By Susan Gluss
A new book by Professor Christopher Kutz examines the moral rationale democracies often cite to wage war. Its genesis emerged as the United States sank into the quicksand of battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. These seemingly endless wars troubled Kutz, as did the idea of a democracy so willing to fight by any means necessary.
On War and Democracy, newly published by Princeton University Press, mirrors Kutz’s enduring interest in democratic politics and collective responsibility. He teaches courses on moral and legal philosophy and has particular interest in the foundations of criminal, international and constitutional law.
This interview is based on his written answers to a series of questions, edited for the Web.
Q: When did you first frame the ideas for the book?
A: I began writing it after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, starting with the chapter on non-uniformed combatants. The combination of the U.S. treatment of captured Taliban and al Qaeda fighters as “illegal combatants,” and photos of U.S. special operations forces fighting out of uniform, made me realize that this war was going to depart very radically from the Geneva Conventions.
I wanted to explore what the military calls “asymmetric conflict”—or wars between forces of unequal power, not standing armies. The descent of the U.S. into a policy of torture, and its legally questionable invasion of Iraq, gave further urgency to my interests.
Q: What were the key issues that perplexed you about democracy and war? What were you trying to resolve in your own mind by tackling this topic?
A: I was struck by two puzzles:
First, democracy is seen as a solution to revolution, but it’s also seen as a solution to war. In the 1980’s and 90’s, the observation that democracies rarely go to war with each other became a mainstay of conventional thought and foreign policies. And yet, democratic politics could obviously be very belligerent—witness the U.S. march into Iraq in 2003, a war that most of the rest of the world could see was irrational.
So, my first puzzle was: What makes democracy, especially the American version at the time of my writing, so liable to war, as a philosophical and ideological matter?
Second, the limited restraints of the laws and ethics of war, exemplified by the Geneva Conventions, rest on an assumption that domestic politics don’t matter. The restraints apply to sinners and saints alike. But U.S. and NATO military power is so dominant, there’s no real risk of broad retaliation if we don’t observe the rules. And many politicians and academics have come to see non-democratic states as having no rights or privileges in war.
So, my second puzzle was: What new foundations, from within democratic thought, can we find for the vital task of limiting war’s violence?
Q: Historically, typical justifications for war included state sovereignty, dispute resolution, and national interest. How do these differ from justifications U.S. leaders invoke to wage war today?
A: National interest is a pretty all-encompassing standard, while abstract concerns about state sovereignty have largely faded away—mainly due to democratic theory, which says that a non-democratic state has no legitimate claim.
“One of the chestnuts of war studies is that our ethical conventions are only good for the last war, not the next one.”
Perhaps the last gasp of sovereignty as a justification for war was the assertion that the First Iraq War was necessary to protect Kuwait. Of course, there were lots of U.S. and regional security arguments for that war, as well. Today, in all the debates about what to do about Syria, no one outside Assad’s government seems to think there is any significant legal or moral constraint against outsiders directly arming rebel groups.
Q: Can our democratic values actually undermine the goal of ending warfare?
A: I think democratic values can be risky in two principal ways:
First, one lesson of America’s torturous Guantanamo debacle, and the expansion of our drone-killing program, is that by and large, military lawyers and leaders were substantially more resistant to using torture and “enhanced interrogation” than civilian leaders. The pressure to use torture came from the civilian and CIA side.
Although civilian control of the military is essential to a democracy, I think military culture is in many ways more favorable to protecting codes of ethics and conduct than civilian leaders, who are often vulnerable to political duress if they fail to take “tough action.”
Second, democratic states are so convinced of their own virtues, they reason that “if we are doing X, then X must be permissible.” These state leaders can come to think that if violence is useful for protecting their own democracy, or for promoting democracy or human rights, then it’s justified.
Q: Are democracies ever justified in using violence?
A: I think the UN Charter basically got it right: direct or pre-emptive self-defense against an actual or imminent armed attack on territory, or on the lives of its nationals. Humanitarian intervention to prevent imminent genocide is also permissible. Obviously, both can lead to slippery slopes, and these are only necessary conditions. It may well be, for pragmatic reasons, that democracies should use non-violent means in these cases, as well.
Q: Can you give an example of a justified war?
A: World War II was clearly justified by the allies at every level: morally, legally, and politically. The First Iraq War was also warranted, because its goals were limited to restoring state boundaries. I believe that military intervention in Rwanda would have been justified, and that NATO’s intervention against Serbia in 1999 was justified.
Q: What about a U.S. war that was unjustified?
A: Iraq II was unjustified: It was manifestly illegal—only former officials of the Bush and Blair Administrations believe it was licensed under international law, as enforcement of Security Council directives. And it was clearly a moral and political disaster, notwithstanding the genuine evil represented by Saddam Hussein.
Q: In today’s terrorist landscape where insurgents are waging war as non-state actors, what types of interventions are ethically permissible?
A: If there were a kind of military intervention in Syria that could be effective in averting the massive civilian casualties and displacements, it would be justified. While I’m not a national security expert, everything I know about the situation suggests that, while there is enormous pressure to “do something, anything,” effective options are limited.
The use of military threats, and then an alliance with Putin to remove most of Assad’s chemical weapons, was ethically permissible. The initial Libyan intervention, though not the follow-through to regime change, was also justified.
Q: International humanitarian rules of conduct didn’t shield soldiers from trench gas or civilians from area bombing in both World Wars. Fast-forward: Did the U.S. dodge those humanitarian standards by using torture? What about drone strikes?
A: One of the chestnuts of war studies is that our ethical conventions are only good for the last war, not the next one. And that is true of aspects of the Geneva Conventions, which are aimed more at state use of indiscriminate weapons and the treatment of uniformed combatants.
But there is much in existing law that speaks directly to the conduct of the U.S. and other states in both counter-insurgency and the conflict with al Qaeda, and now ISIS. This includes the absolute and unequivocal ban on torture, or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
“My worry now is that we are re-moralizing non-defensive war, seeing it as a way for the virtuous to bring wrongdoers to justice.”
The issue of drones is more complicated. Their highly targeted use is a huge advance over less discriminate kinds of weapons, such as aerial bombs, or even combat troops. So, drones represent the perfection and the limits of Geneva logic. But the possibility of sending drones to places where we would never otherwise fight can represent a great escalation in the U.S. willingness to use force.
Q: How has the concept of war as just punishment for injury been “an enormously pernicious force,” in your words?
A: Historically, in ancient and medieval time, war was understood (at least sometimes) as a kind of moral punishment for the wrong done by another state leader. This punishment model, coupled with some ideas of war being a way of converting heretics and heathen, led to enormous bloodbaths.
In the modern era, war became simply a policy tool—a way of settling relatively shallow grievances initially to a way of settling deep geopolitical conflicts. This was also awful in the scale of killing, but at least the killing was not moralized except as a kind of self-defense.
My worry now is that we are re-moralizing non-defensive war, seeing it as a way for the virtuous to bring wrongdoers to justice. I worry that the self-righteousness of that approach knows no limits. Iraq II is an example. International political realists were unequivocal in their condemnation of that war as utterly irrational. What made the war politically viable was its moralization, including the demonization of Saddam Hussein.
Q: How can we apply our democratic values to limit war, rather than promote it?
A: We need to stop using our democratic virtues as justification for whatever we want to do to keep our country safe—or to nation build. Instead, we need to see our commitments to human rights and individual dignity as posing strict limits on conduct that might even be legal.
An absolute prohibition on torture is a clear case. But another problem is the widespread use of drones in foreign states, as killing machines and for surveillance. They are crippling the possibilities of daily life and civil society in these countries.
Q: What about the refusal of U.S. agencies to release information about citizen surveillance in the name of the “war on terror?”
A: Secrets are a part of governance—every state spies, and guards against spies—but governance through pervasive secrecy is a threat to democracy. The limits of national power must be knowable and debatable.
Q: You introduce a new concept in your book, of “agentic democracy.” What does this mean?
A: My idea of agentic democracy is that we ought to be more ambitious in how we see representative government—not as a fairly passive ballot exercise, but as a way to become political agents through active discussion, deliberation and vigorous monitoring of our elected leaders.
An important benefit of an agentic concept is that democracy becomes a much harder thing to export: in the same way that you can’t export personhood, you can’t export democracy, certainly not at the barrel of a gun. So, understanding democracy in this way ought to lead to a tempering of the temptations of democratic intervention.