Pre-emption, Just War, and the Defense of World Order


Papal biographer George Weigel spent part of his career studying Catholic international relations theory, the just-war tradition and the pursuit of peace in its classic Catholic sense of "public order." Here from Zenit is George Weigel on "Getting ‘Just-War’ Straight" and "Pre-emption, Just War, and the Defense of World Order".

George Weigel

Catholic commentary on the grave moral issues involved in responding to the attack on the United States on September 11, and in taking effective measures to rid the world of terrorism and its capacity for mass violence, has been burdened by a shift in just-war thinking. The shift began decades ago, but its full import is only now coming into clear focus.

It's important, at the outset, to understand what the just-war tradition is, and isn't. The just-war tradition is not an algebra that provides custom-made, clear-cut answers under all circumstances. Rather, it is a kind of ethical calculus, in which moral reasoning and rigorous empirical analysis are meant to work together, in order to provide guidance to public authorities on whom the responsibilities of decision-making fall.

From its beginnings in St. Augustine, just-war thinking has been based on the presumption — better, the classic moral judgment — that rightly-constituted public authorities have the moral duty to pursue justice — even at risk to themselves and those for whom they are responsible. That is why, for example, St. Thomas Aquinas discussed just war under the broader subject of the meaning of "charity," and why the eminent Protestant theologian Paul Ramsey argued that the just-war tradition is an attempt to think through the public meaning of the commandment of love-of-neighbor. In today's international context, "justice" includes the defense of freedom (especially religious freedom), and the defense of a minimum of order in international affairs. For these are the crucial components of the peace that is possible in a fallen world.

This presumption — that the pursuit of justice is a moral obligation of statecraft — shapes the first set of moral criteria in the just-war tradition, which scholars call the "ius ad bellum" or "war-decision law:" Is the cause a just one? Will the war be conducted by a responsible public authority? Is there a "right intention" (which, among other things, precludes acts of vengeance or reprisal)? Is the contemplated action "proportionate:" is it appropriate to the goal (or just cause); is the good to be accomplished likely to be greater than the evil that would be suffered if nothing were done, or if the use of armed force were avoided for the sake of other types of measures? Have other remedies been tried and found wanting or are other remedies prima facie unlikely to be effective? Is there a reasonable chance of success?

It is only when these prior moral questions have been answered that the second set of just-war criteria — what scholars call the "ius in bello" or "war-conduct law" — come into play, logically. The positive answers to the first set of questions, the "war-decision" questions, create the moral framework for addressing the two great "war-conduct" issues: "proportionality," which requires the use of no more force than necessary to vindicate the just cause; and "discrimination," or what we today call "non-combatant immunity."

Under the moral pressures created by the threat of nuclear war, Catholic attention focused almost exclusively on "war-conduct" questions in the decades after World War II. This, in turn, led to what can only be described as an inversion of the just-war tradition: the claim, frequently encountered in both official and scholarly Catholic commentary today, that the just-war tradition "begins with a presumption against violence."

It does not. It did not begin with such a presumption historically, and it cannot begin with such a presumption theologically. For as one of America's most distinguished just-war theorists, James Turner Johnson has put it, to do this — to effectively reduce the tradition to "war-conduct" questions — is to put virtually the entire weight of the tradition on what are inevitably contingent judgments. This error, in turn, distorts our moral and political vision, as it did when it led many Catholic thinkers to conclude, in the 1980s, that nuclear weapons, not communist regimes, were the primary threat to peace — a conclusion falsified by history in 1989.

That just war-fighting must observe the moral principle of non-combatant immunity goes without saying. That this is the place to begin the moral analysis is theologically muddled and unlikely to lead to wise statecraft. If "war-conduct" judgments drive the analysis, the moral foundations are knocked out from under the entire edifice.

Pre-emption, Just War and the Defense of World Order

ZENIT: Much of the opposition against U.S. military action centers on worries about endorsing the concept of a pre-emptive strike. What does Catholic moral teaching have to say on this matter?

Weigel: As the classic just-war tradition evolved over the centuries, three situations satisfied the criteria of "just cause": defense against an aggression under way, recovery of something wrongfully taken, and/or punishment for evil.

Modern just-war thinking, which is reflected in articles 2 and 51 of the U.N. Charter, has tended to limit "just cause" to "defense against an aggression under way." But we should note that the idea of a moral obligation to "humanitarian intervention" in cases of genocide — of which Pope John Paul II spoke at the Rome-based U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization in 1992 — raises interesting questions about reviving the classic category of "punishment for evil."

In the case of Iraq, the crucial issue in the moral analysis is what we mean by an "aggression under way." When a vicious regime that has not hesitated to use chemical weapons against its own people and against a neighboring country, a regime that has no concept of the rule of law and that flagrantly violates its international obligations, works feverishly to obtain and deploy further weapons of mass destruction, I think a compelling moral case can be made that this is a matter of an "aggression under way."

The nature of the regime, which is the crucial factor in the analysis, makes that plain. It surely makes no moral sense to say that the U.S. or the international community can only respond with armed force when an Iraqi missile carrying a weapon of mass destruction has been launched, or is being readied for launch.

To be sure, there are serious questions of prudence to be addressed in thinking through the question of military action against the Iraqi regime. At the level of moral principle, however, it seems to me that there are, in fact, instances where it is not only right to "go first," but "going first" may even be morally obligatory. And I think this may well be one of those instances.

War is seen as increasingly unacceptable, in an age of weapons of mass destruction. Yet those in favor of action against Iraq argue that forceful action is necessary, precisely to eliminate this type of arms. Can we reconcile these fears of not wanting to spark off destructive conflict, while keeping undesirable regimes from using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons?

Weigel: President Bush's address at West Point this past June clearly linked the war against terrorism, and the possibility of military action against aggressor states with weapons of mass destruction, to the pursuit of world order: an order based on justice and freedom. This speech has not been taken seriously enough by the president's critics, in my view.

There is a great deal of concern, in Europe and elsewhere, about the precedent that would be set by overriding the "presumption of sovereign immunity" that all nation-states enjoy. I would respond that this presumption assumes that the state in question displays at least a minimum of agreement to minimal international norms of order.

A regime like Saddam Hussein's in Iraq cannot be granted that assumption — because its behavior has demonstrated that it holds the principles of international order in contempt. Some states, because of the regime's clearly aggressive intent and because there are no effective internal controls on the regime's behavior, simply cannot be permitted to acquire weapons of mass destruction.

Just-war thinking begins with a basic moral judgment: that legitimate public authorities have a moral obligation to defend and pursue the peace of order, which is composed of justice and freedom. History has shown that that kind of peace can be advanced, in certain precise circumstances, by the proportionate, discriminate and strategically wise use of armed force.

Many are calling for no action to be taken without U.N. approval. Up to what point is a nation obliged to submit to international authorities before commencing war?

Weigel: The question of "legitimate authority" — a classic just-war category — is a very urgent one today. The U.N. charter itself recognizes a right to national self-defense, which implies that defense against aggression does not require the authorization of the Security Council; it is, rather, an inalienable right of nations.

If the use of military force in a given case is intended, among other things, to advance the cause of world order, it certainly helps at the prudential political level if the use of force is approved by the Security Council. But I don't think a correct reading of the just-war tradition leads to the conclusion that such prior approval is morally imperative.

It has been said recently that a failure to obtain prior Security Council approval for a U.S. or coalition assault to disarm Iraq of weapons of mass destruction would mean that the "law of the strongest" was replacing international law. I respectfully disagree.

What it would mean is that the United States and allied countries, having made clear that they intend their action to advance the cause of world order to which the U.N. is dedicated, have decided that they have a moral obligation to take measures that the U.N., in its present form and cast of mind, finds it impossible to take — even though those measures are aimed at advancing the Charter's goals. And that, it seems to me, advances the cause of world order over the long haul.

Can we still speak of a "just war," or do we need to reformulate traditional principles? What would be some guidelines in any rethinking on this subject?

Weigel: The just-war tradition will always remain normative for the Church because it is rooted in the principles of natural law. What is needed today is a development of the tradition.

I've already mentioned the need to refine what we mean by "defense against aggression" — in a world of international terrorist organizations and rogue states — and "legitimate authority" — in a world in which nascent but often ineffective instruments of world order exist.

The just-war criterion of "last resort" also needs refinement: What, for example, does it mean to say that all non-military actions have been tried and failed when we are confronted with a new and lethal type of international actor, a terrorist organization that recognizes no form of power other than violence and that is largely immune to the diplomatic and economic pressures that can be put on states?




ZENIT is an International News Agency based in Rome whose mission is to provide objective and professional coverage of events, documents and issues emanating from or concerning the Catholic Church for a worldwide audience, especially the media.

Reprinted with permission from Zenit - News from Rome. All rights reserved.


George Weigel, a Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, is a Roman Catholic theologian and one of America's leading commentators on issues of religion and public life. Weigel is the author or editor of The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II – The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy, Against the Grain: Christianity and Democracy, War and Peace, Faith, Reason, and the War Against Jihadism: A Call to Action, God's Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the Future of the Catholic Church, The Cube and the Cathedral: Europe, America, and Politics Without God, Letters to a Young Catholic: The Art of Mentoring, The Courage to Be Catholic: Crisis, Reform, and the Future of the Church, and The Truth of Catholicism: Ten Controversies Explore.

George Weigel's major study of the life, thought, and action of Pope John Paul II, Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (Harper Collins, 1999) was published to international acclaim in 1999, and translated into French, Italian, Spanish, Polish, Portuguese, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Russian, and German. The 2001 documentary film based on the book won numerous prizes. George Weigel is a consultant on Vatican affairs for NBC News, and his weekly column, "The Catholic Difference," is syndicated to more than fifty newspapers around the United States.

Copyright © 2002 Zenit

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