War, Vital Interests, and International Law

John Quiggin ponders Dan Drezner’s formulation that, “The number one rule of the bi-partisan foreign policy community is that America can invade and attack other countries when vital American interests are threatened. Paying homage to that orthodoxy is a non-negotiable pre-requisite to maintaining good standing within the foreign policy community.”

Quiggin observes,

Unless “vital national interest” is construed so narrowly as to be equivalent to “self-defence”, this is a direct repudiation of the central founding principle of international law, prohibiting aggressive war as a crime against peace, indeed, the supreme international crime. It’s more extreme than the avowed position of any recent US Administration — even the invasion of Iraq was purportedly justified on the basis of UN resolutions, rather than US self-interest. Yet, reading this and other debates, it seems pretty clear that Drezner’s position is not only generally held in the Foreign Policy Community but is regarded, as he says, as a precondition for serious participation in foreign policy debates in the US.

A couple of questions arise. First, is this rule supposed to apply only to the US? Second, how elastic the phrase “vital national interest” be spelt out? To take an obvious example, does unfettered access to natural resources like oil count as a “vital national interest”? If so, it seems pretty clear that vital national interests of different countries will regularly come into conflict, and (unless this is a US-only rule) that both parties in such a situation are justified in going to war.

The UN Charter’s outlawing of war has, from its outset, been observed only in the breach. It has stopped the United States from declaring war but not from going to war.

And, as with all legal documents, there are loopholes. Article 51 of the Charter provides that, “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.” This was used to justify the first Gulf War, for example. Further, Security Council resolutions that fall short of a call to military intervention — which is to say, Security Council resolutions — are often used as a pretext justifying the use of force.

Serious debate on the use of force tends to focus on the phrase “vital national interests.” It is, as Quiggin suggests, a phrase without much concrete meaning. For liberal interventionists, it is in “the vital national interest of the United States” to prevent genocide in places like Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur; for Realists, those are mere humanitarian disasters and do not justify forcible intervention. Conversely, Realists tend to think war to maintain a favorable balance of power, preserve access to scarce resources, deprive a hostile state of nuclear weapons, and the like are morally justified whereas Idealists tend to stress the need to diplomatic resolution of those disputes.

In a September 2003 post, I recalled a panel I had recently attended at the American Political Science Association convention, where some of the Very Serious Foreign Policy Scholars had gathered to discuss this very topic.

[Many of those in the room made the] argument is that, if a cause is worth going to war over, then, surely, an American president ought to be able to persuade the good people of the United Nations to go along with us. While it sounds reasonable on its surface, this view misses the rather fundamental point that The World’s Sole Remaining SuperpowerTM sometimes has different interests than other states. Many times, the world demands that the U.S. show “leadership” in areas where we have virtually no interest, as in the many conflicts that erupted in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Other times, we are rebuffed when we try to lead in places where others have conflicting interests, as in Iraq, North Korea, Iran, Libya, etc. Leadership in complicated scenarios becomes even more difficult because 1) states can free ride, getting the benefits of risks undertaken by the U.S. but without the costs; 2) states, especially former great powers now relegated to relative helplessness, have a natural inclination to counterbalance U.S. power.

Of course, there are consequences of this approach. The next paragraph proved quite prescient, albeit not in the direction I’d hoped:

In the case of the Iraq War, it is conceivable that the U.S. will be proven wrong in its policies. If we fail to undercover substantial evidence of WMD production, it will be quite difficult to convince many opponents that the war was the right thing to do. If, five years or so from now, Iraq is governed by an unstable regime–or still governed by the U.S. led coalition–it would surely be viewed as a failure by almost anyone. But it falls to the leadership of TWSRSPTM to make these difficult choices and bear the responsibility for success or failure. Historians still blame the U.S. for its lack of leadership in the periods leading up to the two World Wars, and our relative power was far less then than now.

As the great ethicist Stan Lee taught us, “With great power there must also come — great responsibility!”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. chsw says:

    I think that Drezner’s formulation is the reason why the liberals and socialists in poli-sci kicked him out of the U of Chicago.

  2. Matthew Stinson says:

    What I’m getting out of this debate is that Greenwald et. al are pushing for a normative foreign policy, the specific goals of which sound and feel like neoisolationism. And by talking about a need for normative (Jeffersonian?) approaches, the neoisos on the left* seemingly ignore that one of the chief problems with neoconservatism was ITS normative, end-of-history-bringing nature, which radically distinguishes itself from the FPC, which has been mostly non-normative since Reinhold Niebuhr and others formulated the realist foreign policy consensus of the postwar era.

    The FPC realists believe that sometimes that vital national interests necessitate wars, but many wars are not in our vital national interests. They don’t oppose war as much as Greenwald would like, nor do they support war as much as Greenwald claims. Brent Scowcroft remains one of the most high-profile faces of the FPC, and it’s utterly bizarre to see him and public servants of like mind stand accused of being bloodlust-filled baby-killers.

    We should also go back to why Niebuhr, no matter how liberal he was in his domestic politics, advocated a non-normative approach: because the isolationist turn after the ugliness of World War I left us without the will to face Hitler when we should have, and because the threat of Soviet expansion could not be dealt with adequately by Jeffersonian means alone. Yet Niebuhr’s realpolitik would NOT have embraced the war in Iraq, much as the vast majority of realist scholars in IR opposed the war, since the specter of overwhelming strategic threat did not exist in Saddam’s case.

    If the FPC can be criticized for anything, it’s not bloodthirstiness but the fact that that the paradigm it adopted during the Cold War is badly outdated today. The US faces many regional strategic threats in which its role as an offshore balancer — note that the excerpts from Greenwald posted by Dr. Drezner seemingly reject the projection of power necessary for this role — can both ensure regional peace and systemic peace, yet there is no single threat to the US as substantial as the Soviets and no rising power as dangerous as Hitler, regardless of how often we — and the neconservatives — project Hitler onto the faces of Saddam, Milosevic, and others. The failure of the FPC to shift paradigms, Kuhn-style, at the end of the Cold War was evident in the myriad refrains of “this was so much easier when the Soviets were around” heard during the Clinton administration.

    In the end, calculating our strategic positioning and tactical interventions based on the old paradigm is unworkable, just as adopting neoisolationism after Iraq is undesirable. Greenwald isn’t working to fix the system but to make it broken in a different way.

    The above having been said, I take minor issue with James writing “Conversely, Realists tend to think war to … deprive a hostile state of nuclear weapons … [is] morally justified.” Not all realists feel this way. Stephen Walt, who will always be thought of as “Of Walt and Mearsheimer vs. the Israeli Lobby” fame, was once more infamous for making a realist case for global nuclear proliferation after the end of the Cold War.

    * Of course, old-school isolationists at The American Conservative and Antiwar.com have made this “Trotsky neocon” criticism for years.

    (FWIW, I meant to post this comment on Drezner’s site but his anti-spam protection has blacklisted Chinese ADSL accounts. Fun stuff.)