Friday, June 5, 2015

The just war tradition and sovereignty (book review)

James Turner Johnson, Sovereignty: Moral and Historical Perspectives. Georgetown University Press, 2014. 181 pp. (including bibliography and index).


James Turner Johnson is an expert on 'the just war tradition,' and in Sovereignty he considers the co-evolution of ideas about sovereignty and just war.  Indeed the book probably should have been called something like The Just War Tradition and Sovereignty, since that would have more accurately indicated its contents than the title it actually carries.

Johnson's starting point is a conception of sovereignty that predates the modern state, one that defined sovereignty "in terms of the moral responsibility of the ruler for the common good of the people governed" (p.2).  Johnson is rather vague about what this meant in practice, but at a minimum a ruler's "moral responsibility" entailed meting out just punishments and protecting the political community from external (and internal) threats.  The 'sovereign', a ruler "without temporal superior," was sometimes required to wage war for these purposes.  This particular notion of sovereignty thus developed in tandem with what Part 1 of the book calls the 'classic just war tradition.'  One probably could also make a case, though Johnson does not do so, that this somewhat paternalistic view of authority traces back, at least in the West, to Plato's description of the guardians in the Republic

In any event, one of the book's main arguments is that this older view of sovereignty, in its concern with the quality of rule and the sovereign's responsibility for the common good, has a moral dimension that the modern view, with its emphasis on territorial integrity and non-intervention, lacks.  Yet some writers, such as Robert Jackson in The Global Covenant and Brad R. Roth in Sovereign Equality and Moral Disagreement, have argued that the principles of territorial inviolability and non-intervention have their own moral foundation, inasmuch as they allow, at least in theory, each 'political community' to shape its own destiny with a minimum of external meddling.  Roth's position is that " law's highest and best uses remain those given pride of place in the United Nations Charter: the establishment of a platform for peaceful accommodation among states representing a diversity of interests and values, and the protection of weak political communities from overbearing projections of power by strong foreign states"
(Sovereign Equality and Moral Disagreement, p.5).  By contrast, Johnson is less concerned with "overbearing projections of power" from outside and more concerned that existing sovereignty norms often serve to shield bad behavior by oppressive or murderous rulers.  This in turn raises questions about, among other things, the moral status of state boundaries and state autonomy, questions that Johnson tends to answer only indirectly. 


Although there is a nod in the first chapter in the direction of Augustine and "the Augustinian heritage," the book's historical discussion really gets underway with Aquinas, who listed "three requirements for a war to be just: the authority of a prince [auctoritas principis], a just cause, and a right intention" (pp.16-17).  The prince's responsibility was to uphold "the moral order itself" and thereby "the divine will," by punishing injustices and those who had committed them (pp.19, 20).  Aquinas distinguished between rulers who acted in the interest of the political community and 'tyrants' who did not; however, he was not consistent on "how to respond to tyranny" (p.41).   

quinas's main concern was jus ad bellum, i.e. the grounds for starting a war, rather than what came to be called jus in bello, i.e. the conduct of a war once begun.  The latter considerations entered the tradition via the writing of Honoré Bonet and Christine de Pisan during the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) (p.43).  These writers "joined the chivalric 'law of arms'" to Aquinas's jus ad bellum requirements, and the "combined conception was then passed on into the debates over warfare in the early modern period" (p.43).  Thus by the fifteenth century, if not before, 'just war theory' already encompassed two basic questions: (1) Under what circumstances is it just to begin a war? and (2) What constitutes just conduct on the battlefield (and in the treatment of noncombatants, prisoners, etc.)?

After discussing Aquinas and several of Aquinas's Neo-Scholastic successors, Johnson moves on to Luther and some other Reformation thinkers, and then to Grotius.  Grotius (drawing on some previous writers such as Vitoria) shifted "the locus of authority to wage just war...from the prince to the commonwealth," with the prince now seen as the polity's agent or representative (p.82).  Grotius also put more emphasis on defense, especially defense of the polity's territory, as a justification for war (p.84).  The political community's right to defend itself is now seen as derivative of the individual right to self-defense, and the authority to act in the community's defense is delegated from its members to the ruler.  

Johnson sees the Grotian emphasis on self-defense as a narrowing of the earlier conception of just war and sovereignty.  Here Johnson takes the traditional view of the Peace of Westphalia, i.e., he regards it as having laid the ground for the close connection between sovereignty and territory that has characterized the modern state system.  However, this view of the Peace of Westphalia has been quite persuasively criticized in recent years.  Older, 'feudal' notions of territoriality and authority clearly persist in the Westphalian treaties; Johnson neither acknowledges this nor quotes any articles of the treaties.  He does say that the shift in focus from the ruler-as-independent-actor to the ruler-as-the-polity's-agent resulted from reading the Peace of Westphalia through a Grotian lens (p.93), but that's a different point.  There's nothing wrong with accepting the dominant linguistic conventions and retaining the adjective "Westphalian" to refer to the current sovereignty regime (or key aspects of it), provided one notes -- as Johnson fails to do -- that its link to the actual provisions of the Peace of Westphalia is rather tenuous, to say the least.       

In the book's second part Johnson discusses issues of contemporary resonance, namely Islamic views of just war (ch. 6) and 'the responsibility to protect' (ch. 7), taking a broad view of the latter.  He is, however, unduly critical of the UN (p.160).  I'm not going to summarize these chapters in any detail here (so readers who are interested in them will have to consult the book).

The brevity of this book is welcome but it comes at a cost: Johnson does not engage with most of the secondary literature on the writers he discusses.  A fairly standard work like Richard Tuck's The Rights of War and Peace is not in the bibliography; nor is Edward Keene's Beyond the Anarchical Society, which connects Grotius to colonialism.  (Nor, with a couple of exceptions, does Johnson reference recent work on sovereignty and territoriality, though it's admittedly somewhat more removed from his main concerns.)  Still, Johnson's core chapters do provide an overview of some of the main lines of thought on just war and sovereignty in the Western tradition.  Rather than adopting the neutral tone of a textbook or survey, Johnson makes a definite argument, and one that might be questioned on certain points; this book is therefore probably best read in conjunction with other treatments of the same general ground that take a different perspective.

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