Thursday, November 25, 2004

Justice, Risk and the Possibility of Humanitarian Intervention

I've been reading Michael Walzer's Arguing About War. What's striking is his emphasis on the importance of a country -- its troops -- bearing risk on the battlefield. That is, that the requirement for a just form of war (jus in bello) is that soldiers bear risk. This is so that, in a true war, they minimize damage to civilians, and, in a humanitarian intervention, that they can actually stop the killing; Walzer argues that killing happens at the house level, so the intervention, in order to be effective, has to occur at that level as well. The effect of this is that you have to be willing to accept casualties among your soldiers in order for a war or an intervention to be prosecuted in a just manner. Basically, justice requires that once you are fighting that it be effective -- it is not worth fighting a half-assed war.

The U.S., however, does not appear willing to carry out wars and interventions in this manner. And thus its wars and interventions do not necessarily meet the requirements of morality. This raises several issues. First, economists have a lot to say about risk and have quite a good understanding of how risk operates: it makes sense to me. I can tell you that in general people are risk averse and that forcing people -- a country -- to bear risk is very costly. Knowing that ten people will die is less costly than expecting that ten people will die, that lack of certainty has a cost. So we can understand the necessity of bearing risk in prosecuting wars and interventions as imposing a (significant) cost on the U.S. Second, once risk is understood as cost it nicely coincides with the argument of Feguson, among others, that the U.S.'s problem in world affairs is that its ambition exceeds its willingness to bear the costs. Thus, America cannot work as an empire, or a humanitarian intervener because it, like most countries is risk averse, and so does not want that cost. It will then be incapable of intervening in a just fashion. Third, understood this way, we see that arguments about how the U.S. is so much more "muscular" than a weak Europe are bullshit. Both parties are unwilling to bear this risk.

Where does this risk-aversion come from and can it be overcome? If the answer to the latter is no, then we have to question any argument ever put forward for war or humanitarian intervention by America. Even if the cause itself is just, if America is incapable of bearing that risk in the battlefield then the actual fight will be unjust, and that is more important. Walzer explains this as follows:
We have armies that can't, or can't easily, be used. There are good democratic and even egalitarian reasons for this. Obviously, U.S. national security is not at stake in Kosovo (nor is the security of any of the European nations, but i will focus now on the United States), and so it isn't possible to moibilize citizens to defend their homes and families. In other countries, in earlier times, wars in faraway places were fought by the lower orders or by mercenaries, people without political clout. But though the United States is still, even increasingly, an inegalitarian society, no soldier's mother or father is without political clout. This is an advance for Americans, since our political leaders cannot send soldiers into battle without convincing the country that the war is morally or politically necessary and that victory requires, and is worth, American lives. But there is an easier path for these same leaders. They can fight a war without using armies at all and so without convincing the country of the war's necessity. An easier path, which leads, however, to a moral anomaly: a new and inequality makes its appearance. We are ready, apparently, to kill...But we are not ready to send American soldiers into battle...But this is not a possible moral position. You can't kill unless you are prepared to die.
The risk aversion comes from the fact that each person who might die has relatives with a political voice, they are not anonymous peasants or well-compensated mercenaries. And Walzer seems skeptical of our ability to overcome this problem: it is a fundamental feature of democracy that you cannot inflict risk on individuals. Only a monarch can claim some higher purpose than its people. Due to the fact that each individual has some say, democracies are incompatible with sacrifices (especially the ultimate sacrifice) for a purpose outside its own well-being: humanitarian intervention cannot work.


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