Just War Theory cannot fix US foreign policy

The website Rare.us put out an article called “Using Just War Theory would make our foreign policy much better”. It argues that the US gets involved in too many wars and conflicts and that creates more problems in the world. I agree whole-heartedly on this point. It also argues that Just War Theory would fix that problem. Just War Theory has been a sort of long term project of the Catholic Church and other thinkers. It seeks to determine when, from a Christian point of view, a nation may go to war with another. In short, I disagree with the authors conclusion that Just War Theory would prevent needless war. Our problem with immoral wars and foreign policy is not a matter of finding the right set of rules. We have a systemic problem that doesn’t much care for what rules are in place. I think JWT would fail to prevent unjust war like the Constitution has failed to do so.

The author sums up Just War Theory in the following paragraph:

“According to just war theory, wars may be undertaken only for just causes like the protection of innocent human life. War must be undertaken as a last resort. It must be waged by a legitimate public authority. There must be a reasonable probability of success. And war cannot unleash greater evils than inaction.”

These are boiled down to the JWT principles of “just cause”, “last resort”, “legitimate authority”, “probability of success”, and “proportionality”.

Just War Theory suffers from being too subjective. Half of these principles can be heavily influenced by the narrative, cultural biases, or outright propaganda in country. “Just cause” allows us to intervene in any conflict that produces civilian casualties. I think most conflicts fit that standard. I read in an article that claimed “the spread of liberty” is a just cause. That alone lets us go to war with any nation that isn’t a constitutional democratic republic or has a government that does things to its population that the US doesn’t like. “Last resort” is also a troubling concept. How do we determine when all alternatives are exhausted? The principle of “last resort” might be designed to prevent pre-emptive strikes, but what if you think that the other country is preparing to attack you? Then that pre-emptive strike turns into a “last resort”. The big problem here is that information is controlled by the government. Government is made up of people and people are capable of being influenced by their personal biases or lying to serve their interests. War can be a very profitable activity for those with power and influence. These principles don’t do anything to make it harder to go to war.

I agree with the author that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were a bad idea and not the kind of wars that are worth getting into. Would these two principles have stopped those wars, though? I don’t think so. There were many “just causes” for going to war at the beginning whether they were true or not. Retaliation for 9-11 and the goal of preventing a future one, Iraq having WMDs, and the prospect of freeing people from an oppressive dictator in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan were big talking points in the lead up to the war. Despite Iraq not having attacked or prepared to attack anyone, the US and UN ramped up their sanctions and demands on Iraq until they could claim that invasion was their inevitable “last resort”. Propaganda and slimy politicians can skirt around these principles pretty easily.

“Legitimate authority”, “Probability of Success”, and “Proportionality” are principles that we might be able to measure more objectively, but still not enough to my liking. The US has had a serious problem in the area of “legitimate authority” ever since WW2. None of the wars and conflicts the US has been involved in since WW2 have been declared by Congress as the Constitution requires. Congress has proven that it is unwilling to protect its Constitutional authority over war. If the Constitution can’t keep war making under Congressional control then I don’t think JWT can either.

“Probability of success” and “proportionality” would suffer the same fate as the concept of “unintended consequences” has had at the hands of government central planners. Government has proven to be unable to plan for or predict the future. In the economy and in war.

The proof of the United State’s inability to determine “probability of success” is written in the outcomes of every war and conflict since WW2. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, Somalia, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all been utter failures. The only reply supporters of the War on Terror have is that we didn’t pour enough blood and treasure for long enough into the war. Even after drawing down troop levels later than the Bush Administration’s timeline, both countries are descending onto darker waters than before the 10 plus years of war and “overseas contingency operations”. Many people are incapable of recognizing that these wars have been a failure. How can we expect the US to be able to determine the likelihood of success with this kind of record? Determining the likelihood of success is also clouded by the fact that the US can print money and go into black-hole levels of debt to fund a war. If you have a nearly infinite amount of money every war looks winnable, especially if the government decides to paint that picture to the American people.

“Proportionality” is another term that despite best efforts would be difficult to measure, especially in the time of unconventional warfare. It takes clear thought and realistic expectations to determine if entering a conflict is worth it. Hearts swelled with patriotism and the appeal of a just cause will prevent any ability to think clearly about a war or conflict. This is exactly what happened at the beginning of the War on Terror. We were justifiably angry and ready to pay back those responsible for 9/11. Instead of targeting the groups responsible, the US invaded 2 countries, killed and displaced millions of people, and left the Middle East more volatile than before they got there. The damage inflicted on the Middle East has been many times greater than the damage we took on 9/11. The wars have without a doubt have created more harms then benefits, but politicians and many Americans will not see it. If they are not willing to see it, then it will be impossible for them to measure proportionality in JWT.

The United States use to have two limitations on its ability to enter into and wage war. The first was the placing of the authority to declare war in the legislature. This was to ensure that there first needed to be consensus among the House and the Senate and, in theory, among the people they represent. This is no longer the case. Now the President can almost enter into conflicts at will and stretch things like an Authorization for Use of Military Force into the occupation of two countries for over 10 years. This safeguard has been melted away by the red-hot cowardice of Congress refusing to declare war or not. Instead it decides to pass cop-outs like the AUMF.

The second limitation on US war was its ability to fund it. Originally, the government’s ability to create money and tax was very limited. Thanks to the Federal Reserve, war is now much easier to fund over an extended period. All you have to do is pass the bill to future generations through debt.

“Endless money forms the sinews of war.” – Marcus Tullius Cicero

I would like to stress the importance of the fact that the US’s ability to print money on a massive scale has enabled those in Washington to wage war endlessly. Limited funding is a crucial control on government action, both foreign and domestic. The truest way to determine if the American people want their government to go to war is if they are willing to fund it. If politicians want to go to war then let them pass a war tax. Let the American people compare their belief in the justness of a war with the money being funneled out of their pockets. That will place a heavy demand for smart, just, and effective foreign policy.

The obvious things that need to happen are for Congress to reclaim its authority over war and then to abolish the Federal Reserve and outlaw paying for war through debt. It’s that easy. The problem with US foreign policy isn’t that it has the wrong rules in place. The US originally had pretty good limitations on its ability to enter conflicts and wars. The problem is that they don’t matter in the long run. They have merely been speed bumps on the road to where we are. Even if Congress passed a law making JWT the standard for war making, it would do very little because it has nothing to say about limiting the funding for war.


Photo via: https://www.flickr.com/photos/aheram/283162678/in/set-72157594413176818







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