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Defining States As Warring Units

Should we assume states to be the main contending parties in war? Many influential definitions of war place states as a key variable. They assume that states are rational actors made up of coherent territorial units with recognized leaders, governmental institutions, and discernable civil societies. However, in many of the major conflicts in the 1980s and 1990s, transnational activity reduced the significance of states as key actors. Post–Cold War central Africa and eastern Europe exemplify instances where intra-and interethnic conflicts within states sparked violent confrontations between states. Should these conflicts be classified as wars even though individual states did not declare war against other states? In some instances, belligerent ethnic groups within one state declared war on ethnic groups in another state, as in the Serbian Serb-Bosnian Muslim conflict in the former Yugoslavia from 1992 to 1995. In an attempt to answer the question of the types of nationalism that are most likely to cause war, Stephen Van Evera isolates four attributes: the movement's political status with respect to statehood, its relationships with its national diaspora, its stance toward other nations, and its treatment of its own minorities. Using this scheme, it might be possible to evaluate the potential of a nationalist (or ethnic) conflict to escalate into a war. Theorists such as Van Evera have attempted to shift attention from states to nationalist movements as indicators showing the potential for war.

In other cases, there was no legitimate and overarching ruling authority within the state, as in Somalia from 1992 to 1994, when political anarchy prevailed and rival clan leaders battled each other. There refugees, guerrilla groups, and targeted factions fled across borders, initiating conflicts and instability in these regions. How should these conflicts be classified? If such conflicts are considered "domestic," falling under the purview of sovereign states, then international interventions become extremely difficult. Given the regional instability that such conflicts produce, the devastation that follows, and the gross human rights violations that are committed, defining this as a national issue has many negative repercussions.

The havoc wrought by terrorists also challenges definitions of war. Highly skilled, trained, motivated, and ordered like soldiers in conventional armies, international terrorists have instigated some of our most intense wars. The U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 and Iraq in 2003 are good examples of the repercussions terrorists can invoke, in this case, the 9/11/2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In pursuit of the masterminds behind the attacks, the United States believed that Osama Bin Laden (thought to be residing in Afghanistan) and Saddam Hussein (of Iraq) were key players, hence prompting the invasions. Should the citizenship of terrorists determine the belligerent state? Must we assume that all states are able to control all their citizens and For the Common Grave!, an etching by Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes from his Disasters of War series (1810–1820). The consequences of a war, whether it is considered justified or not, are often terrible, testing the humanity and mores of the participating combatants. © ARCHIVO ICONOGRAFICO must take responsibility for their actions? How do we determine the target state when some terrorists have multiple citizenships and divided loyalties? Can we isolate a particular state as belligerent when some terrorists fight for political ideals and religious doctrines that transcend national state borders? Can we classify an attack by terrorists as an act of war? These questions challenge the assumption that states are the key units in war and challenge ideas of the causes and rules of war.

Jus ad bellum

Can war be morally justified? Most war doctrines include two considerations: first, the conditions under which one may have recourse to war (jus ad bellum); second, the rules and codes by which war may be conducted (jus in bello.) The act of war, a license to kill, tests our adherence to morality, our acceptance of what we assume are human and civilized codes of behavior, our notion of the distinctions between the divine and the profane, our understanding of authority and legitimacy, and our sense of self-and moral consciousness. There are two main discourses dealing with jus ad bellum. The first makes a distinction between just and unjust wars, and the second makes distinctions between offensive and defensive wars.

St. Augustine of Hippo (354–430 C.E.) first grappled with the Christian ideal of love that prohibited killing and wounding in one's own defense but also obliged Christians to aid others, thus justifying the use of force on the aggressors. Yet Augustine did not provide a theory that isolated causes for a just war, nor did he suggest that a Christian cause was most just. Instead, he proposed that Christian ethics gave people and their leaders a capacity to know the moral limits of armed action but did not provide them with the attributes to "compare unerringly the over-all justice of regimes and nations" (Ramsey, p. 32). For Augustine, as all parties in war are engaging in wrongdoing, the warring parties cannot be divided into good versus bad, but rather Christian ethics provide guidance and the parameters for conduct in war of all parties involved.

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) expanded the idea of a just war and also initiated a shift from "voluntarism" to "rationalism" in understanding the nature of the political community, emphasizing a natural-law notion of justice (Ramsey, p. 32). According to Aquinas, a just war had three necessary requirements: declaration by a legitimate constitutional authority, a just cause, and the right intention. Francisco de Vitoria United States soldier during Persian Gulf War. In 1990, Iraqi forces under the control of military dictator Saddam Hussein occupied the country of Kuwait, prompting the deployment of an international coalition of forces that repelled the invasion. © YVES DEBAY/CORBIS (1486?–1546) and Francisco Suárez (1548–1617) added further conditions: the means of war should be proportional to the injustices being prevented or remedied by war, all peaceful means to remedy injustices should be exhausted, and the war should have a reasonable hope of success.

The recognized rules of jus ad bellum, as outlined by Aquinas and others, are often used to determine whether or not a war is justifiable. Some of the objections to these criteria are that they are overly subjective, leaving ample space for self-interested rationalization; that they rest on normative criteria about the nature of good and evil; that these categories were designed for evaluating the causes of war in the Middle Ages; and that in the nuclear age, with its emphasis on deterrence, they provide little guidance as to how to evaluate the "moral significance of different levels of threat and of risk" (Adeney, p. 97).

There are also those who question the very notion of war as having moral legitimation. Reinhold Niebuhr, for example, argues that "Christianity should recognize that all historic struggles are struggles between sinful men." Given this, he adds that "it is just as important to save what relative decency and justice the western world still has, against the most demonic tyranny of history" (Niebuhr, p. 35). Niebuhr recognizes that "Sniper's Alley" in Sarajevo, 1994. Shortly after the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991, Serbians in the region began a military campaign for ethnic supremacy. During the three-year-long battle, Serb forces laid siege to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo, causing widespread destruction in the city. © CHRIS RAINIER/CORBIS while war can never be morally justified, it might be the only way to safeguard liberal democratic values.

In reflecting on the morality of the Gulf War, several authors came up with different conclusions. George Weigel argues that opposing the aggression of Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait was justified in both intention and execution according to the criteria set out by just-war theory. Jean Bethke Elshtain, on the other hand, argues that war cannot be justified merely by checking off the list of criteria associated with the just-war theory. Instead, she suggests that the theory begs us to pause, to think about the ramifications of war, and to show some skepticism and queasiness about war. Above all, she asks that in drawing the balance sheet for the Gulf War, we evaluate technological accuracy and military might alongside the devastation and long-term effects of war on Iraqi children and society.

The just-war mode of reasoning attempts to reconcile the requirements of national defense with the moral obligations of protecting the innocent. In the age of modern warfare, where nuclear deterrence is the most significant element in preventing wars, the ideas behind just-war theory require a lot of tweaking before it begins to make any sense at all. In evaluating the justifiability of a contemporary war, some of the rules pertaining to jus ad bellum, particularly the rules of proportionality and reasonable hope of success, are seriously challenged. With the capacity and probability of killing large numbers of innocent people in warfare, the tensions inherent between jus ad bellum and jus in bello become sharper.

When looking specifically at modern warfare, Bernard T. Adeney sees deterrence as an "embarrassment and a puzzle" with respect to just-war theory. In terms of the criteria laid out under jus ad bellum, deterrence appears to be the "only possible means of resisting unjust aggression" (Adeney, p. 112). Yet deterrence has the inherent ability to violate the basis of jus in bello. The Catholic Church responded to the Gulf War in a statement that put the very idea of just war in peril. The theory of just war, they said, was "indefensible and has been abandoned. In reality—with the sole exception of a purely defensive war against acts of aggression—we can say that there are no 'just wars,' and there is no 'right' to wage war" (La civiltà cattolica, p. 118). For many pacifists, who recognize the existence of political conflict, war is an unjustifiable means of resolution.

Jus in bello

Can war be controlled? Carl von Clausewitz says war is an act of force, and "there is no logical limit to the application" of force (Clausewitz, p. 77). However, others see war as a social activity that demands social organization and control, requiring a military that uses violence with deliberation for political objectives. As instruments of the state, the military employs violence (or uses force) in a purposeful, deliberate, and legitimate manner. Two criteria that maintain order and military discipline in war are the general value system of culture and the presupposition that the cost of war should not outweigh its benefits.


Chapter 1, Article 2(4)

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.

Chapter 7, Article 51

Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs.

Chapter 7, Article 42

Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate … it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operation by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.

Focusing on the notion that language reflects "the moral world and gives us access to it" and that "our understanding of moral vocabulary is sufficiently common and stable so that shared judgments are possible," Michael Walzer makes an argument for moments when the rules of jus in bello can be overridden (Walzer, p. 52). In a "supreme emergency," determined by the "imminence of danger" and the "nature" of the threat, one might be "required to override the rights of innocent people and shatter the war convention" (Walzer, p. 259). Nazism, which represented the "ultimate threat to everything decent in our lives," constituted a supreme emergency, and Walzer sees the decision by Winston Churchill to bomb German cities in 1940 as a legitimate and justifiable decision. Although the initial decision qualified as a supreme emergency, according to Walzer, the decision to continue bombing cities after 1942, when the Russians and Americans had entered the war, was not justified, and Churchill ought to have asked his army to resort to attacking legitimate military targets.

A justified war is not necessarily a just war, as we also need to be concerned about justifiable moral means of behaving in war. Most theorists argue that the ends justify or structure the means, in that if the cause is justified, the use of all necessary and appropriate means is also justified. But some see an independent standard for judging jus in bello, especially in prohibiting all intentional killing of innocent people. However, it is difficult to know exactly what the appropriate means are until the war ends. For example, because the U.S. military has not found the weapons of mass destruction purportedly manufactured in Iraq for use by terrorists and the Hussein regime, it is difficult to evaluate whether the destruction of property and deaths of civilians and soldiers was indeed justified in the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Justice in the waging of war (that is, the justifiability of the violence and killing that is intrinsic to warfare) is a necessary condition for jus ad bellum and jus in bello.

Contention over the parameters of jus in bello during the nuclear arms race invigorated the debate between realists and idealists in international relations. The characteristics of human nature lay at the basis of contention. Drawing on Thucydides (d. c. 401 B.C.E.), Niccolò Machiavelli (1469–1527), and Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), realists start with the premise that human nature is inherently bad, self-serving, evil, and desirous of power. States in the international system also reflect these characteristics and exist in a state of anarchy where war is constant and insecurity is the norm. In this perspective deterrence is one of the ways in which states can prevent wars, in that their military capabilities act as a deterrent against possible attack. For idealists, human nature is essentially good, and bad behavior is due mainly to evil institutions that encourage people to act selfishly. For example, Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948) maintained that the means justified the ends, and in this perspective nonviolence and Satyagraha (soulforce) were the appropriate ways in which to achieve equality and a just system. Idealists believe that war is an international problem that requires collective, multilateral cooperation and diplomacy.

The notion of the appropriate means necessary to fulfill desired ends became particularly pertinent in the nuclear age. Some argued that if nuclear weapons were used in an all-out war scenario, it would be a "monstrously disproportionate response to aggression on the part of any nation" (U.S. Catholic Bishops, p. 103). The bishops argued that good ends could not justify "immoral means" and urged the superpowers to invest in diplomacy, peacemaking, and disarmament.


Hague Convention IV of 1907

Governs methods and means of warfare, such as weapons that are restricted and tactical battlefield restraints.

Geneva Conventions of 1949

Concerned with the protection of victims of armed conflict—defined as the wounded, sick and/or shipwrecked, prisoners of war and civilians.

1977 Protocol I Additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions (Article 1[4])

Armed conflicts in which peoples are fighting against colonial domination and alien occupation and against racist regimes in the exercise of their rights of national self-determination, as enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.

1977 Protocol II Additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions (Article 1[1])

Covers conflicts that take place in the territory of a High Contracting Party between its armed forces and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups which, under responsible command, exercise such control over part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations and to implement this Protocol.

Other theorists have argued that nuclear deterrence is necessary if we are to defend our freedom and fundamental rights, that deterrence in fact works to prevent war and destruction. Nuclear deterrence in this perspective is necessary to prevent war and to enable peace and security. John J. Mearsheimer adds that the Cold War period was largely peaceful because of the bipolar distribution of power, the "rough equality of military power between the two polar states," and the presence of nuclear weapons that made deterrence "far more robust" (Mearsheimer, p. 9). Proponents of this view add that while we have to be judicious in the decisions to engage in war to preserve our values, we also have to develop military capabilities suited to our moral commitments. Although increasing military capacity might increase tensions, they act as a deterrent to possible attacks, but most importantly, they will be adequate means to defend our values if we are forced to do so.

International organizations that attempt to create a forum for international diplomacy and peacemaking have less significance in the realist perspective. John Gerard Ruggie argues that realism has failed to grasp the integral role of international institutions like the United Nations in promoting cooperative and multilateral ways of maintaining peace and preventing wars. Criticisms against the notion that nuclear deterrence is one of the strongest means of preventing wars are prolific. Although quite varied, many of them see world politics as socially constructed, that is, that international politics are social rather than material and that structures shape identities interests and behavior. Structures are considered "discourses" made up of shared knowledge, material resources, and practices. Here the emphasis is not on human nature but rather on the social relationships that are forged and the complex interplay between leaders, state structures, and civil society. Feminists critique the realist paradigm by questioning the "denial of female images and female-linked imperatives" in the foundational assumptions about human nature, the character of states, and the international system (Elshtain, "Just War as Politics," p. 261). Even in just-war theory, men are considered the soldiers or just Christian warriors, while women are relegated to the private sphere, the "beautiful soul" who is peaceful, frugal, and self-sacrificing. A reevaluation of war and peace from a feminist perspective energizes the debate on the causes of war and appropriate and acceptable behavior during war. The use of rape as a weapon of war, used in Italy in 1943 and in Bosnia in the early 1990s, has become part of the international human rights agenda but is also crucial to determining the parameters of jus in bello and to the idea that with constantly changing "means" of war, the war conventions must be open to change as well.


Adeney, Bernard T. Just War, Political Realism, and Faith. Philadelphia: American Theological Library Association; Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1988.

Bull, Hedley. The Anarchical Society. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. Edited and Translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Elshtain, Jean Bethke. "Just War as Politics: What the Gulf War Told Us about Contemporary American Life." In But Was It Just? Reflections on the Morality of the Persian Gulf War, edited by David E. Decosse. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

——, ed. Just War Theory. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

Johnson, James Turner. Can Modern War Be Just? New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984.

——. Just War Tradition and the Restraint of War: A Moral and Historical Inquiry. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1981.

La civiltà cattolica. "Modern War and the Christian Conscience." Translated by Peter Heinegg. In But Was It Just? Reflections on the Morality of the Persian Gulf War, edited by David E. Decosse. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Mead, Margaret. "Warfare Is Only an Invention—Not a Biological Necessity." Asia 40 (1940): 402–405.

Mearsheimer, John J. "Back to the Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War." In Theories of War and Peace: An international Security Reader, edited by Michael E. Brown et al. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. Christianity and Power Politics. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1940.

Ramsey, Paul. War and the Christian Conscience: How Shall Modern War Be Conducted Justly? Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1961.

Ruggie, John Gerard. "The False Premise of Realism." International Security 20, no. 1 (Summer 1995): 62–70.

U.S. Catholic Bishops. "The Challenge of Peace: God's Promise and Our Response: The Pastoral Letter on War and Peace." Reprinted in Just War Theory, edited by Jean Bethke Elshtain. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

Van Evera, Stephen. "Hypotheses on Nationalism and War." In Theories of War and Peace: An International Security Reader, edited by Michael E. Brown et al. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1998.

Vasquez, John A. The War Puzzle. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Walzer, Michael. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. New York: Basic Books, 1977.

Weigel, George. "From Last Resort to Endgame: Morality, the Gulf War, and the Peace Process." In But Was It Just? Reflections on the Morality of the Persian Gulf War, edited by David E. Decosse. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Wright, Quincy. A Study of War. Vol. 2. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942.

Movindri Reddy

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Verbena Family (Verbenaceae) - Tropical Hardwoods In The Verbena Family to WelfarismWar - Defining States As Warring Units, Jus Ad Bellum: United Nations Charter Of 1945, Jus In Bello