State sovereignty is fragmenting but world government is still far off. Neither the UN charter, designed to protect member states from aggression, nor the new US doctrine of preventative war can address the challenges of a globalising world. The "just war" tradition provides a sounder moral baseby Robert Skidelsky / December 18, 2004 / Leave a comment
In recent years there has been a revival of war as a policy of choice. Since the collapse of communism, the US and its allies have attacked Iraq (twice), Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. With “hot war” released from its cold war constraints, it is important to consider the conditions under which resort to war is justifiable, and what methods of fighting wars are right. This is the domain of “just war” theory. There is also the related issue of how just war doctrine may be fruitfully applied by the UN, the main custodian of international law.
The return of war as a policy of choice overturns the post-second world war assumption, enshrined in the UN charter, which allowed only wars of self-defence and proscribed intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign states. This position – a reaction to the two world wars of the 20th century – was reinforced by the unique destructiveness of nuclear weapons. The threat of MAD (mutually assured destruction) prevented war between the two cold war superpowers, and made possible the semi-pacifism of Europe and Japan, sheltering under the nuclear umbrella. The utility as well as the morality of war was questioned. The conventional view was that superior firepower could not prevail against ideologically inspired guerrillas. After Vietnam, the US became reluctant to accept casualties.
None of this meant that warfare disappeared from the planet. Hot wars punctuated the cold war era. Some of these were extremely bloody. But their locus was in the unstable, postcolonial peripheries of the world system. In the imperial age, the great powers fought each other and kept peace in their colonies. After the second world war, the great powers lived in peace with each other, while some of their former possessions were engulfed by violence, largely as a result of decolonisation.The UN’s role was confined to the sporadic provision of unarmed peacekeepers, there on the sufferance of the warring factions.
Renunciation of war as a method of settling disputes between the “civilised” powers remains. But an attempt is now underway to pacify the disordered parts of the world, springing from a mixture of fear, self-interest and moralism. Yesterday’s peaceniks are transformed into today’s warriors.
Three changes have liberated war from its cold war constraints. The first and most obvious is the collapse of the Soviet Union, which left the US as sole…