Radicalizing the Critique of Just War Thinking

This post is part of a symposium on Jessica Whyte’s essay “The ‘Dangerous Concept of the Just War.’” All contributions to the symposium can be found here.

Jessica Whyte’s essay sets itself the timely and ambitious goal of revealing the hidden history of just war thinking in the late 20th Century.[1] While several scholars have been pursuing the broader project of revisiting the dominant historiography, Whyte’s approach is highly original due to its detailed analysis of the concrete circumstances in which the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions were drafted.[2] Demolishing a widely shared narrative that construes the emergence of just war thinking during the Vietnam War as a form of moral awakening—an unreliable narrative that Whyte ascribes to Michael Walzer, amongst others—the crux of the essay is that the development of just war thinking has in fact been materially shaped by the politics of decolonization.[3] Whyte conclusively demonstrates that Western states regarded just war thinking with open hostility when it was put to use in the service of anticolonial struggles. Only after national liberation movements in the global south had defeated their colonial rulers, the strange transformation of just war thinking finally led to its current alignment with imperialist agendas. In the conclusion, Whyte argues that, in the present moment, just war thinking might be complicit in perpetuating a state of permanent war. This, again, is an observation that strongly resonates with other critical perspectives.[4]

The essay’s main purpose is thus to overturn a particular account of just war thinking’s history that describes the steady moralization of global politics as an unblemished arc reaching towards a better world order. The central argument seems to be twofold: not only is the actual history much more complicated and twisted than the defenders of the progressivist storyline suggest, but also the intrusion of moral reasoning into the realm of international law is by itself problematic. In other words, Whyte cautions us against naïve embraces of just war thinking that fail to pay proper attention to the potential dangers of moral reasoning in concrete situations. Echoing a by now well-established critique of appeals to universal justice, the essay masterfully excavates the covert origins of the rise and fall of just war thinking.

As a political theorist with an interest in the ethics and politics of violence, I found the paper thought-provoking and illuminating. Much of what Whyte is proposing here, however, involves the kind of painstaking analysis of historical material that I can only appreciate from a distance, without managing to appraise its robustness or plausibility close up. Unfortunately, this leaves me, in my function as commentator, with only two options: to either focus on relatively small queries or on rather large ones. I would hence like to raise three issues, in ascending order of magnitude: (1) a fairly scholastic point about Whyte’s reading of Walzer (small query); (2) a question regarding the broader debate in just war today (medium query); and (3) a methodological concern about the impact of historical research on normative discussions (large query). In a nutshell, all these points are directed not so much at the essay’s substantive claims, but rather at the manner in which these claims are proposed and defended.

(1) The way Whyte sets up her argument makes it clear that Michael Walzer figures as a major source of confusion that the essay seeks to clear up. There are good reasons for concentrating on Walzer when the goal is to critically interrogate just war thinking in the 20th Century. After all, no book has done more to bring the idea of the just war back into the academic, and perhaps even public, spotlight than Just and Unjust Wars. In spite of the deluge of criticism that has been directed at Walzer’s book ever since its publication, Just and Unjust Wars remains to this day a cornerstone in the scholarly debate.[5] This makes Walzer a perfectly appropriate target for any attempt to problematize dominant storylines about the development of just war thinking.

The concern I have with Whyte’s interpretation of Walzer is that it might be seen as slightly tendentious. Here is one point where this suspicion arises: Despite Whyte’s claims to this effect, Walzer was not categorically opposed to the legalist paradigm in Just and Unjust War.[6] In fact, all of chapter 4 is dedicated to delineating a theory of aggression that undergirds an international system founded on the equal sovereignty of states. Of course, Just and Unjust War goes on to significantly qualify the legalist paradigm, by making space for revisions that would allow for secession and humanitarian intervention. But Walzer clearly wanted his account of the legalist paradigm to serve as an ecumenical framework for discussion between both legal and moral reasoners.[7]

Notwithstanding Whyte’s disclaimer that she is not directly concerned with Walzer’s own theory, I also found the analysis of Walzer’s understanding of self-determination somewhat misleading.[8] To pithily suggest that Walzer attributes a “place for self-determination in his broader just war theory” strikes me as an understatement that impedes a nuanced appreciation of what is genuinely problematic about Walzer’s scant attention to colonialism and imperialism.[9]

Self-determination forms the crucial premise of Walzer’s theory of aggression. Without reference to it, no argument for or against specific wars could be launched. Whyte is entirely correct in observing that what is rather disappointing in Just and Unjust Wars is that Walzer failed to foreground the ills of colonialism and imperialism in his theory of aggression. Yet, this fact is thrown into even sharper relief by Walzer actually having an exceedingly robust account of self-determination, which permits him to endorse secessionist and national liberation movements (under specific circumstances). My point here is that a more thorough engagement with Walzer’s normative reflections would likely have strengthened, rather than weakened, Whyte’s case.

(2) My second question is to with the rendering of just war thinking throughout the essay. While I found the reconstruction of just war thinking’s surprising transformation enlightening and provocative, I kept asking myself whether “actually existing” just war theorists would feel accurately represented by this story. The problem appears to be that tethering the critique of the progressivist narrative to Walzer and a few other, more marginal figures distorts the internal complexity of the current discussion. While Just and Unjust Wars has since its publication achieved the status of a classic, Walzer does not really pretend to be a historian of political thought with regard to the ethics of warfare (although he is sometimes wrongly read as one). Authors like James Turner Johnson have delivered much more reliable accounts of the Thomist sources of just war thinking.[10] Others have tried to complicate the simplistic picture whereby just war theory is portrayed as an essentially medieval doctrine, focusing especially on early modern figures, such as Hugo Grotius, as catalysts of a historically grounded theory of the just war.[11] Yet others have attempted to explore the ability of past encounters, such as the Valladolid debate, to inform as well as unsettle contemporary controversies.[12]

Today, just war thinking encompasses both historically oriented approaches, which couch the ethical reflection on war in terms of an ongoing dialogue between past and present ideas, and analytical philosophical accounts, which seek to establish the veracity of their claims mainly through thought experiments.[13] This second group of authors—frequently labelled as “revisionists”—seeks to comprehensively unburden itself from just war theory’s historical baggage so as to radically interrogate some of its traditional principles, such as the moral equality of soldiers.[14] While I do not believe that this revisionist project leads into the right direction, one cannot deny its current ascendancy.[15]

This leads me to question the remit of Whyte’s critical argument. If there are a number of scholars who want to completely re-orient just war thinking away from Walzer’s casuistic method of thinking with and through “historical illustrations” and away from the history of ideas, should we then not also scrutinize their conception of “universal justice”? This point is vital, I think, because it allows us to add yet another twist to the story Whyte is so powerfully telling: analytical philosophical accounts within just war theory are predicated on a moral objectivism that frequently engenders a veritable flight from public debate.

Think what you want about his specific statements, some of which have recently caused scandals among the American left, but Walzer always appears driven by an anxiety to prove how his theorizing practically matters.[16] Despite serious qualms with Walzer’s stance as a public intellectual, this orientation towards real politics strikes me as a very positive aspect of his Just War thinking. Revisionists, by contrast, are primarily concerned with truth claims whose political valence is far less obvious. Is their retreat into the academic realm to be welcomed? I am not so sure and would very much like to learn more about Whyte’s take on this matter.

(3) My final query is to with a major challenge that any inquiry of the sort Whyte is advancing here needs to confront: In what ways does the rewriting of the historical record impinge on the current custom of thinking ethically as well as politically about war-making? I consider this a rather big question because it touches upon an issue that historians frequently encounter when they grapple with morally and politically salient topics. Some might accuse critical accounts, like Whyte’s, of committing the “genetic fallacy”—knowing more about the origins of a particular norm or practice tells us nothing, these critics would contend, about the merits or demerits of said norm or practice. The objection could thus be that the history of just war thinking is simply irrelevant for our current predicament: what actually matters is what we should do with it right now.

One thing that Whyte’s narrative makes clear is that just war thinking is rhetorically much more malleable, and politically more fungible, than the standard account assumes. If a sober look reveals that the language of just war has in the past been used for emancipatory as well as for imperialist purposes, what lessons should be drawn for the present moment? The paper leaves this question open, but I think an answer, however tentative, is of crucial importance for today’s debate.

Here is one way we could reach for such an answer: by heuristically distinguishing between a counter-history and a genealogy.[17] On this view, a counter-history seeks to subvert the norm or practice whose history it is recording.[18] The effect of a genealogy, by contrast, is not necessarily to undermine a norm or practice. While some even argue for “vindicatory” genealogies, I believe the most auspicious way of interpreting their force is in terms of problematizations.[19] A problematization surely criticizes the norm or practice under scrutiny, but such a critique need not under all circumstances entail the rejection of what is being genealogically disclosed.[20] Against this backdrop, it would have been helpful, I feel, had Whyte made it more explicit whether she intended her reading as a subversive counter-history or as a problematizing genealogy of just war thinking. Both strategies appear worthwhile and urgent, but clarity about the paper’s ultimate aim would perhaps have enhanced its critical impact even further.


[1] Thanks to Toby Kelly for inviting me to write this short comment; and thanks to Toby Kelly, Mihaela Mihai and Nicola Perugini for reading a first draft.

[2] Nicholas Rengger, Just War and International Order: The Uncivil Condition in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); Cian O’Driscoll, The Renegotiation of the Just War Tradition and the Right to War in the Twenty-First Century (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).

[3] The centrality of the colonial condition is also strongly foregrounded in the historical account that Whyte seems most sympathetic to: Helen M. Kinsella, The Image Before the Weapon: A Critical History of the Distinction Between Combatant and Civilian (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011).

[4] Michael Neu, Just Liberal Violence: Sweatshops, Torture, War, Off the Fence: Morality, Politics and Society (New York: Rowman & Littlefield International, 2017); Maja Zehfuss, War and the Politics of Ethics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018); Michael J. Butler, Selling a “Just” War: Framing, Legitimacy, and US Military Intervention (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012); Andrew Fiala, The Just War Myth: The Moral Illusions of War (Lanham, Mary.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008).

[5] Terry Nardin, “Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars,” in The Oxford Handbook of Classics in Contemporary Political Theory, ed. Jacob T. Levy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198717133.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780198717133-e-26.

[6] Jessica Whyte, “The ‘Dangerous Concept of the Just War’: Decolonization, Wars of National Liberation, and the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions,” Humanity 9, no. 3 (2018): 315, 320.

[7] Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2006), 61.

[8] Whyte, “The ‘Dangerous Concept of the Just War,’” n. 20.

[9] Ibid., 321. The index of Just and Unjust War contains no entry on colonialism, but there are at least four passages where Walzer talks about it. See: Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 94, 123, 177, 241.

[10] See for example: James Turner Johnson, Just War Tradition and the Restraint of War: A Moral and Historical Inquiry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981); James Turner Johnson, Can Modern War Be Just? (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984); James Turner Johnson, The Quest for Peace: Three Moral Traditions in Western Cultural History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1987).

[11] See notably: Larry May, Crimes Against Humanity: A Normative Account (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005); Larry May, War Crimes and Just War (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Larry May, Aggression and Crimes Against Peace (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Larry May, After War Ends: A Philosophical Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[12] Daniel R. Brunstetter, “Sepúlveda, Las Casas, and the Other: Exploring the Tension between Moral Universalism and Alterity,” The Review of Politics 72, no. 03 (2010): 409–35, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0034670510000306; Daniel R. Brunstetter and Dana Zartner, “Just War against Barbarians: Revisiting the Valladolid Debates between Sepúlveda and Las Casas,” Political Studies 59, no. 3 (2011): 733–52, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9248.2010.00857.x.

[13] See, for example, Charles Reed and David Ryall, eds., The Price of Peace: Just War in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007); Cian O’Driscoll, “Divisions within the Ranks? The Just War Tradition and the Use and Abuse of History,” Ethics & International Affairs 27, no. 1 (2013): 47–65, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0892679412000779. See, for example, Helen Frowe, Defensive Killing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014); Jeff McMahan, Killing in War, Uehiro Series in Practical Ethics (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2009).

[14] Seth Lazar, “Just War Theory: Revisionists versus Traditionalists,” Annual Review of Political Science 20, no. 1 (2017): 37–54, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-polisci-060314-112706.

[15] Mathias Thaler, “On Time in Just War Theory: From Chronos to Kairos,” Polity 46, no. 4 (2014): 520–46, https://doi.org/10.1057/pol.2014.20.

[16] See exemplarily: Jerome Slater, “On Michael Walzer, Gaza, and the Lebanon War,” Dissent 54, no. 1 (2007): 93–104, https://doi.org/10.1353/dss.2007.0017; Jerome Slater, “The Walzer Problem,” Mondoweiss, August 13, 2014, https://mondoweiss.net/2014/08/the-walzer-problem/ (accessed August 17, 2019).

[17] For a more comprehensive exposition of this distinction see: Mathias Thaler, Naming Violence: A Critical Theory of Genocide, Torture, and Terrorism, New Directions in Critical Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018), 149–50.

[18] Domenico Losurdo seems to be the most prolific defender of this kind of historiography: Domenico Losurdo, Liberalism: A Counter-History, trans. Gregory Elliott (New York: Verso, 2014); Domenico Losurdo, Non-Violence: A History beyond the Myth (Lanham, Mary.: Lexington Books, 2015).

[19] Bernard Williams, Truth and Truthfulness: An Essay in Genealogy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002). Michel Foucault is the most notable proponent of this latter view. See Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984), 76–100. See also Colin Koopman, Genealogy as Critique: Foucault and the Problems of Modernity, American Philosophy (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013).

[20] Raymond Geuss, “Genealogy as Critique,” European Journal of Philosophy 10, no. 2 (2002): 209–15, https://doi.org/10.1111/1468-0378.00157.

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About Mathias Thaler

Mathias Thaler is Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Edinburgh. His main research interest is in contemporary political theory. Thaler’s recent publications have appeared in the British Journal of Political Science, Constellations, Contemporary Political Theory, Political Studies, Political Theory, and Review of Politics. He is the author of Naming Violence: A Critical Theory of Genocide, Torture and Terrorism (Columbia UP, 2018), Moralische Politik oder politische Moral? Eine Analyse aktueller Debatten zur internationalen Gerechtigkeit (Campus, 2008), and co-editor (with Mihaela Mihai) of On the Uses and Abuses of Political Apologies (Palgrave, 2014).

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