Neither Robert Skidelsky's revival of just war theory nor the latest plan for the UN solve the intervention riddleby Anthony Dworkin / January 16, 2005 / Leave a comment
For more than a decade, the question of intervention has been the most important issue in international politics. When if ever is it right to attack a state that has not itself attacked another state? And is the explicit authorisation of the UN security council essential before such an attack can be legitimate? Since the US carved out a safe area for the Kurds in northern Iraq in April 1991, theory and practice have shadowed each other through actions taken and not taken in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan and most recently Iraq again and Sudan.
Armed intervention in such circumstances is controversial – as Robert Skidelsky wrote in last month’s Prospect – because it is seen as a departure from the ground rules of the international system as envisioned in the UN charter. Skidelsky says that the UN system does not provide an adequate framework for assessing when intervention is appropriate in today’s world, and proposes that we supplement it with guidelines drawn from the venerable tradition of just war theory.
Of course, it is desirable for any country that is about to attack another to ask itself whether recourse to war is truly justified. But when has anyone set out to make the case for an unjust war? All wars fought by modern liberal states (and not only by them) are represented by their advocates as morally justified. Skidelsky makes a plausible case that the Iraq war failed to meet the just war threshold, but there were also some just war theorists on the other side. The neoconservative Catholic Michael Novak was so persuaded that an attack on Iraq was justified that he tried to win over the Pope.
Just war theory is, in Skidelsky’s words, “an invitation to moral argument.” It can set the framework for debate within a political community about the legitimacy of going to war, but it is too malleable to provide a stable foundation for international order without an arbitrating institution to decide on the merits of competing claims. It was this desire to remove decisions about the legitimacy of the use of force from national governments that lay behind the design of the UN system. Under international law, the “legitimate authority” to declare war has passed from states to the UN security council. Since legitimate authority is an essential criterion of just…