by J. Bryan Hehir

Father Bryan HehirThis presentation was delivered by J. Bryan Hehir, counselor, Catholic Relief Services, and professor, Harvard Divinity School, on June 3, 1996, at a conference at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The conference concluded a yearlong series entitled "End of the American Century: Searching for America's Role in the Post-Cold War World." Copyright ©1996 the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. A revised version of this essay was published in At The End of the American Century: U.S. Foreign Policy After the Cold War, edited by Robert L. Hutchings, from the Woodrow Wilson Center Press and the Johns Hopkins University Press in spring 1998. Displayed on The Clausewitz Homepage with the permission of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Given the magnitude of the topic, I am going to be analytically selective in addressing it. I will look at the intersection of what I will call "strategic problems," meaning simply how one thinks about the use of force in international affairs, and normative questions, or those bearing on moral or ethical issues. So while looking at the role of force in the post-Cold War world, I will focus precisely on those nodal points where strategic issues and normative issues come together.

It is essential to look at both the strategic and the normative because foreign policy in the 1990s must confront two deep transformations in international affairs and must somehow confront them together. The first is a change in the structure of power in international politics in which the bipolar world has collapsed, but no system has yet emerged to take its place. Henry Kissinger and others have argued that at other periods of time in international affairs when the world has had to deal with the changing structure of power, the change in itself has been a major challenge to policymakers and analysts. It upsets old frames of reference and confounds core assumptions. I would argue, however, that the change in the structure of power—which we might call an empirical change — is not the only change that frames the policymaking process today.

The second change is a normative change in the principles of order. Whereas the change in the structure of power is rightly attributed to the Cold War/post-Cold War shift, the principles of order have been gradually transformed since the founding of the United Nations. What I mean by principles of order are the basic conceptual elements by which we understand international politics. For lack of a better term it is the "Westphalian order"—the modern state system as it emerged after the peace of Westphalia in 1648—that has undergone change. So the question that must be asked for successful policy analysis and policymaking in the 1990s is how to deal simultaneously with the changing empirical order—the structure of power—and the changing normative order—changes in the principles of order by which we understand international affairs.

I will look briefly at three cases, all of which have appeared since the end of the Cold War, that stand at the intersection of these empirical and normative changes. I will look first at the relativization of nuclear weapons; second at the return of classical, conventional war in the Gulf War; and third at the revision of the principles of intervention.

The Relativization of Nuclear Weapons

When one tries to understand the uses of force in the 1990s, it is essential to absorb what an enormous change has taken place on this question regarding the role of nuclear weapons. For the last fifty years, nuclear weapons have stood at the center of global politics and have constituted a fundamental challenge to the way in which the Western world has learned to think about politics, strategy, and ethics. So in a world in which military affairs were held to be central to world politics, the arrival of nuclear weapons constituted a major intellectual and policy challenge to Western political, strategic, and ethical traditions.

As a background to that challenge, there were two people who taught the Western world to think about politics, strategy, and ethics. They were a strange combination—a 19th-century Prussian general and a 5th-century African saint. It was Clausewitz and Augustine that helped us to relate politics, strategy, and ethics. Clausewitz argued that war was the extension of politics by other means, that is to say a rationally defensible activity that did not destroy the political order, but simply extended it. Augustine, fifteen centuries earlier, argued that some uses of military force could in fact be morally commanded—that is to say, moral imperatives drove the resort to war. Clausewitz and Augustine together, therefore, provided a framework within which one could think about the political order, the strategic order, and the moral order. In principle it was a coherent fit. One had always to measure the fit—not all wars were morally justifiable, not all strategic conceptions were maintained within a rational framework—but it was possible to link those three elements together.

Nuclear weapons exploded the framework of Clausewitz and Augustine, both in the strategic arena and in the moral argument about the nuclear age. In the strategic debate, let me turn to what I will call the strategic synthesis that was shaped between 1958 and 1962, the coming together of deterrence theory and arms control theory. From that period on there were simply variations on the theme. But that strategic debate was an attempt to come to grips with Bernard Brody's proposition that once the nuclear age had arrived it was the non-use of force that was the rationally desirable way for a state to think about force, not the use of force.

The normative debate that took place during the Cold War underwent just as radical a shift. For sixteen hundred years following Augustine, essentially we had thought about the ethics of war. The moral question arose when people went to war. With the coming of the nuclear age, we had to think about the ethics of peace as well. That is to say, the way we kept the peace through nuclear deterrence was itself a major moral problem. There was a fragile resolution to the challenge posed by the nuclear revolution. In the strategic field the resolution came through deterrence theory and arms control theory. In the moral order, people clustered around a very fragile consensus that essentially tolerated deterrence not as a moral good, but as a lesser evil than anything else one could think of. We sought to draw a distinct barrier against any use of nuclear weapons, creating a kind of ambiguity about how to tie together the use theory and the deterrence theory. This was the fragile consensus that developed to deal with nuclear weapons.

What is interesting in the post-Cold War world is the way nuclear weapons have been relativized, both in their strategic meaning and to some degree in their moral import. Nuclear weapons have moved from the center of world politics out toward the margin. The central question we now confront on nuclear questions is the threat of proliferation rather than the threat of central strategic warfare. The proliferation question has replaced the question that helped define our thinking for fifty years: how to deter a conscious, rational choice to use nuclear weapons against American territory. Today it is not the conscious, rational choice that poses the greatest problem; it is the danger that arises in a chaotic "proliferated" world in which the use of nuclear weapons is more likely to be a mistake than a conscious, rational choice. Thus proliferation poses a different problem.

When nuclear weapons are relativized and the central question becomes proliferation rather than the strategic balance of the Cold War, things change both politically and strategically, and they change morally in terms of the agenda before us. The political-strategic consequences of the shift toward putting proliferation in the center of the circle of nuclear problems is that one moves from an aggressive threat in a bipolar world to a systemic threat. In other words, the threat is not focused in a single foreign power, but in all those that could become nuclear actors and in what they would do. Secondly, there is the primacy of the political over the strategic. In other words, deterrence of proliferation is essentially a political process that convinces states that "going nuclear" is not desirable for either them or the system, rather than a coercive threat of a second strike response against a nuclear weapon possessing state. There is a continuing role for deterrence, but it is a role that has to be thought through in a very different way than the kind of deterrence that functioned during the Cold War.

What are the normative consequences of all this? With proliferation our central problem regarding nuclear weapons, one begins with a compromised normative baseline. In other words, when we try to approach counterproliferation or nonproliferation, we start from a compromised moral position. The leading advocates of nonproliferation are the existing nuclear states, which show no inclination of foregoing what they already possess even as they fervently argue for the benefits of the system—not only for themselves but also for states not possessing nuclear weapons. The problem is that it is not easy to do away with this compromised normative position. The chance of radical conversion on the part of existing nuclear states is slim, and it is not clear that one would want too radical a conversion on this question, since deterrence still functions somewhat in a proliferated world. One wonders whether one would want to eliminate deterrence altogether.

So the problem remains. How does one deal with a compromised normative baseline when trying to make a strategic case against proliferation? To some degree it is a mix of elements that would make up what I would call an interim proposal—meaning that it cannot last forever, but might provide a basis for the short term. First, this interim proposal would involve defensive pledges to third parties who would forego nuclear weapons but enjoy the protection of nuclear states. Second, it would involve fulfillment of the original bargain of Article 6 of the Nonproliferation Treaty, whereby nuclear states are committed to reducing their nuclear arsenals. And third, this interim proposal would review the perquisites that go with having nuclear weapons in world politics. In other words, if one seeks to convince states not to go nuclear, one would have to have logic of world politics that does not give high rewards to existing nuclear states.

This is just one cameo shot of the nuclear age. The central problem has changed. The questions, both empirical and normative, are quite different than what we dealt with in the Cold War period.

The Return of Classical Warfare

Let me turn to a very different case—what I will call the return of classical, conventional war. As one looks at the uses of force in the post-Cold War period, it is of course interesting that the first post-Cold War crisis was the Gulf War, which I take to have been the return of classical, conventional war. It was classical in its cause—that is to say, an open act of aggression across a recognized international boundary, and it was classical in its style of resolution—set-piece armies facing one another across the front lines, where major military initiatives were carried out with conventional weapons. Most conflicts of the previous fifty years had been fought out between the discussions about deterrence on the one hand, and unconventional wars of various kinds on the other. We had with the Gulf War a return of a good old-fashioned war. One could define the terms and calculate the consequences; that is why the debate leading up to the war was so clear cut. We knew how to argue those cases.

This was the kind of war that the UN system was designed to confront. It was also the kind that the traditional ethic of war—the just war doctrine—was designed to assess. What had happened in the nuclear age was that the just war doctrine—the standard moral vision of how to evaluate the use of force—had been stretched and pulled by the two issues it had to confront: deterrence on the one hand, which exploded the traditional theory, and unconventional war, which made it difficult to apply the theory in any way that we had used up to that time. In the Gulf War, however, we had a classical confrontation in front of us.

There are two consequences that flow from this return of classical, conventional war. First of all, what happened in the UN system? The authorization process—that is, the international community's authorizing the use of force in a normative way—worked in a way that it had not been able to work for fifty years. Secondly, the implementation process—a kind of collective security response to the Iraqi invasion—fit the consequence of the authorizing process. So the international system on the so-called ius ad bellum—the demand that one should go to war—worked. There was a rather clear, moral argument, an internationally recognized authorization process, and a collective response.

Now the question that arises when trying to think beyond the Gulf is whether this case was an aberration or a paradigm. How many wars will look like the Gulf, as one thinks about the international system over the next 15 or 20 or 30 years? What does it take to put together the kind of response that we saw in the Gulf? Does it take a hegemonic power that is willing not only to lead the charge but to be the major supplier of troops? And if it does take that kind of hegemonic power, who is willing to play that role? American domestic opinion is not chafing at the bit to do so, raising the question of whether that type of response can be assembled without a single power who is willing to pay the price all the time.

Even more interesting were the questions regarding the means of the war. Because the authorization process was clear cut, the ius ad bellum question was clear cut and clearly executed. The means questions were more complicated.

First, there was the role of sanctions. The question of sanctions in the post-Cold War period has become a much more troubling moral question than it was during the Cold War. During the Cold War when there was a threat of massive, catastrophic damage from major global war, sanctions against various powers seemed to be an appealing option. Sanctions allowed for exercising coercive force against the state that presumably deserved a response, and sanctions were something short of war. What we rather conveniently forgot in this pretty picture was that the targets of sanctions are precisely the people who are supposed to be protected by the ethics of war. Civilians are usually the targets of sanctions, and thus they are put in the center of the picture when sanctions are imposed. In the post-Cold War period as one looks at Haiti or Iraq, the question about the cleanliness of sanctions arises with more force than it did during the Cold War.

The answer to the sanctions dilemma may lie in what I would call the principle of consent. The best way to impose sanctions in any normatively defensible manner is to get some expression of willingness from those people who must bear that burden. That is exactly what we witnessed in South Africa. The black leaders were politically credible, indicated that they knew who was going to bear the burden of sanctions, and stated that they were willing to accept the burden in order to accomplish their goal. We do not see anything like that in Haiti, nor anything like that in Baghdad. It would be difficult to implement the principle of consent, but I think it is the way to try and resolve this moral issue.

The means of the war interestingly enough reflect a success story in the area of noncombatant immunity. This means that a justifiable use of force does not include consciously, purposely, and willingly attacking civilian populations. If one looks at the trend line on this question from World War II to the Gulf, it shows a rather remarkable learning curve. During World War II noncombatant immunity was violated by everybody on all sides, with the allies being as vulnerable to the critique as were the axis powers. What was notable was that nobody said anything about it. As MacGeorge Bundy argued in his book on the nuclear question, by the time of the bombing of Hiroshima there was no great debate in higher policy circles about striking civilians, for that bridge had been crossed much earlier. It was a settled question. Concern for noncombatant immunity came up in Vietnam and was debated extensively during the debates on deterrence in the 1980s. During the Gulf War, the briefers out of Riyadh sounded like Jesuits as they sought to defend the policy from any charge of attempting to directly attack civilians. From what I know about the policy, it is defensible on those grounds.

The troubling question is the following one. In a strategy that consciously, purposely sought not to strike civilians, the damage to civilians from the Gulf War raises an immensely troubling problem about the possibility to fight classical, conventional war in a morally acceptable way. The problem that arose was that of "dual use targets," rather than dual use weapons. For example, the strategy of the war was to take out the Iraqi leadership's eyes and ears, so the coalition forces went after the electrical grids. The electrical grids were militarily justifiable targets, but they were also attached to the water supply, which was attached to the electrical system that supported the civilian population as well as the military. Thus, the consequences for civilians were severe in spite of the fact that they were not the primary target. This raises troubling questions about the use of force in a classical, conventional conflict in the post-Cold War era. Can such a conflict be waged within morally acceptable means?

Dilemmas of Intervention

The final point shifts us from the Gulf to the debate that has recently consumed our attention: the question of intervention. If there has been a relativization of nuclear weapons on the one hand, what has taken its place at the center of the policy process is precisely the debate about intervention. During the Cold War, there were multiple interventions. Indeed, one could define a pattern of how intervention occurred during the Cold War. There was a free rein on intrabloc intervention—Soviets in Czechoslovakia, Soviets in East Germany, Soviets in Hungary; the United States in the Dominican Republic, the United States in Guatemala. Within each sphere of influence, there was no restraint on intervention. Yet there was almost no cross-bloc intervention; neither of the superpowers was prepared to risk escalation by going cross-bloc. Then there were the gray areas of the world. Starting with Iraq in the 1940s and working up through Vietnam and Afghanistan, the gray areas tempted intervention seemingly without cost. The costs became evident only later.

While intervention was not scarce, there also were two restraints during the Cold War. They were what I will call rules of prudence and principles of order. The rules of prudence were simply a corollary to the larger minuet that the superpowers worked out to stay out of each other's way while remaining in constant competition with one other. The rules of prudence meant the superpowers did not intervene in certain places that raised the risk of escalation.

Then there were the "principles of order" derived from the modern state system as it emerged after the treaty of Westphalia in 1648. All interveners (at least in principle) stood before the world as having violated the Westphalian order. There were three elements in this order: state sovereignty, the principle of non-intervention, and the separation of religion and politics. In the post-Cold War world, every one of those elements has come under severe pressure, and all of them are eroding. Not one of the component elements of Westphalia escapes the dynamic of contemporary world politics. There has been a challenge to the sovereignty of the state dating to the founding of the United Nations, the rise of human rights claims, and continuing on through economic interdependence and environmental issues. There is a challenge to what Robert Keohane calls the "operational capacity" of sovereign states, meaning not so much their formal legitimacy as their capacity to function. The separation of religion and politics is another essay, but the basic point is that the clean separation of religion and politics, which was presumed in Westphalia, simply does not stand up in Latin America, South Africa, the Middle East, or Eastern Europe today.

It took until the 1990s for the principle of non-intervention to be challenged head-on. Sovereignty was eroding in the sense of the classic Westphalian model, but non-intervention was not really challenged. In the 1990s it is being challenged empirically—people say that intervention today is possible and in some cases should be necessary—and it is being challenged normatively. The Westphalian bargain always was a fragile moral choice in which one reduced interstate conflict by pledging all states to an absolute norm of non-intervention. That fragile bargain is coming unraveled. Because intervention is less dangerous, the rules of prudence do not apply.

During the Cold War the question was how to restrain intervention. In the 1990s the question is posed "is there a duty to intervene?" The answer to that question varies, but still it begins with a presumption against intervention. That is the wisdom of Westphalia; in a world of sovereign states (however eroded they are) and particularly states of different size and shape, there is moral and political worth in maintaining a presumption against intervention. But a presumption is not an absolute rule. A presumption can be overridden by exceptions.

I would expand the reasons for overriding the presumption. The exception we have inherited in international law is genocide. Genocide triggers the right to intervention. I would argue that in the face of "ethnic cleansing" and in the face of other circumstances where the chance of escalation to global war is significantly minimized, there may be a higher obligation to intervene; therefore, I would expand beyond genocide to include other causes. I would also restrict the authority to intervene so that intervening powers must get multilateral authorization; the authorization process of the Gulf should come into play in intervention decisions. That does not mean that multilateral authorization means multilateral implementation—that is a different question. One may or may not use a single state, but a multilateral authorization process is necessary. I would also establish very tough "means tests" for determining whether an intervention should be undertaken.

Thus the modern state system itself is in flux. Given the fact that the Westphalian norm is under severe challenge, it is necessary either to reaffirm the norm absolutely or to recast it. Perhaps the best way to deal with an eroding Westphalian order is to simply take it down a step—from absolute sovereignty and absolute non-intervention to a position of relative sovereignty and relative non-intervention. Call it the new Westphalian bargain.


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