Published on
24 March 2004

The Just War tradition: is it still relevant?

By: Sir Michael Quinlan


Sir Michael Quinlan was Permanent Under-Secretary, Department of Defence, 1988-1992 Seminar on 24 March 2004

My remit this evening is to talk about the Just War tradition of thinking, and whether or how we might apply it or adapt it to modern settings and problems.  It is customary to trace the tradition back to Augustine and then Aquinas, and in both their epochs the world was a different place from the one we live in now.  Partly for that reason, some people are disposed to regard the concepts of Just War analysis as of little more than antiquarian interest, of no possible use to our world of nuclear weapons, global interdependence, international terrorism and the like.  But dismissal in such a way misunderstands both the nature and the history of the tradition.

The progenitors and developers of the tradition began with the fact of war as a reality of the human condition.  That, surely, is still our situation today.  Perhaps most countries have learned some lessons, but the vision which the Pope voiced when he visited Britain in 1982 – “War should belong to the tragic past, to history’ – lies still in the field of aspiration, of distant hope and aim.

A second fact among those from which the tradition springs is that even amid the extremities of war it remains true, as in every other facet of human existence, that we can never cease to be morally accountable actors.  This means that we have to have some sort of ethic of war; and in practice almost every political society known to history has had one, even if it may not have been called that.

A third basic consideration is that wars kill people; and accordingly for any religious or philosophical system of thought that attaches distinctive importance to individual human life, the ethic has to be a highly-charged one, carrying a heavy load. And from that in turn flows another basic principle: that the moral evaluation of war cannot be purely utilitarian, concerned simply in an overall way with whether the net outcome of using lethal violence, regardless of why it is undertaken or how it is achieved, is by some pragmatic reckoning better than the outcome of not using it.

These starting considerations, put together, call for a careful ethic of war, an ethic capable of disciplining and explaining and justifying the killing of people without denying their individual value or treating them merely as means to ends.  And that, in essence, is what the Just War tradition of thinking is, and what it is about.

You will note that I speak of a tradition rather than a doctrine.  I do not greatly like the word “doctrine’ in this context, partly because it has faint overtones of something churchy, when in reality it does not rest on appeal either to special scriptures or to ecclesiastical authority; it is simply the product of hard effort by human intellect in reflection and dialogue over many centuries. And “doctrine’ may also sound like something fixed, whereas this corpus of thought has evolved and changed and grown; just for example, Aquinas identified three criteria for legitimate engagement in war, while the customary list nowadays has at least six.

One other point before I come to the current content of the tradition. As may readily be deduced from what I have just summarised, there is nothing in the approach that need be exclusive to Christianity, and there are bodies of ethical reasoning of much the same basic character alive in Judaism and in Islam, and indeed in secular humanism.  But as a matter of historical fact the Christian tradition is more extensive, more highly developed and more clearly defined than others, and it lies behind a good deal of the modern international law of war – there are elements of the Geneva Conventions that could almost have come straight from Aquinas.  So this tradition is, I believe, the best basis for approaching a general ethic of war , and the best framework for considering whether we need to develop our ethic further, or to modify aspects of it.

The tradition starts from recognition that killing or injuring other people is prima facie wrong, that war is therefore in itself a very bad thing, but that (as I believe Ralph Waldo Emerson once said) it is not always the worst thing – there may sometimes be public duties and responsibilities so important as to prevail over a general presumption against killing. The doctrine then sets out a range of criteria that must all be satisfied if war is to be ethically justified – all of them; this is an exam paper in which all the questions have to be tackled, and a pass overall cannot be awarded for satisfactory answers on just a majority of the questions. They fall into two groups. One concerns the morality of going to war – jus ad bellum.  The other concerns the morality of actions within war – jus in bello.

All the criteria will be familiar to most in this gathering; but to recapitulate briefly, there are six under jus ad bellum:-

  1. Just Cause.  We must have a proper reason for going to war – to protect the innocent, for example, or to restore rights wrongfully denied, or to re-establish just order.  Revenge or demonstrating our power cannot qualify.
  2. Proportionate Cause.  Besides being just, our cause must be grave enough to warrant the massive step of engaging in war, with all its certain or likely evils.  We must have a reasonable expectation that the outcome will entail enough good (over and above what might be achieved in any other way) to outweigh the inevitable pain and destruction of war.
  3. Right Intention.  Our aim must be to create a much better, more just, subsequent peace than there would have been if we had not gone to war.  Exterminating a hated adversary will not do.
  4. Right Authority.  The decision to go to war must be made by someone with proper authority to commit us to so grave a step.  Historically, this has usually meant the ruler or government of a sovereign state, as opposed to (say) an internal warlord or faction.  In the modern world new and complex questions arise about how far and in what circumstances authority higher than a single state, such as the United Nations, is required.
  5. Prospect of Success.  We must see a reasonable chance of succeeding in our just aim.  We must not take up arms if the likely result is simply death and suffering without making things materially better than they would otherwise have been.
  6. Last Resort.  We must not take up arms unless we have tried, or have good grounds for ruling out as ineffective, every other way of adequately securing our just aim.

There are two criteria under jus in bello :-

  1. Discrimination.  We must not, in our conduct of the war, deliberately attack the innocent. In this formulation “innocent’ means “not involved in harming us, or helping to harm us’ – it does not refer to personal moral culpability. And by “deliberate attack’ is meant attack in which the harm to the innocent is the direct aim of the attack, or essential to its achieving its purpose. This does not rule out attack which we foresee is likely or even certain as a by-product to harm the innocent, provided that we have done all that we reasonably can (consistently with the legitimate military purpose) to keep the harm to a minimum.
  2. Proportionality.  We must not take action in which the harm done is an unreasonably heavy human cost to incur for the likely military benefit – bombing a hospital complex, say, to make sure of knocking out a single tank which we believe to be parked somewhere inside.

All that remains an apt and robust frame of reference, the best checklist there is of the aspects that we ought to think about; and I see no ground for abandoning any of the criteria as having become obsolete or irrelevant. But disciplined pragmatism is one of the core elements of the tradition’s approach, and we have to use judgment in applying the criteria to specific situations – they are not tick-box tests that can be used mechanistically.  Today’s world is different in important respects from that of even a century ago; and what I seek to do now is to suggest some of the ways in which we may need to think afresh, or at least more clearly, about applying the criteria nowadays.

My first point comes under the heading of Just Cause.  In some respects the customary interpretation of this criterion has rightly grown narrower since pre-modern times – for instance, few people would now regard upholding the honour of the ruler as appropriate.  But in a different direction there has been movement towards widening; and it is movement we need to be careful about. I welcome the fact that the international community seems increasingly to recognise – even if only by way of widespread remorse about having done nothing to stop what happened in Rwanda in 1994 – that it should not stand aside from huge man-made human catastrophes. Now one of the diverse justifications put forward at one time or another for the war in Iraq (I shall try to avoid making this survey a tirade against that war – if you want that, see my piece in The Tablet of 13 March – but it is inescapably a vivid and demanding test-bed of many of the Just War concepts) was that Saddam was a tyrant who brutally oppressed his own people. Now that is true, and we must surely all be glad that he has gone from power. But though he had carried out mass killings in the 1980s and the start of the 1990s, and perhaps there should have been intervention then, he was not last year engaged upon, nor was there evidence of his being likely to resume, atrocities of that kind and scale. There is no customary international law, or consistent practice, that legitimates external intervention to remove regimes simply because they are internally nasty; perhaps there ought to be, but there is not .  And even if there were, it would surely not be acceptable that the decision on when and against whom and by what means to apply such a concept should be left to the say-so of effectively one or two distant powers, rather than of the United Nations or at least some significant, coherent and relevant subset of the international community.

If the 1999 Kosovo operation be cited, I note that that differed from the Iraq instance in at least four pertinent respects. It was directed to halting an immediate and manifest humanitarian outrage in full swing; it was not a regime-changing invasion; it was supported by the great majority of countries in the region, and by a wide international grouping of major countries, and effectively validated soon afterwards by the UN itself; and the UN Secretary-General, not long before, had publicly recognised that the Kosovo situation was a threat to international peace and security – it was thrusting huge numbers of destitute refuges out into neighbouring countries that had formidable ethnic and economic problems of their own already. I would be far from unsympathetic to a rather wider concept of intervention than we have now where human rights are being massively violated.  But such a concept would need to rest on proper international definitions and consistent procedures to provide legitimacy and to avoid the arbitrary use of military power and the setting of dangerous precedents. Kofi Annan has himself highlighted the development of ideas in this field as an urgent task, and has set up a special panel of wise men to explore it.

My next point bridges the criteria of just cause and proportionate cause; and it concerns the concept of pre-emptive war.  The new United States National Security Strategy published in autumn 2002 asserted a claim that in modern circumstances, with the threat of what are commonly called Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) alongside the phenomenon of international terrorists keen to inflict unlimited damage and careless of their own lives, this needed to be a readier and more salient option than in the past; and the attack on Iraq saw it placed high among the justifications put forward.

The idea of pre-emptive self-defence, even though it does entail striking someone who has not in fact attacked us, cannot be ruled out of court if there is a grave and concrete threat of high and imminent probability.  Just for example, many people, including me, would be minded to accept that Israel was entitled to strike first in the 1967 Six-Day War against neighbours who did not accept her existence and were plainly making menacing military preparations. I recognise, too, that alarming new possibilities could arise if WMD – with their power, at the extreme, to inflict enormous harm very abruptly – came into the hands of international terrorists.   But we still need to think lucidly and soberly about the idea of pre-emptive war (or, as it would sometimes be more accurate to call it, preventive or precautionary war) against a state.  First of all, in relation to a situation like that of Iraq, we need to ask ourselves why that well-established concept “deterrence’ cannot continue to work; the fact that a regime is nasty does not mean that it is lunatic.  And we have also to undertake an honest weighing of proportionate and comparative risk.  To take again the Iraq example, the probability that Saddam had a big operational armoury of WMD and that he would give some of it to terrorists and that they would succeed in delivering a terrible attack on the United States could not be shown to be absolutely zero; but human affairs cannot be run to a standard of mathematical certainty.  There was very little solid evidence to support such a combination of hypotheses, and its overall probability was markedly low even without post-war hindsight.  Against that, the likelihood was very high – there was indeed effective certainty – that a war initiated to remove or reduce that low risk would cost the lives of many thousands of people, mostly Iraqi military and civilians.   The coalition has not offered any figures for the human cost, but the two study -based estimates I have seen cited in respectable journals suggest totals in the range between eleven and sixteen thousand; and decision-making beforehand must have reckoned with possible outcomes of that order, especially where “weapons of mass destruction’ were believed to exist.  That is the other term in the risk balance, the risk comparison, which the concept of sufficient and proportionate cause asks us to consider. I question whether decision-makers in the White House and the Pentagon truly looked at the Iraq issue in such a way.

As we look back a little further, many people, myself again included, might now be less disposed now than the Security Council was in 1981 to condemn the preventive Israeli raid which in that year destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor; but that raid did not cost thousands of lives. To label a government a “rogue’ regime, even if justifiably, does not erase the rights of its subjects as human beings; and the duty of leaders to protect their people does not, I suggest, confer a right to inflict heavy and certain costs upon someone else’s people in order to seal off a very conjectural risk to their own.  In brief, despite the possibilities which WMD might conceivably present, we ought to continue to set the hurdle of proof for legitimate pre-emption very high indeed.

A few other comments about applying the concept of sufficient and proportionate force. The first, perhaps very obvious, is that the proportion at issue is between the evils of war and the evils it is intended to rectify or avoid; and we therefore need to be clear and honest about precisely what those latter evils are taken to be.  If they are a fearful and probable menace to millions of innocents, that is one thing; if they are unacceptable floutings of UN Security Council authority, that is another, of a rather different gravity and magnitude.

My next comment is about what exactly is the comparison we are to make in judging what benefit a war is likely to achieve. It is not between the situation before the war and the situation after it – the justice of World War II would probably fail that test – but between the likely situation after we have fought the war and the likely situation if we do not fight it.   Furthermore , the comparison is not between the effects of fighting the war and (as some advocates of the Iraq war seemed to assume ) the effects of doing nothing; it is between fighting the war and doing whatever would be the best we could contrive by other means. It was certainly not my view that nothing more should be done about Saddam

My remaining point under this heading is to note that the criterion of sufficient and proportionate cause certainly requires that there be a genuine expectation that the outcome will leave matters better overall than they would otherwise have been; and some might think that the jury is still out on aspects of that in respect of Iraq. But even if we are confident that things will have been made better by our war, that is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of overall justification.  As I noted earlier, the Just War ethic cannot be purely consequentialist, with ends justifying means; other criteria – deontological criteria, in philosopher-speak – still have to be satisfied.

I have two observations to offer under “Right Intention’.  First, this criterion is not the same as right motivation.  In most complex human enterprises a variety of motives can be found at work, and with war it is often the case that some of these, in isolation, would scarcely deserve general approval as respectable cause for war.  I have little doubt that that was true of some of the thinking in some parts of the Bush Administration and its entourage in respect of Iraq; and in a different way Mr. Blair may have been influenced by factors which he has not advertised. But it is entirely possible to do the right thing amid imperfect motivations. The point of “Right Intention’ concerns what kind of post-war situation we truly seek to achieve.  And my second observation about that is simply that the better situation we seek to create should be one that is reckoned in terms of all those affected, not merely our own constituents.  In fairness, I ought to make it clear that I do not regard the Iraq enterprise as necessarily failing against this criterion.

There is however a related point, highlighted by the Iraq experience, which I think worth noting alongside Right Intention.  That is the question of considering and handling the aftermath of war. As we are seeing in Iraq, winning military victory is only part of the story, especially for those who command overwhelming military power and therefore face no significant risk of defeat.  To their credit, the coalition partners so far seem determined to stick to the job of seeing the aftermath through; but it does seem to me evident (and it seemed so well before the event) that they had not thought hard and objectively enough and planned seriously enough about that aftermath before committing themselves to war – I suspect that ideology may have got in the way.  We need maybe another criterion, a sort of jus post bellum – a recognition of duty to make weighing up the later consequences realistically and preparing for them responsibly a systematic and important part of what the justice of war requires. (Perhaps I could note in parenthesis that in my view helping to make the best of an aftermath like that in Iraq is a moral as well as a political duty in some degree on the whole international community, whatever a country may think of the wisdom of the war and the culpability of those who bear the heaviest responsibility for its consequences.)

Now “Right Authority’. What this requires may depend on what is the prime “just cause’ established. If that prime cause is genuinely self-defence, then – as the UN Charter itself recognises – a sovereign state has the right to make its own decision.  But other causes, in the altered setting created in 1945 by the worldwide acceptance of the Charter, pose rather different requirements – above all, they raise the question of Security Council endorsement. The UN system has serious imperfections, notably in the working of the veto system in the Security Council, and I have some sympathy with those who maintain – as for instance over the Kosovo action, which did not have advance UN clearance – that we cannot make every action beyond self-defence absolutely conditional upon such clearance. But it is a long step from that to saying that any powerful nation is entitled to decide on its own what ought to be done.  And I shall not resist the temptation to add that it would be nothing short of bizarre to proceed without clear Security Council authority if the prime claimed justification for war is (as Mr. Blair has suggested in respect of Iraq) to uphold that authority. My general point, however, is that this is an area where the international community has work to do, and hard decisions to face about reform, if we truly want to put issues of military intervention on a solidly coherent and collective basis rather than an arbitrary unilateral one.  As I noted earlier, Kofi Annan has pointed to the need for new concepts and arrangements.

The next criterion in the list is Prospect of Success. There can be awkward issues here.  Quite apart from the complex difficulties posed by Cold-War nuclear deterrence, were the Finns wrong to fight against the Soviet Union in the 1939/40 Winter War? Surely not, even though they could not have expected to win  I come increasingly to think that this criterion does not really stand separately from that of proportionate cause; but to go into that properly would take up too much time now; we might explore it further in discussion if you wish.

A word on “Last Resort’. This is sometimes caricatured as though the criterion required us to work our way solemnly through trying out a long list of unrealistic options before we get to war.  But it simply means that we should go to war only if we honestly and reasonably judge that no lesser course will suffice.  Sometimes we ought to try other options before we reach that judgment, but that is not necessarily so. It certainly does not mean that we must always accept long delay.  As some aspects of experience amid the wreck of Yugoslavia showed, the effect of waiting too long can sometimes be that the situation has got into a far worse mess, with more lives lost and more force having eventually to be used, than if we had taken robust military action early on. Time is not always neutral, and options may become narrower, more costly, more precarious or dangerous. Or they may not – there can be no automatic presumption. We have to assess the pros and cons, the real probabilities and urgencies, in the particular circumstances.

I leave jus ad bellum there.  I shall not embark now upon an equally long survey of jus in bello – the criteria for what it is legitimate to do in war. But I offer one brief and one rather more extended observation.

The brief one concerns discrimination. Recent experiences – partly the 1991 Gulf War, but more markedly the 1999 Kosovo operation – raise testing questions about precisely what sorts of targets it is legitimate to strike.  Kosovo was not a conflict between armed forces, and largely as a result – since Serb forces were not compelled to come out to fight – classical military targets were in short supply. The aim however was to compel Milosevic to change his policy and his actions, and attacks on targets which made life uncomfortable for the civilian population that supported or at least tolerated him played a part in that.  This is an unfamiliar and in some ways uncomfortable idea; and it highlights the fact that we need to develop clearer concepts of what military force can properly seek to do when its objective is not to defeat enemy armed forces but to coerce a regime into behaving differently.  We might have found such concepts useful over Iraq, if Mr. Bush’s mind had been open to them.

My longer comment concerns proportionality.  During the Kosovo operation there was a massive inequality of operational risk between the two parties.  NATO did not suffer a single combat death during the two and a half months of conflict, since NATO aircraft could function in ways that made them almost immune from Serb defences.  One or two commentators found this somehow rather unseemly, almost unfair. But war is not a game in which one ought to give the other side a sporting chance.  If a commander can so arrange matters that the purpose of his operation is legitimately achieved without risk to his own side, it is not merely his right but his duty to do so.  But questions do arise if keeping the risk to one’s own side very low means pushing the risk to non-combatants on the other side substantially higher than it would otherwise be.  I do not say that that was the case in Kosovo; but I suspect that it may sometimes have been so in Iraq either during or since the main conflict in situations where coalition forces – above all American ones – have had to deal with uncertainty.  That unidentified vehicle coming towards me may contain enemy troops or a suicide bomber, or it may contain frightened and disoriented civilians. I have to decide very quickly: do I take it out before it gets any nearer, or do I accept some risk in order to know more? These are hard dilemmas, especially under stress, and there can be no reach-me-down answer; but a real judgment of comparative probabilities and costs has to be made, whether explicitly or by inescapable implication.  There is a responsibility – and one that ought perhaps to weigh particularly upon those who enjoy military superiority, whether by technology or otherwise – to recognise and accept a degree of proportionality in risk. The logical structure of this point is analogous to that which I outlined earlier about pre-emptive or preventive war itself. I suggest that one is not entitled to place the duty of protecting one’s own – a real and important duty, I know – so absolutely above all other concerns that in ambiguous situations one loads all the risk onto other people.

I have one final point, and it goes back in a sense to the criterion of right authority. We normally think of that in an external dimension – who, within the international arena, is entitled to decide on war? But I wonder whether there is not, at least in democracies, something of an internal dimension also – a duty not to lead a country into war without a clear, candid and consistent account, substantially acceptable to the people, of precisely why we are going to war.  I recall, from my days as a young civil servant, that the United Kingdom government of the day plainly and culpably failed in that regard over the Suez adventure in 1956. It is, I venture to think, open to debate whether the need was universally satisfied in respect of the remarkable step of voluntarily starting a war in Iraq last year. At least in Britain, but I suspect also elsewhere, we were told rather different stories at different times.

It is time for me to finish. In summary, we cannot count on arranging the world in future entirely without war, for all that we must do everything we can to get nearer to that goal.  Meanwhile, however, there is all the more need to keep war under ethical scrutiny and discipline. The classical framework of Just War thinking remains the best and most robust analytical tool for that purpose; but several features of the modern world require us to think especially carefully and clearly, and to some extent in fresh ways, about how we should bring that framework to bear. The community of those who, like this gathering, care about and think about such matters has still a significant agenda to engage our attention and to test our wisdom.