The Alternatives to War: From Sanctions to Nonviolence, with James Pattison

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Detail from book cover.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: Hello. You’re listening to the Ethics & International Affairs author interview series sponsored by the Carnegie Council.

My name is John Krzyzaniak. I’m associate editor here at the journal, and joining me over the phone today is James Pattison, who is professor of politics at the University of Manchester. His most recent book is titled The Alternatives to War: From Sanctions to Nonviolence, and he also organized a roundtable that appears in the Fall 2018 issue of the journal that delves further into the theme of alternatives to war, so that is the topic of our conversation today.

James, thanks for joining me.

JAMES PATTISON: Thank you very much for inviting me to speak today.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: Your book is called The Alternatives to War: From Sanctions to Nonviolence. We get two alternatives right there in the title. What are some others?

JAMES PATTISON: There are lots. I tried to group them into seven different sets. There are economic sanctions, which covers targeted sanctions, comprehensive sanctions; nonviolence, you already mentioned, which covers civilian peacekeeping and civilian defense. Then there are five other sets of measures.

I put arms embargoes as different to economic sanctions as primarily a form of military sanction. Then there are various diplomatic means. We can think about the cutting of diplomatic ties, diplomatic criticism, denial of membership in an international or regional body, dialogue, and mediation.

There are also positive incentives. We can have economic incentives or political incentives such as recognition or amnesties.

Various forms of military assistance is another set of measures, so we might think about trying to assist states or rebel groups rather than fighting wars directly.

Then there is a final set that I call secondary measures. These include things such as international criminal prosecutions or accepting refugees, and humanitarian assistance.

This final set differs from the other measures in the fact that they’re not about trying to address primarily the situation at hand, but they’re doing so secondarily, so the main aim might be, say, to prosecute international criminals, but then the secondary effect might to address the crisis at hand, say, mass atrocities or serious external aggression.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: So it’s a pretty big toolbox that states have as an alternative to war instead of addressing a situation through war.

When you think about all these various alternatives, how do you approach them ethically? What framework do you use to evaluate them when you’re first coming at them?

JAMES PATTISON: One thing before you get to that. I’d say one of the aims of the book is actually to show that there are a lot more measures to undertake rather than simply sanctions or military intervention or doing nothing. What I’m trying to show is there is a lot that can be done here.

The way of assessing them is quite tricky because you can see there are so many different measures. Most simply, there are two basic questions, and these are firstly, is it better to launch the measure rather than not launching it? This is fairly similar to a standard test in just war theory that’s called proportionality. Is it better to undertake, for instance, economic sanctions rather than not undertaking economic sanctions? It’s a fairly basic test.

Another simple test, similar to the just war requirement, is necessity ad bellum. This says, is it better to launch the measure rather than to undertake another measure instead? For instance, is it better to undertake economic sanctions rather than, say, various diplomatic measures?

That’s the basic way of thinking about each of the individual measures. But more specifically I outline what I call a “pragmatic” approach, and this pragmatic approach is pragmatic in two major senses. First of all, it’s trying to address the real world, so it’s not one of these moral approaches that are very much idealized and concerned with abstract scenarios. It’s down to the nitty-gritty with the empirics of the situation.

Second, and related to that, it’s instrumentalist, so it gives significant value to consequentialist concerns in thinking about what should be done. For me, effectiveness is a primary consideration when assessing each of these measures.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: You mentioned that your approach is trying to be very pragmatic. Do you think of your book and this project as useful for policymakers? Is it supposed to be a handbook that somebody could pick up and if they were considering a certain policy that they could consult?

JAMES PATTISON: Yes. I think it is. What I try to do in the book, as I already said, is to show policymakers that there is a lot more that can be done. The guidance is quite straightforward. For instance, I try to lay my cards on the table on which measures I think are good and which measures I think aren’t good. For policymakers thinking about various measures, they can get a good understanding of the general reasons for and against particular measures.

I also think that these questions are increasingly important for policymakers because for various reasons it seems unlikely that states are going to go to war as much as they have done previously. But if they’re still going to pursue their foreign policy agenda, they’re going to need to think about how else they’re going to do them, and I think looking to these alternatives will be increasingly what states do.

To some extent we’ve already seen this in the early days of the Trump administration. We’ve seen some of the major issues that have arisen out of the Trump administration concern the alternatives to war. There are economic sanctions on Iran, the diplomatic negotiations and incentives offered to North Korea to disarm, the alleged election interfering by Russia, I should add, and so on.

I think these questions are increasingly pertinent for policymakers, and what the book tries to do is offer a moral map of the main alternatives and thinking through the considerations for each one.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: Which one was the most difficult for you to untangle?

JAMES PATTISON: That’s a tricky question. I think it was probably economic sanctions, and the reason why is because there are so many different forms of economic sanctions, and each sanctions regime varies in huge degrees in how focused it is and the number of states involved in it. It’s very hard to provide a general assessment of economic sanctions.

It’s also difficult because the existing accounts of economic sanctions in the social science literature are mired in huge methodological debates about the effectiveness of sanctions, and they’ve got various different understandings of how sanctions should be measured, and there’s no clear consensus on how we should do so. It raised tricky methodological issues about trying to provide a general sense of whether sanctions are effective or not.

In addition to that, there are also complex philosophical issues, for instance, around whether sanctions are problematic because they intend harm, or sanctions are problematic because they instrumentalize those subject to them. I’ll try to explain what I mean here.

Sometimes it’s said that sanctions are problematic because they are launched against the target population, and the sender aims to cause suffering for the population, intends to cause suffering for the population, which then puts pressure on the target state to change its policy. Here the objection is that by doing so the sender, the state that is engaging the sanctions regime, is problematic because it’s intending harm against innocents, and perhaps even worse it’s instrumentalizing the population, so it’s using them as a means to an end.

But it’s not actually that clear whether sanctions should be objected to for these reasons. It raises philosophical issues, for instance, about the roles of intentions versus motive. Suppose that a sanctions regime does do this but actually is trying to address human rights abuses, and the reason why the state, say, the United States, is engaged in the sanctions regime is for good human rights reasons. Should that mean that we’d be concerned about the sanctioning state, the very intentions of them, if their motives are good?

Or suppose that the sanctions don’t actually instrumentalize the suffering of the population, so suppose, for instance, that it doesn’t seem like they’re using them as a means because there’s no other real option to achieve the desired end. Does that mean that we should object to them for instrumentalization?

So sanctions, I think, raise the most tricky issues probably out of all of the potential measures.


I want to talk about diplomacy. You have a chapter in your book on diplomacy as an alternative to war. That struck me because I thought of, I think it was Clausewitz who famously said, “War is the continuation of politics by other means.”

In your book you’re treating diplomacy as an alternative war. You’re flipping that maxim on its head a little bit. What can we learn by treating diplomacy as an alternative to war rather than vice versa?

JAMES PATTISON: I’ve never been completely convinced by Clausewitz on this. I think it is plausible to think of diplomacy as separate and different to war, and it raises lots of interesting issues.

One that comes up quite a lot in the book is the question of hypocrisy. Is it wrong for states to criticize others for, say, their human rights record, when they’ve got a problematic human rights record themselves? We might think so, that it is to some degree wrong. What are the implications of this? Does this mean that the state should not criticize others?

For instance, in the past the United States—not under the Trump administration but previously—has been extremely critical of Russian human rights, and so has the United Kingdom. In response, Russia issued a very long report documenting all the human rights abuses in the United States. Does that mean it’s wrong for the United States to criticize Russia despite some of the human rights problems and the various problems the United States faces?

My own view is that it’s not. I think countries still should take a line despite the apparent hypocrisy in diplomacy here. Those states should still criticize and name and shame others even if they’re engaged in human rights abuses themselves because it’s important to try to uphold human rights norms and try to address the human rights abuses or mass atrocities and serious external aggression.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: You mentioned North Korea earlier. That is a very interesting real-world case. I would say it’s a case of positive incentives. Donald Trump met with Kim Jong-un in Singapore, and this I would argue gave Kim a level of status and legitimacy by having a chance to meet face to face with a U.S. president. Then Trump also followed up the meeting with a lot of praise and compliments for Kim. How would you think about this issue from an ethical standpoint?

JAMES PATTISON: This is very interesting because before the summit I was very much in favor of positive incentives as a potential way of addressing the situation. There have been a couple of mentions, but it hasn’t really been mentioned in the public debate. The fact that a summit was offered, and this seemed like it offered the carrot for the North Korean leadership to start seriously a denuclearization program I think is a beneficial thing.

There are various worries I’m sure that have been very well documented about the way that the actual summit was conducted. The worries in particular are that they unnecessarily gave the North Korean leadership far more legitimacy and praise than they actually deserve, and this weakens the future incentives and carrots that might be offered to the North Korean leadership in order to get it to stick to its denuclearization program.

One of the worries with incentives is that you need to get the receivers of the incentives to stick to what to they’ve agreed to do. This is a worry that has happened in the past with North Korea because it has been offered positive incentives in the past but then backtracked on the agreement, although according to various reports part of the fault lay with the United States because it didn’t actually properly deliver on what was agreed.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: What about the moral hazard issue with positive incentives because some might look at the summit with Kim and Trump and say, “Well, that’s a pretty good blueprint for other states who want to build a nuclear weapon and then basically wriggle their way out of giving up their nuclear weapons and get rewarded for it.”

JAMES PATTISON: Yes. There is a real worry here. The concern is that states might engage in very problematic behavior in order to gain a future benefit. They might do something similar to the way North Korea has behaved in order to have a fantastic, world-attention-grabbing summit with Trump or whichever future leader.

The worry for incentives is real, but I’m not sure it should mean that we shouldn’t still go ahead with them because sometimes states won’t be motivated by these sorts of reasons. There are lots of reasons why states engage in problematic behavior, and I don’t think it’s clear that they necessarily will do so simply to gain such a benefit.

In addition, even if there is this moral hazard effect that you might encourage a few other states to engage in this sort of problematic behavior, if the overall effect is to decrease the amount of nuclear weapons or to decrease the number or wars or decrease the instances of mass atrocities by having incentives regimes, that generally means that leaders negotiate and deal with situations peaceably rather than conflictually, I think this should be welcomed even if there might be occasional moral hazard whereby what happens is by a roundabout way leaders get a benefit that they don’t really deserve.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: In your essay that appears in the Fall issue of the journal, you write about a specific type of positive incentive, namely covert positive incentives, backdoor positive incentives or behind the scenes. You also come down in favor of this particular option as well. Could you briefly walk us through your reasoning on that?

JAMES PATTISON: Yes, thank you. My thoughts here are this: There is a generally good case for positive incentives. I think they’re beneficial because they’re non-coercive, and they can be sometimes effective despite the fact that they aren’t often considered when thinking about the ethics of foreign policy.

But there’s a problem that they face, and the problem is that they can be unpopular with domestic constituents. Domestic constituents, it seems, don’t like to give potential benefit to those who seemingly don’t deserve it, leaders who have engaged in very morally problematic behavior. It seems wrong to give them the benefits, recognition or financial benefit even, and this can make it difficult for the sender state, so the state that is offering the incentive, to be able to do so in the face of being domestically unpopular.

This is something that positive incentives have run into in the past. For instance, in the 1970s the U.S. Congress blocked attempts to offer positive incentives to the USSR to try to modify some of its behavior.

Offering covert incentives is a way around this. You can offer them covertly, out of the gaze of public opinion of your state. This on the face of it seems like a potentially beneficial option as a way of avoiding the worries about it being blocked, but there are issues. The most obvious one is, of course, the fact that it seems undemocratic.

The worry here is that the domestic population should, the argument goes or the objection goes, have some sort of control or some say over the foreign policy of its state and by offering the incentives covertly it goes against the requirements of being open and transparent and ultimately democratic.

I don’t think this objection is fatal because I think we can make a plausible distinction between two forms of secretive action. Here I think about other areas where there are foreign policy secrets. We can think about the way that secret forces work, secret services work.

Here there’s a distinction between first-order and second-order secrecy. First-order secrecy concerns secrecy about whether a particular individual is going to be offered an incentive, say, Assad or Kim Jong-un. Second-order secrecy is broader than this, and it concerns whether there will be just a general policy of offering covert incentives.

I think the public might be far more amenable to second-order secrecy about incentives. I think their route could be general public support for second order, for the notion that there’s a policy that if incentives work, they can be offered covertly.

Even if I’m wrong about this and the public doesn’t in fact support such a policy—there’s a little bit of data on this but not much—I still think that occasionally covert positive incentives can be morally justified despite the fact that they might seem to be undemocratic, and this is because they’ll do more good than harm and because unlike the covert use of force, which raises lots of highly problematic ethical issues, the use of covert incentives isn’t anywhere near as problematic because ultimately it’s non-coercive, it’s non-military, and the sorts of wrongs that you get with covert positive incentives aren’t that serious.

They concern giving someone a benefit that they don’t deserve. They’re giving Assad a benefit that he doesn’t deserve or Kim Jong-un a benefit that he doesn’t deserve rather than with covert force wrongfully harming hundreds and potentially thousands of innocent civilians, say, with a bombing campaign.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: Last question. We haven’t talked that much about just war theory or the just war tradition yet. For the just war nerds out there, there is a requirement or criterion in the just war tradition called “last resort.” That says that war is only morally permissible as a last resort after other more peaceful alternatives have been exhausted.

We’ve just spent the last roughly 30 minutes talking about these different alternatives that could come before or as an alternative to war. By showing us all these alternatives and bringing them into the conversation, are you suggesting that we should all be pacifists and that war is not something we should ever get to?

JAMES PATTISON: In short, no. I’ll put my cards on the table; I’m not a pacifist. I think that pacifism is wrong because some wars still can be morally justified, and in the book I speak about three in particular that come to mind: the 1999 intervention in Kosovo, the 2011 intervention in Libya, and more recently the [2014] intervention to protect the Yazidis. Those are three instances that clearly come to mind where I think recent wars are justified despite the assessment of the alternatives.

However, I do think that considering the alternatives seriously does give more grist to the pacifist mill. It makes the general sense that there’s more that can be done in response to serious external aggression and mass atrocities than simply war or doing nothing.

This raises the bar for wars to be justified because it’s not simply when thinking whether to go war or not whether it’s going to be simply economic sanctions might be better but whether all of the various options I explored might be better than going to war. In the book I argue that often they will be better than going to war. There’s a lot more going for them than we often appreciate.

This does raise the bar for when wars will still be justified. To some extent that augments the general point that pacifists are trying to make, but I think pacifism is ultimately incorrect on its views about whether wars are, all things considered, justifiable or not because I still think there are some wars that are justified.

One little bit more about that. Pacifism is a very broad church in itself, and there are some pacifists who I don’t think are fully-fledged real pacifists in a way, so in the book I distinguish between what I call the “hard rejection” of war and the “soft rejection” of war.

The soft rejection of war is the notion that we should generally try to avoid wars; war is problematic for lots of different reasons, although occasional wars might still be justified if there is no other alternative. That soft rejection of war I think is essentially very similar to just war theory. Where that ends and just war theory starts, I’m unclear. I don’t think that’s a coherent pacifist position that sufficiently distinguishes itself from just war theory.

Instead, I think to be a fully-fledged pacifist you need to be a hard pacifist and committed to the idea that wars are wrong. That might be always at all times, and that would be an absolute pacifist, or it might be that wars in the current feasible circumstances are always wrong, and that would be a contingent pacifist.

I reject in particular the hard forms of pacifism that says that wars are always wrong, and I’m more amenable to the softer form of pacifism because it says that we should generally be opposed to wars because there is lots that we can do instead, but as I said I don’t think that’s an analytically useful category, that form of pacifism. But I think if you’re going to be pacifist, you need to be a hard pacifist, and that form of pacifism is unpersuasive even if the book does generally lend some support for the pacifist project.

JOHN KRZYZANIAK: That’s great. Thanks so much, James. That was James Pattison, author of the book The Alternatives to War: From Sanctions to Nonviolence, and he’s also author of the essay titled “Covert Positive Incentives as an Alternative to War,” which appeared in the Fall 2018 issue of the journal.

You can find that essay and much more on our website,, and we also invite you to follow us on Twitter @eiajournal. Thanks very much for listening.

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Category: Interview, Podcast, The Ethics of War and Peace

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