The Broken Tradition

The Broken Tradition

Mini Teaser: In the ongoing argument between foreign policy realists andidealists, the just-war tradition of moral reasoning about the use offorce has played a crucial mediating role for centuries.

by Author(s): James Turner Johnson

Giving his own weight to this new emphasis, Pope John XXIII, in the
Pacem in Terris encyclical of 1963, called for the banning of nuclear
weapons, a general reduction of other arms, and the development of an
international regime based on common consent that would resolve
disputes short of war. In a widely discussed passage he wrote:

"[I]n this age which boasts of its atomic power, it no longer makes
sense to maintain that war is a fit instrument with which to repair
the violation of justice."

Catholic pacifists of our day have argued that this statement not
only condemned all war in the nuclear age, but rejected just-war
theory as well. By contrast, Protestant theologian Paul Ramsey
understood John XXIII as working within the just-war framework, but
ruling out two of the three classical just causes for resort to
force--recovery of something wrongly taken and punishment of
evil--while leaving only defense as justified. Even if Ramsey's less
radical interpretation is correct, much has been given up in this
statement for, after all, to repair the violation of justice was
precisely what classic just-war doctrine was about.

As these examples show, twenty years into the nuclear age it was
clear that Catholic (and not only Catholic) thought on just war had
shifted focus to a concern that the first resort to force under any
circumstances held great potential for injustice and that,
accordingly, such resort must be avoided. The defensive use of arms
remained a moral possibility, although an increasingly questioned
one. In Pope Paul VI's 1965 address to the United Nations General
Assembly, this evolving line of reasoning about just war reached for
a new resolution. While issuing the ringing challenge, "[N]ever again
war, war never again!", Paul also admitted that so long as man
remains "weak, changeable, and wicked", "defensive arms will, alas!
be necessary." But he stopped short of explicitly saying that it is
morally allowable to use such arms. In the context of prevailing Cold
War strategies, this statement suggested support for deterrence but
not for active defense should deterrence fail. Hence, his point was
to draw a double distinction: between the possession of offensive
arms, which he regarded as morally evil, and defensive ones, whose
possession he permitted; and between the possession of and use of the

It was no great distance from these distinctions to what amounted to
a position of nearly unconditional pacifism--the basic rejection of
just-war logic altogether with the new understanding that, for
Catholics at least, religion mandates a "presumption against war."
The logic of the paradigm was spelled out vividly in the 1983
pastoral letter of the American Catholic bishops, The Challenge of
Peace. Its starting point is not the problem of preventing injustice,
but its insistence that:

"Catholic teaching begins in every case with a presumption against
war and for peaceful settlement of disputes. In exceptional cases,
determined by the moral principles of the just-war tradition, some
uses of force are permitted." [emphasis added]

The definition of exceptional cases is suggested by two statements
that follow the above. The first defines self-defense against
aggression as a right and duty of every nation, and the second
rejects offensive war as morally unjustifiable whatever the
circumstances. Later, in the text of the letter itself, these themes
are elaborated and linked to earlier Catholic tradition, as well as
to the effort in international law to outlaw wars of aggression and,
ultimately, to eliminate war altogether by international common
consent. The right to resort to force, however, as defined in the
bishops' letter, is more stringent than that understood in
international law because it imposes further limitations: that resort
to force must be subject to prudential tests, including the
requirements of last resort, probability of success, and overall

Defined thusly, the implication of the presumption against war is to
push just-war theory close to outright rejection of any resort to
force. While The Challenge of Peace focused specifically on nuclear
weapons, it clearly nurtured the more general inclination that, in
the present age, the use of any military force is morally
questionable because it could escalate into nuclear force. Hence, the
words of John XXIII--that in the present age war may no longer be
employed to remedy the violation of justice--and hence the trajectory
of recent Catholic teaching on war, which seems to leave no doubt
that the intent is to avoid all resort to force.

The idea that just-war tradition is rooted in a "presumption against
war" is clearly an innovation; the question is whether it is a
justified innovation. I think not. Indeed, this sort of thinking
should be a cause for concern not only to Catholics, but to anyone
who believes that moral reasoning has a place in the affairsof
statecraft. This is so for two reasons: first, because "presumption
against war" thinking effectively destroys the logic of just-war
theory by putting jus in bello above jus ad bellum, and by putting
lesser, prudential considerations within jus ad bellum above major
ones; and, second, because the assumptions about the nature of war on
which it is based are flawed.

The Logical Problem

From the perspective of pure moral argument, the problem with the
"presumption against war" idea is not only that it is radically at
odds with the classical idea of just war, but that the nature of the
judgment upon which the claim is made is inadequate. Rather than
flowing from a deontological moral principle (a "categorical
imperative", as Kant put it), the "presumption against war" is a
product of prudential judgments about the nature of modern war.

The problem with prudential judgments such as those incorporated into
the presumption against war logic is not only that they are
prudential, but that they are contingent. In other words, they are
not based on an unchangeable moral principle, but on a condition in
the world that is not only subject to change but fated to change.
Pure moral reasoning about justice and injustice lives in the realm
of absolutes, of deontological reasoning: One obeys a moral principle
not because of the consequences of obeying it, but because it is
right. Moral judgments--applied moral reasoning--obviously must
assess contingent conditions, but such judgments must not be guided
by them. It is precisely for this reason that medieval and early
modern just-war theory placed responsibility for the four lesser
prudential concerns included in jus ad bellum--that it produce a
preponderance of good over evil, have a reasonable chance of success,
be a last resort, and that its expected outcome be peace--on the
competent authority who determines whether to resort to armed force.

In other words, these lesser but still very important concerns
pertain to the function of statecraft, not moral analysis. The role
of the moralist is to insist on the application of the three
essential, non-contingent elements of jus ad bellum--just cause,
competent authority, right intention--and to specify that the
prudential elements be taken into account. But the moralist is not to
usurp the role of statecraft by specifying how they are to apply or
what they mean for specific instances or periods of time. The
"presumption against war" view, by reversing the weight of essential
and contingent considerations, would vitiate statecraft and presume
to tell sovereigns how to conduct their affairs--a most worldly and
untraditional presumption at that. From the perspective of moral
reasoning, too, it gives pride of place to judgments about contingent
conditions over obligations inherent in moral duty.

The Practical Problem

To the extent that it is taken seriously, "presumption against war"
thinking also has clear implications for the shape of public policy
on the use of force. For if war is always presumptively wrong, the
moral frame for policy debate over the use of force is reduced to the
arena of those very limited exceptional circumstances that may
override this presumption. What the 1983 pastoral letter meant for
policy on nuclear weapons, relating both to deterrence and to
possible use, was well-examined at the time the letter appeared: It
was, politically, an attempt to advance the campaign for a nuclear
freeze, and it was justified largely on the basis of the claim that
neither the demands of discrimination nor proportionality could
possibly be met in any use of nuclear weapons.

One can still argue such matters today, for the chances of a major
nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia (or China) are
not completely nil. But in the contemporary environment, policy
questions relating to very different forms of the national use of
force and occasions for such use are at center stage. The types of
forces involved are different, the justifications entered into debate
are different, and the authority for employment of force is
different. The key issues now relate to conventional, not nuclear
arms; they involve low-intensity conflict and various forms of
interventionary uses of military force, not superpower deterrence or
war; the goals served are often defined by broadly held international
values, not national interests narrowly construed; and the question
of the rightness of the use of force encompasses not only cases in
which unilateral action by the United States is at issue, but also
cases in which the United States is a participant in groups of
nations ranging from ad hoc coalitions (such as that against Iraq in
the Gulf War), to regional alliances (like NATO or the OAS), to the
United Nations.

Essay Types: Book Review