status or regime change but rather in terms of creating the conditions for justice. Genuine justice is transcendent, substantive and inclusive. It is transcendent because true justice requires a discernment beyond ethnic, economic and social division. It negates self-interest – whether individual or national – as ultimately destructive. It envisages an equitable peace and reconciliation between all parties.

In this light, just interventions must really deliver systemic transformation, not merely regime change. Most importantly, a just settlement must not be a pale imitation of western variants but instead an inclusive process that blends universal values with particular traditions. Only if the indigenous cultures believe that the intervention was conducted justly and nobly by a legitimate force will there be any hope for a permanent peace. In short, most modern wars and contemporary interventions do not qualify as just.

A truly just war requires then a genuine cause and a rightful authority. In principle, the United Nations is the only credible vehicle for these endeavours. However, an unrepresentative Security Council is at the mercy of the major nations who can veto any majority action. Such national self-interest can and does thwart collective global justice. In the absence of majority voting within an expanded Security Council, the UN (like NATO) remains fatally hidebound by its veto-wielding members. If the case for intervention remains compelling and the world will no longer accept a US-led "coalition of the willing", who will act to save those who would otherwise be abandoned?

Concluding reflections

The Russian-US deal on disarming Syria’s chemical weapons has averted the latest war in the Middle East, at least for now. This opens us a space for a diplomatic solution to a bloody conflict that has left more than 100.000 Syrians dead and forced another 2 million to flee their own country. Beyond the Syrian case, the debates since the 1990s about intervention have been one-sided, with favouring or opposing military action without offering a substantive account of justice – something which the just war tradition can do.

In my next essay I will draw on some ideas in political thought and International Relations theory to argue that just-war interventions need to be followed by new forms of cooperation between countries previously at war with one another, including notions of trustee- and guardianship.

Without it, the alternative is a global system of de facto great powers that dominate smaller states and operate a system of tributes – whether of a more Western, ‘liberal’ or a more Eastern, ‘authoritarian’ kind. Such a system absolves great powers of their responsibility and reinforces a sense of exceptionalism that can be variously more secular or more religious.
[1] St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae IIa-IIae. q. 40, a. 1, resp. 2
[2] Oliver O’Donovan, The Just War Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 111 (original italics).