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.”
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!”