Just War Thinking as a Social Practice

| February 14, 2013

The abstract for the International Studies Association panel that gave rise to this special section of Ethics & International Affairs referred to the “triumph” of just war theory. However, I think we ought rather to speak of just war discourse as occupying a particular niche. This is especially so with respect to discussions about policy: when and where governments should make use of military force, what type, and so on. In that context, appeals to the criteria of jus ad bellum and jus in bello complement (or sometimes compete with) thinking that draws on international law, various strategic doctrines (for example, counterinsurgency warfare, or COIN), notions of reciprocity between states, and a host of other considerations. The notion of “triumph” claims too much. At the same time, for advocates of the just war framework, the kind of recognition indicated by presidential and other official mentions of the idea is worthy of note. Some of these are due to constituency politics—that is, to the idea that “institutional” advocates of just war (say, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) may influence blocs of voters. Other invocations are better interpreted as a recognition that the vocabulary of just war can serve (along with other ways of speaking) in the attempt to craft wise policy.

Given the niche occupied by just war thinking in contemporary policy discourse, it is worth asking (or perhaps, re-asking) several basic questions about the just war vocabulary. What purposes does it (or can it) serve? What is the nature of its authority? How does or ought just war thinking proceed? Or, to put it another way, how does one recognize “good” just war thinking? In this article I present a view of just war thinking as a social practice, arguing that (1) of the several purposes just war thinking serves, political wisdom has pride of place; (2) the authority of the just war framework rests in its ability to illumine policy; and (3) good just war thinking involves continuous and complete deliberation, in the sense that one attends to all the standard criteria at war’s inception, at its end, and throughout the course of conflict. By way of illustration I review some of the contributions (and failures) of just war argument with respect to NATO’s post-9/11 effort in Afghanistan.

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Category: Article, Issue 27.1, Special Section: Just War and Its Critics, The Ethics of War and Peace

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