The United States in the World – Just Wars and Just Societies:
An Interview with Michael Walzer
You've been highly critical of the Bush administration's policy towards Iraq and especially of their attempt to legitimate a doctrine of preventive war. At the same time, you have suggested that European critics of the US administration – especially the French and German governments – have failed to take seriously their own responsibility for the maintenance of a peaceful international order and have undermined international efforts to contain Saddam Hussein. Could you say something about how these criticisms are connected to the account of just war you defend in Just and Unjust Wars? In your view, how should European powers see their international role in a world in which the United States is as militarily dominant as at present?
The criticisms that I have made of the Bush administration's doctrine of pre-emptive war follow pretty closely, I think, the argument in Just and Unjust
Wars (see the chapter on 'Anticipations'). But my critique of French and German policy doesn't have much to do with just war theory. It is a much more general moral/political critique, having to do with hypocrisy and irresponsibility rather than with injustice. France
did not refuse to fight or wrongly resist a just war; they refused to provide what was in their power to provide: a serious alternative to an unjust war. I continue to believe, even at this late date, that had France and Germany (and Russia too) been willing to support, and had the UN Security Council been willing to authorise, a strongly coercive containment regime for Iraq, the war would have been, first, unnecessary, and second, politically impossible for the American government to fight. But this would have involved giving up the notion that force was a 'last resort,' as the French said, or morally impermissible, as the Germans said. For containment depended on force from the beginning: the no-fly zones and the embargo required forceful actions every day, and the restoration of the inspection regime depended on a credible American threat to use force. Now imagine the no-fly zones expanded to include the whole country; imagine the very porous embargo replaced by 'smart sanctions,' which actually shut down the import of military equipment (while permitting materials needed by the civilian population); imagine the inspectors strengthened by UN troops, who could patrol installations once they had been inspected, and by unannounced surveillance flights. Given all that, it would have been very difficult to make a case that Iraq
was still a threat to its neighbours or to world peace. But the US
did not want a regime of that sort, having settled on war early on; and France
were not willing to support anything close to this: they had, in fact, decided that the appeasement of Saddam was the best policy.
What should be the role of Europe
in a future international order? European states together could create a new balance of power, but that would require military expenditure on a scale that none of them, with the exception of the UK
, seems willing to contemplate. Even so, some increase in their military budgets seems to me necessary if they are to play the part that I would like them to play in deciding when war is just and necessary. They can't claim such a role and then, if the decision is made to go to war, insist that the US
(or the US
and the UK
) do all the fighting. That's not a morally tenable position. The US needs partners, real partners, who can say 'yes' and 'no' to our government – but these have to be partners who are ready to take responsibility for the way the world goes. Iraq
would have nuclear weapons today, had Europe
alone been making decisions about the inspection regime, the embargo, and the no-fly zones. And there would be many fewer Kosovars alive in Kosovo today had Europe
alone been making decisions there. It is easy to criticise American unilateralism; I do that all the time. But European irresponsibility is an equally serious problem.
You make some very cogent points about the attitude of the European powers, but the analysis leaves two kinds of question outstanding. First, you are obviously implying that military action to implement a 'strongly coercive containment regime' would have been justified. But is it in your view ever justified to intervene militarily in order to effect regime change? I am reminded of the doctrine of double effect in relation to chronically sick patients, whereby pain relief can be given even if it will cause death, so long as causing death is not the primary purpose of the treatment. It is clear that some elements within the US administration have on the contrary seen regime change as the primary purpose of intervention, to liberate the Iraqi people regardless of their preferences in the matter. How do you see this problem in relation to the justice of the conflict?
Humanitarian interventions to stop mass murder and 'ethnic cleansing' will obviously aim at regime change, since the regime's criminal behaviour is the reason for the intervention. Thus Vietnam
replaced the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia
when its army shut down the killing fields, and Tanzania
replaced Idi Amin's government in Uganda
. Had there been a UN intervention in Rwanda
, as there should have been, it would surely have resulted in the overthrow of Hutu Power. In the case of Iraq
, the northern no-fly zone was something like a humanitarian intervention on behalf of the Kurds, and it produced something like a regime change, in the form of Kurdish autonomy. But the safety and success of the Kurds undermined any argument that might have been made for a war for regime change in Baghdad
. I don't mean that this wasn't an awful regime, the worst example of third world fascism. And so I accept what your question suggests: if it happened that a regime of coercive constraint weakened and eventually brought down the Baathist regime, that would have been a desirable side-effect, but only a side-effect, of the constraint.
A second area concerns the problem of what should have been done given the attitude of the French, Germans and Russians, no matter how reprehensible the latters' attitudes are held to be. British public opinion is apparently judging the legitimacy of the war within two distinct frames of reference. On the one hand, there is the (more or less clearly articulated) perspective of just war principles: just cause, proportionality, last resort and so on. On the other hand, there is the pragmatic frame of reference, which renders a war legitimate only if a) the House of Commons votes in favour b) there is relatively unified public support, with a large majority in favour of war and c) the intervention conforms with international law. The current political anguish in Britain derives not only from the fact that Britain's leadership appears to be crushed between the rock of the Pentagon and the hard place of Europe, but because neither condition b) nor condition c) appears to be met. This is why the issue of the second UN resolution assumed a significance on this side of the water that it perhaps did not possess in the US. A second resolution would have made the war more clearly legal (condition c)), thereby swinging a large majority of public opinion behind it (condition b)) The questions are: would a Security Council resolution conferred legitimacy on the war in your view? And should either the US or the UK have gone ahead without it? More generally: what is the relationship between the philosophical principles of just war and the pragmatics of law and political consent?
It is a good idea to strengthen the UN and to take whatever steps are possible to establish a global rule of law. It is a very bad idea to pretend that a strong UN and a global rule of law already exist. Most of the just uses of military force in the last thirty or forty years have not been authorised by the UN: the Vietnamese and Tanzanian interventions that I just mentioned; the Indian war against Pakistan that resulted in the secession of Bangla Desh and the return of millions of refugees; the Israeli pre-emptive strike against Egypt in 1967, after the abject withdrawal of UN forces from the Sinai; the Kosovo war in 1999. So far as justice, that is, moral legitimacy is concerned, if the Iraq
war was unjust before the Security Council voted, it would have been unjust afterwards, however the vote went. It can't be the case that when we try to figure out whether a war is just or unjust, we are predicting how the Council will vote. Indeed, justice would be independent of UN decision-making even if the UN were a global government, though then, assuming the democratic legitimacy of this government, we would be bound to respect its decisions.
As for your condition (b), I doubt that you would want to defend the proposition that democratic decisions should be made via opinion polls or mass demonstrations rather than by parliamentary majorities. We organise demonstrations to influence the parliamentary majority, and if we don't do that, we wait until the next election. Watching from the US
, and thinking about the virtual withdrawal of Congress from the American debate about the war, I had to feel that Blair's necessary appearance before the Commons on the eve of war was a memorable democratic moment.
You have been very critical of the American left's opposition to the war in Afghanistan, especially the left's refusal to see it as a just war on terror. Do you think that there are other countries in which the US should intervene militarily in order to combat terror, as President Bush has suggested?
I supported the war in Afghanistan
because I believed that this was a defensive war (the paradigmatic case of just war) against a regime that did not merely harbour terrorists but was an active partner of the terrorist organisation that attacked New York
on 9/11. The Taliban regime provided Al Qaeda with all the advantages of sovereignty, most importantly, a territorial base. It was entirely legitimate for the US
to attack that territorial base and to overthrow the regime that provided it. I have reservations about the way we fought the war, and I have criticised our behaviour in Afghanistan
after it was over. But the war itself was eminently defensible. And should there be other countries that enter into a partnership of the same kind with Al Qaeda, I would think, other things being equal, they would be subject to a similar attack. But, right now, there are no such other countries. As for countries that harbour terrorist organisations, they can and should be dealt with through non-military means: diplomacy and, in extreme cases, international sanctions. Of course, if there were a visible readiness to apply international sanctions, there would be many fewer countries harbouring terrorist organisations.
In Just and Unjust Wars you take a strong stand on the issues of war crimes, guerrilla war, reprisals, and terrorism in general. How do you view the current crisis in Israel in the light of what you wrote in that book? How do your insights regarding the history of anti-semitism contribute to an analysis of how radical politics is understood within both sets of national identities?
This is a hard question for me to answer with any sort of brevity, given my long involvement in Zionist politics in the Jewish diaspora
and in Israeli politics too, as a frequent visitor. I recently published an article in Dissent
, 'The Four Wars of Israel/Palestine,' explaining my position, which I will try to summarise here. These are the four wars: there is a Palestinian war to destroy and replace the state of Israel
, which is unjust, and a Palestinian war to establish a state alongside Israel
, which is just. And there is an Israeli war to defend the state, which is just, and an Israeli war for Greater Israel, which is unjust. When making particular judgements, you always have to ask who is fighting which war, and what means they have adopted, and whether those means are legitimate for these ends, or for any ends. Most of the people attacking Israel
or defending it, and most of the people attacking the Palestinians or defending them, don't even begin to do the necessary work. I can't do that work here, but I will suggest some of the judgements that I think it leads to – most crucially these two: Palestinian terrorism, that is, the deliberate targeting of civilians, should always and everywhere be condemned. And Israeli settlement policy in the occupied territories has been wrong from the very beginning of the occupation. But this second wrongness doesn't mitigate the first: Palestinian attacks on the occupying army or on paramilitary settler groups are justified – at least they are justified whenever there is an Israeli government unwilling to negotiate; but attacks on settler families or schools are terrorist acts, murder exactly. (I want to insist that this is not special pleading: I am old enough to have made similar arguments at the time of the Algerian war: FLN attacks on French soldiers or on OAS militants were justified; putting a bomb in a café or a supermarket in the French section of Algiers
was murder.) And similarly, Israeli attacks on Hamas or Islamic Jihad fighters are justified; dropping a bomb on an apartment house in Gaza
was a criminal act.
Since I have often been a critic of Israeli governments, I am reluctant to call such criticism anti-Semitic. But it does seem to me that there is an oddly disproportionate hostility toward Israel
on the European left, which requires some explanation. I know, for example, people my own age who indignantly refuse even to consider a visit to Israel, but who had no trouble visiting France at the height of the Algerian war and have no trouble visiting China today despite its brutal policy in Tibet (which includes a far more massive settlement program than Israel has attempted in the West Bank). Indeed, much of the criticism directed at Israel
has more to do with the existence of the state than with the policies of any of its governments – which was, again, never the case with France
or with Germany
after World War Two or with China
today. Something is seriously wrong here.
A number of US intellectuals have been reassessing their commitment to civil liberties which they now see as a liability to security, post September 11. This reassessment has led to torture being placed on the political agenda, as in the case of Alan Dershowitz. What are your views and feelings with respect to this new climate of debate?
I don't think that I have changed my position – except perhaps in the way I distribute the burden of argument. After 9/11, those of us who want to defend civil liberties have to accept a greater burden than before. It isn't enough to point to The Patriot Act and scream 'Fascism!' We have to make the case to our fellow citizens that the government can defend them against terrorism within the constitutional constraints, whatever they are, that we believe necessary to personal freedom and democratic politics. Only if we can't make that case would we have to consider modifying the constitutional regime. Right now, I think that we can make the case; I only regret that so many people on the left don't believe that they have to make it. They talk about this question as if the last thing they want to worry about is the safety of their fellow citizens.
Back in the early 1970s, I published an article called 'Dirty Hands' that dealt with the responsibility of political leaders in extreme situations, where the safety of their people seemed to require immoral acts. One of my examples was the 'ticking bomb' case, where a captured terrorist knows, but refuses to reveal, the location of a bomb that is timed to go off soon in a school building. I argued that a political leader in such a case might be bound to order the torture of the prisoner, but that we should regard this as a moral paradox, where the right thing to do was also wrong. The leader would have to bear the guilt and opprobrium of the wrongful act he had ordered, and we should want leaders who were prepared both to give the order and to bear the guilt. This was widely criticised at the time as an incoherent position, and the article has been frequently reprinted, most often, I think, as an example of philosophical incoherence. But I am inclined to think that the moral world is much less tidy than most moral philosophers are prepared to admit. Now Dershowitz has cited my argument in his defence of torture in extreme cases (though he insists on a judicial warrant before anything at all can be done to the prisoner).
But extreme cases make bad law. Yes, I would do whatever was necessary to extract information in the ticking bomb case – that is, I would make the same argument after 9/11 that I made 30 years before. But I don't want to generalise from cases like that; I don't want to rewrite the rule against torture to incorporate this exception. Rules are rules, and exceptions are exceptions. I want political leaders to accept the rule, to understand its reasons, even to internalise it. I also want them to be smart enough to know when to break it. And finally, because they believe in the rule, I want them to feel guilty about breaking it – which is the only guarantee they can offer us that they won't break it too often.
More generally, in Thick and Thin you offered an account of universal ideals of justice - such as 'human rights' - which sought to explain how people with different histories and political traditions can come to share a commitment to these ideals even though they are not foundational for, or even integral to, their diverse understandings of justice. Your claim there was that such ideals are minimalist, or 'thin', and that their reiteration across political traditions explains why we can understand what people in contexts utterly different from ours are calling for when they march carrying signs simply stating 'Truth' or 'Justice'. If this account is correct, then if commitment to, for example, human rights is eroded within a significant number of powerful political traditions – as was suggested by the last question – does it become legitimate for the ideal of human rights to disappear from the landscape of international justice?
The people carrying signs in my account are Czechs in 1989, during the 'velvet revolution.' They hadn't been able to defend truth or justice in public for many years, yet Czechs watching the demonstration knew what the words meant, and so did we know, watching from farther away. If civil liberties are curtailed in the US
, there will soon be a movement to defend and restore them. And when we march with signs saying 'Liberty
,' Americans watching us will know what the word means, and so will you in Britain
, and so will people in China
, who have never enjoyed anything like our civil liberties. A full-scale culture inquiry would surely reveal significant differences in American, British, and Chinese understandings of liberty, but some minimal sense, sufficient for mutual comprehension, would be common to all three.
But your question is really just another invitation to make the relativist/anti-relativist argument of Philosophy 101. So let me restate the question in the strongest possible form. Suppose that the Nazis had conquered the world, and that the Third Reich lasted the full thousand years that Hitler promised. Would the ideal of human rights, at the end of that time, have disappeared 'from the landscape of international justice'? I don't know the answer to that question, and I don't think that anyone else does. But I hope that people in different parts of the world would resist the Nazis and when they did (I am paraphrasing my argument in Thick and Thin
now) they would discover that though they had different histories and cultures, their experience of tyranny was similar, and so was their response to it. And out of these commonalities they would fashion a minimal morality that would serve the purposes of their struggle. 'It would be a jerry-built and ramshackle affair – as hastily put together as the signs for the Prague
You are also well-known for your influential work on 'complex equality' in Spheres of Justice. Elizabeth Anderson has recently asked the following hypothetical question: 'if much recent academic work defending equality had been secretly penned by conservatives, could the results be any more embarrassing for egalitarians?' How do you view current philosophical work on equality, especially with respect to its relevance for the left?
I think that Anderson
's article is right on target. I agree with many of her positive arguments, but I am especially sympathetic to her critique. She is right to say that much contemporary philosophical writing about equality fails to address or even to recognise 'the concerns of the politically oppressed' and the actual 'inequalities of race, gender, class, and caste.' Maybe there is a natural disconnect between academic philosophy and political struggle, and maybe it is a good thing if philosophers are disengaged, looking on from afar. I don't want to argue that academic work is the same as work in the political arena. Still, there are reasons that we are interested in equality and inequality, and Anderson
is right to insist that philosophers today don't always have a good grasp of those reasons. There are, however, contemporary writers whose grasp is very good indeed: consider the work of Ian Shapiro (Democratic Justice
), Anne Phillips (Which Equalities Matter?
), Charles Beitz (Political Equality
), David Miller (Principles of Social Justice
), and Iris Young (Inclusion and Democracy
). It is interesting that these people are not working in philosophy departments; they are political theorists and feminist theorists, and they take their starting point from politics-on-the-ground.
For myself, I think that one great mistake of contemporary academic philosophers, starting with Rawls himself, is the claim that our natural endowments are 'arbitrary from a moral point of view' and should not be allowed to have effects in the social world – or, better, the effects they have should never be philosophically ratified. As Rawls wrote, we have to 'nullify the accidents of natural endowment.' This puts philosophy radically at odds with ordinary morality. Sometimes, of course, that is a useful conflict, but in this particular encounter, philosophy does not fare well. Our natural endowments make us what we are, and what we are necessarily has consequences in the social world, and some, at least, of these consequences must be legitimate. John Rawls deserved the honours he won by writing A Theory of Justice
– even if his intelligence was an accidental effect of the natural lottery. Beautiful men and women may not deserve the sexual and marriage offers that they get (we have different, but not entirely different, ideas about intelligence and beauty); still, they cannot be obliged to share their wealth or, as Phillipe Van Parijs has suggested, to compensate the losers in love. This last is one of Anderson
's most telling examples, and she goes on to point out that those of us who are not beautiful have never organised to demand such compensation. There is something to learn even from political struggles that never happened!
How does your view of complex equality relate to the contemporary tendency (in the US and Europe) for policy on the welfare state to move away from a focus on need to a much more conditional conception of welfare?
I don't think that is the right way to describe the current debate. Conservative critics of the welfare state claim that many of the people receiving welfare don't 'need' it in any reasonable sense of that word. These people, it is said, are capable of working, and society would be better served if they were enabled, or even required, to work. Now, there is an old left argument remarkably similar to this: that the first priority of a socialist state should be to provide decent jobs for all its citizens; welfare is necessary only for people who cannot work. 'From each according to his ability,' is as important as 'to each according to his need.' It is much better to be an independent worker than a client of the state. Two things are wrong with the conservatives' version of this argument: first, ttives generally don't deny the legitimate claims of 'need,' but most of them have no sense of what it means to be needy. I doubt that you can address this lack with a philosophical argument alone; you also need to evoke the sense of compassion. Here politics follows the affiliative or sympathetic emotions.
Given your influential discussion of 'blocked exchanges' inSpheres of Justice, what do you think of the emerging or possible markets in human organs and tissues, genetic material, and so on. How should we think about goods like this, which seem tightly bound up with personhood, on the one hand, and are easily commodifiable on the other?
What things are there in the world that are not 'easily commodifiable'? It is in the nature of the sphere of money and commodities that its extent is unlimited – until we limit it. Consider the debate in the US
today about whether guns are commodities. They are certainly easy to manufacture for sale. But it seems to me an obvious argument, though it is often resisted, that guns are significantly different from bicycles and breakfast cereals and rare books and dress shirts. I am fairly sure that we will eventually win this argument (indeed this blocked exchange may be one of the restrictions on American liberty that comes, though not soon, in the aftermath of 9/11). I don't have any similar assurance on how the argument about human organs and tissues is going to turn out. Given my own sense of what 'personhood' means in our culture, I think that the best outcome would be the one that Titmuss defended in the case of blood. Organs should be donated to some kind of public 'fund,' and then dispensed in accordance with one or another fairness principle.
But maybe people will turn out to be remarkably detached from their organs (we've never seen them, after all), and that will make an organ market fairly easy to defend. And then the problems we will face will have less to do with 'personhood' than with distributive justice in a more immediate sense. For it is likely to be only the very poor, in the third world as well as at home, whose organs are collected, and there are sure to be patterns of coercion and pressure that will make the collection exploitative. Commodities are legitimately distributed only in a free-market. Whenever inequalities of power interfere with that freedom, the market requires, as this market surely will, extensive regulation.
The left in the US has suffered defeat after defeat, and the Democratic Party has moved purposefully to the right over the past twenty years. Because of the design of the electoral and campaign financing systems third party efforts (like the New Party and the Labour Party) often seem either quixotic, or (as in the case of Nader's Presidential candidacy) can be portrayed as efforts to spoil the chances of Democratic candidates. What are the strategic options available to theUS left in the next decade, and which of those options do you favour?
I take it this is not a philosophical question. The picture is not quite as bleak as you describe. The feminist movement continues to make progress in the US
today or, at least, women continue to make progress, in political life, in the professions, even in corporate America
. The movement for gay rights is stronger, I think, than it has ever been. Blacks continue to 'arrive' in the upper reaches of American society (even as the crisis of the black underclass deepens). The incorporation of previously marginalised groups into American life is a feature of our times. But it is especially depressing that this does not have the effect that we expected: moving the country leftwards. Perhaps we should not have expected this. I remember the first year (it was sometime in the '80s) when a majority of the delegates at the Republican Party convention were women, and I thought: It is certainly good that they are there, but why are they there
People on the left can work, with varying degrees of hopefulness, in a number of different places over the next decade. The first is the Democratic Party, where we have to be engaged because that is where the largest number of 'our' people are. The New Party was a good idea because it involved supporting Democratic candidates while seeking, at the local level, to organise a base of our own. But that strategy has now failed. The Green Party campaign in 2000 was a very bad idea, the product in part of Ralph Nader's narcissism and in part of old left sectarianism. The sharp right turn of American politics is the direct result of that campaign.
The second place is the labour movement. This is a very old fashioned recommendation, I suppose, but there are still significant sectors of the American economy where organising is possible, and this remains the best way of expanding the base of the left. The politics of welfare and redistribution still depend in significant ways on the labour movement. And as Seattle
, 2000 demonstrated, any move toward a global version of social democracy requires the support of organised labour.
The third place is the famous but not always easy to locate 'civil society,' where organisations of all sorts proliferate, and some of them are ours: environmentalists, feminists, defenders of civil liberties, advocates on behalf of minority groups, and so on. These are the 'fragments' of a left politics that still has not come together and may not come together anytime soon. But the fragments are important in themselves, the more the better, and the people who work in them constitute a kind of civil service of the left. Anything we can do to expand these groups is worth doing, even if many of them are wholly engaged in a rear-guard, defensive politics.
Do you think that the recent deaths of John Rawls and Robert Nozick have marked the end of an era for political philosophy in theUS
? What are your memories of doing political philosophy at Harvard in the late 60s and 70s?
I spent much of the sixties and early seventies learning to 'do' political philosophy rather than doing it, and Rawls and Nozick were two of my teachers. There was a discussion group that met every month in those years, in Cambridge
and New York
, that included those two and Ronnie Dworkin, Tom Nagel, Tim Scanlon, Judy Thomson, Charles Fried, Marshall Cohen, and a few others: a peer group for most of them, a school for me. In 1971, Nozick and I taught a course together called 'Capitalism and Socialism,' which was a semester-long argument – out of which came his Anarchy, State, and Utopia
and my Spheres
. Rawls, Nozick, Nagel, and Dworkin were, I suppose, the leaders of the return of philosophers to 'public affairs.' For me, there was no return; I had never been interested in anything else. But I did make an effort to write about politics in a more philosophical way. I don't think that I ever managed real philosophy. I couldn't breathe easily at the high level of abstraction that philosophy seemed to require, where my friends in the group were entirely comfortable. And I quickly got impatient with the playful extension of hypothetical cases, moving farther and farther away from the world we all lived in. I was writing Just and Unjust Wars
in the middle seventies, and my decision to work the argument through historical examples was in part a reaction against the hypothetical cases of my friends. The current state of the philosophical argument about justice, as described and criticised by Anderson
, follows from too much abstraction, too many hypotheticals, too great a distance from the real world.
The Rawls/Nozick debate was, I think, pretty much over even before their deaths. In the philosophical world, Rawls and the Rawlsians won decisively; in the political world, I am afraid, the Nozickians won, but it isn't philosophers, it is economists, who relish the victory. Right now, the forces aren't engaged: consider how little criticism of the market model is carried in the journal that came out of our discussion group: Philosophy and Public Affairs.
In a sense, the key argument now, or the one that seems central to me, though I stand at a distance from it, takes place within the Rawlsian camp: between those, including Charles Beitz and Thomas Pogge, who would extend the principles of A Theory of Justice, and especially the difference principle, to global society and those, including Rawls, who resist the extension. For myself, I think that a strong critique of global inequalities and a persuasive claim that we are obligated to help the poorest countries can be derived from an historical account of how the world economy developed, and from an account of what Rawls called our 'natural duties.' I am a little dubious about the global reach of moral commitments that grow up within, and seem dependent on the solidarity of, a particular political community. One day, maybe…
You say that you support Anderson's critique of recent academic egalitarian writings on equality. You also comment on the welcome return of philosophy to public affairs in the seventies. Do you think that the engagement of philosophy with public affairs is still not engaged enough?