Representative Jerry McNerney (D-CA-9) has brought before the House a resolution (H.Res.1009) “regarding the consideration of ‘Just War’ principles prior to any vote with respect to a declaration of war or an authorization of the use of military force.” The mere act of advancing the resolution for House consideration speaks to the importance of just war thinking and moral use of force as an instrument of politics. The resolution does two things: it reminds us of the subordination of the use of force to politics assumed by the just war tradition, and it resurrects the practice of explicit dialogue by states around the principles of the just use of force. 

The central insight of the just war tradition concerns the relationship of politics to force. To remain a moral endeavor of peace-making, war must remain subordinate to politics, and thereby to policy. Even when a war proceeds from a just cause – that is, to resist some severe harm one party brings upon another – the violence and brutality of war are difficult to contain. War has a brutal logic: once undertaken, its momentum presses toward expansion. The initiating cause gets lost in the sentiments associated with death and destruction, in the investment of blood and material resources, and in the propaganda necessary to inspire a population to its successful waging.  Not for nothing did Augustine lament his incapacity to describe the evils and miseries of war in book nineteen, chapter seven, of The City of God. He thought only a senseless man could regard war without “anguish of soul.” Such a man, Augustine wrote, “thinks himself happy only because he has lost all human feeling.” (City of God, XIX, 7)

The undeniable horrors of war can only be chosen in the name of the common good, the constant goal of good politics. Thus, Carl von Clausewitz, the great Prussian military thinker, argues that “war is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means.” Sometimes misunderstood as a justification for mindless war-making, von Clausewitz intends instead by this to make at least two points: first, to show the necessary continuity of politics and war, which is merely the former’s instrument; second, to thereby emphasize the necessary subordination of the instrument to the consistent and continuous goals of politics. Keeping war and politics together provides the best possibility of deescalating war and of constructing a more durable peace at the cessation of violence. The subordination of the use of force to politics is foundational to the just war approach. 

War as a means or instrument pursuing the “continuation of political intercourse” keeps war tethered to the political goals that obtained before and after the instruments were swapped out. That those ends – say, order, justice, stability – could be and perhaps usually are pursued by other means suggests that their pursuit even by the instrument of war ought to keep war from pursuing its own totalizing logic. War is not normally necessary for the pursuit of these political goals. Generally other means, for instance, negotiation, compromise, diplomacy, suffice in their pursuit. 

Tying war to the activities associated with political goals keeps politicians attentive to the broadest horizon of concerns informing particular policy choices. Among other things, the fuller political horizon keeps the broader international repercussions of particular policies in front of decision-makers. Connecting war to politics invites them to reflect on the political goals sought by their adversaries, to investigate them as rational choices in terms of those goals. War disposes adversaries to consider the opposing party irrational and even “mad.” We saw this during the war on terror, and we’re seeing it again in the ease with which pundits attribute madness to Putin’s policies (a phenomenon that has occurred in the media since 2008; recently a columnist called his actions “more taxi driver than head of state”). The accusation of an adversary’s irrationality presupposes no connection between the use of force and any political goals; terrorists, for instance, are “irrational” because they don’t act, according to this accusation, like normal political agents. They are motivated merely by hatred or desire for destruction; their violence has no constructive purpose. Because their acts have no purpose, terrorists are not susceptible to alternative political appeals and must be eradicated. So goes the detachment of political thinking from the use of force leads inexorably to the escalation of violence. The sound instinct of H.Res. 1009 is to reattach political thinking to the use of force.

By inviting the House to consider the principles of just war analysis prior to authorizing a use of force, H.Res. 1009 reintroduces an age-old practice of political and moral deliberation around justifying force. Nearly 500 years ago, in 1550-1551, King Charles I of Spain convened a conversation between philosophers and theologians to discuss the morality of Spain’s engagement with the indigenous peoples of the newly-discovered Americas. As the Harvard historian Lewis Hanke argued in All Mankind is One, King Charles I actually directed Spain to halt military operations until the conversation had concluded and a judgment made. The famed Dominican theologian Bartolome de Las Casas argued the case for the humanity of the Indians, their just possession of their lands, and their right to self-rule against Juan Gines Sepulveda, the Renaissance humanist and scholar of Aristotle. Sepulveda argued the indigenous peoples were like Aristotle’s “natural slaves” and thus by right subject to the rule of the Spaniards. The Spaniards could by force dispossess and rule over them.

That argument was effectively an argument about the justification of force used by Spain against the indigenous peoples. Las Casas argued that the indigenous peoples by right had just claims to their property and had political legitimacy. They could not be justly attacked by the Spaniards without some legitimizing cause. In much of his argument, he followed and adapted just war analysis: built into the justification of force is the limitation of force. Force can be justified, but not always, and not without limit on its use. In the Spanish case against the Indians, Las Casas argued the Spaniards had no right. 

We know the history of the Spanish conquest: the moral judgments of a conversation in Spain had little effect. As Francisco de Vitoria (an influence on Las Casas) wrote, kings are pragmatists who think “from hand to mouth.” Nonetheless, the long-term influence of this sort of political reflection on the use of force impacted our conceptions of sovereignty, international law, and the laws of warfare. Las Casas’ argument against Sepulveda happened only because King Charles I asked for reflection on the rights of the Spanish crown in the Americas. Though ineffective in stopping the conquest, the argument reverberated throughout the globe and down to us today. 

We can be grateful for Congressman McNerney reminding us that force serves politics and not the other way around.