a brief introduction to Walzer's jus ad bellum
The hardest part of understanding Michael Walzer's theory of jus ad bellum is trying to figure out why so many people use such an obscure Latin term to describe it. The dictionary will tell you that jus ad bellum is "a set of criteria that are consulted before engaging in war in order to determine whether entering into war is justifiable." But this dressed-up Latin vocabulary is more confusing than it is helpful, and often it comes pre-packaged with centuries-old laws of war that add little to Walzer’s own position. Walzer’s argument is much more clear and straightforward: it gives us grounds to say which wars are right and which ones wrong.
The first step to Walzer’s theory is to make a fundamental assumption: that the fair and efficient way to establish limits on the policies of each country is to introduce international rules of law. Countries that violate these rules can then fairly be labeled as “in the wrong” in any military conflict; they can be viewed as the authors of an unjust war and punished accordingly. It would be foolish to expect each government to independently and permanently renounce military action; international legal rules have in fact proven themselves a beneficial method of “smoothing out” the relations between countries and preventing, or limiting, the many costs of war. In the absence of rules, war becomes more frequent and more vicious; rules become the acknowledged boundary between decent relations and brutality. They do not have the same degree of legal clarity as domestic laws, but these rules of war have the same purpose, which is to announce the ultimate limits on each country’s freedom in its foreign policies and help us to distinguish decent foreign policies from brutal.
In the next step, Walzer builds his theory by laying down two of its central concepts. The principle of nonintervention is the rule that actually tells us when a given country has violated the laws of war. The principle is widely accepted in international law and politics, and its content is quite obvious. In effect the principle draws moral boundaries between political communities: to violate nonintervention is to engage in aggressive war, which is always wrong, always blameworthy and punishable. The notion of self-determination that supports this principle and makes it convincing is not as clear and obvious, and therefore needs to be utilized more carefully. The notion is often interpreted in two conflicting ways: as referring to the full expression of a country’s national will, such as when we say about democratic country that it’s government is “by the people”; or as a term for a society “not-interfered with” by colonizing foreigners or aggressive neighbors.
For Walzer, the second interpretation of self-determination is clearly the appropriate one. To advance the first would be to suggest the principle of nonintervention should prohibit attacks on all democratic societies while leaving non-democratic countries exposed. Such a rule would not just be unpopular among non-democratic countries, it would be wrong, for it is patently unjust to design or “rig” the system to protect one kind of society against the ravages of military attack. It would be self-defeating to interpret self-determination in this “exclusive” way, since we know that each democratic society developed its own political traditions independently, through a continuing process of internal conflict and balancing of interests. It would be a mistake to imagine that societies possessing strong and true liberties have always been so fortunate; it is precisely the process of internal self-development that enables democratic countries to establish free and representative institutions. Therefore all countries—including both democratic and developing ones—deserve the protection supplied by the principle of nonintervention.
Furthermore, since it would become permissible based on the exclusive interpretation for a democratic country to use force in a non-democratic country solely for purposes of political reform, to think about self-determination and nonintervention exclusively it would be not only be self-defeating but coercive. There is obviously an element of “self-help” in this idea of nonintervention, and this element has thrown off several critics of Walzer whose aim it is to provide moral reinforcement for the rules of going to war. Critics have argued that Walzer’s principle of nonintervention potentially ignores the voices of those who live under non-democratic and oppressive regimes. These persons might prefer foreign intervention to prolonged domestic oppression; they might not find Walzer’s arguments about the self-defeating and coercive nature of “exclusive nonintervention” so convincing.
All the same, this is the argument Walzer makes about the justice of war, or jus ad bellum. To qualify for nonintervention a country is only required to comply with a minimal sense of the notion of self-determination. Thus the final step in the argument is to give us reasons why a country wouldn’t qualify for nonintervention. Only when a country violates the principle of nonintervention (by waging an aggressive war or by interfering in another country’s civil war) or adopts policies toward its own people that make the original rationale for nonintervention impossible to believe (by engaging in genocide, or ethnic cleansing), is Walzer prepared to say that a war is fought on the side of right and justice. The limitations seem to take away from Walzer’s main premise that the making of war should be forbidden in all circumstances expect self-defense. But in the end they are more accurately viewed as exceptions that prove Walzer’s original rule; they are situations where Walzer’s assumptions cannot be maintained, and where we must therefore set aside, if only provisionally, the commitment to a rule-governed community of states on which we lay our hopes for continued peace.