The Ethics of War and Peace Revisited: Moral Challenges in an Era of Contested and Fragmented Sovereignty

  • Published

The Ethics of War and Peace Revisited: Moral Challenges in an Era of Contested and Fragmented Sovereignty by Daniel R. Brunstetter and Jean-Vincent Holeindre. Casemate Publishers, 2018, 336 pp. 

The Ethics of War and Peace Revisited engages with the ethical dimensions of just war by situating it in the changed notion of sovereignty. This changed notion is essentially “contested and fragmented” (1).

For the authors, just war is manifested in the forms of humanitarian intervention and responsibility to protect, preventive wars, and drone strikes. The collection of essays identify the use of force as an inevitable tragedy and locate the ethical dimensions—as well as dilemmas—thereof. The introductory chapter states the central questions being addressed and lays out the structure of the book. The book seeks to examine the “relationship between military interventions and ethics” as well as the evolution of the concept of war in the context of the changing nature of sovereignty (2). It further seeks to learn from the past to deal with the dilemmas more effectively.

The Ethics of War and Peace Revisited is divided into four themes: the factors framing the decision to intervene; who should do the fighting and bear the risk of dying; debates over the need for an ethical framework; and what does winning imply is cases of intervention. The essays in the first part examine the factors that drive the decision to intervene or not to intervene. The essays engage with the “humanitarian intervention hangover” and the “preventive war inheritance” (4).

The former implies that humanitarian intervention would lead to problems in its immediate aftermath, while the latter implies the tendency to locate positive aspects of intervention. From the Christian just-war perspective, intervention could be justified for ensuring justice in the world. These decisions can be driven by the national interests of the states concerned. The recent acts of the United States, however, indicate the moral and ethical tension inherent in the strategy of preventive force. Ethical issues around drone strikes is one such concern.

The essays in the second part engages with the issue of “who should do the fighting” and bear the associated risks (117). The contributors address the issues of the legitimacy of employing military force and bearing the risk of dying beyond the lens of the just-war tradition. Issues of legitimacy and authority around the potential role of private military and security companies, the rhetoric of civilising potential garbed in colonial hangover, and the jihadist notion of sovereignty provide insights into changing scenarios.

The essays in the third part locate the possibility of new ethical frameworks in the context of changing meaning of sovereignty. With unprecedented advances in technology and the rise of terrorism, the contributors engage with the issues around use of drones, state-sponsored violence and human security. The “dehumanizing effects of drones” (206), the exercise of “moral judgement” (211), and “the limits of law enforcement” (222–30) provoke one to look beyond the existing just war framework. The need for broadening the agenda of security is echoed in the last chapter of this part where the urgency of redeeming the aspect of emancipation is emphasized (258). The clear indication is that the existing ethical frameworks are not equipped to deal with the changing nature of the world order.

The essays in the fourth part seek to examine the meaning of “victory” itself. Addressing the issue of justice after war, the first essay examines two models of postwar policy namely, “retribution and rehabilitation” (266). Analysing the reasons that drive the need for regulating the postwar situation and outlining principles governing these, it is argued that “the rehabilitation model” is “superior to the retribution model” (283). But the authors advocate the problems in the rehabilitation model and the possibility of arriving at a middle ground between retribution and rehabilitation, called the “thin theory of postwar justice” (267).

The final essay engages with the hollowness inherent in the meaning of victory that stems from the lack of analytical clarity as well as a lack of evaluating it. The paradox is that while the “ideal of victory is presupposed by the idea of just war,” it leads to a problematic “disposition that discounts humility and respect for constraints in war” (295-96). The concluding chapter brings together the arguments of the 14 essays and identifies metatheoretical, conceptual and practical areas for future enquiry. In doing so, it reinvigorates the question that emerges with changes in the principles of morally evaluating war. This becomes more relevant given the continued use of force while the context of its use is changing and technological advancement enforce newer dilemmas.

The book is a collection of engaging and relevant essays by scholars who have established credentials in the fields of war and peace studies, ethics, philosophy, politics, international relations, and religious studies. The editors did a commendable work of organizing such detailed and lucid treatment of ethics of war and peace. While the arguments do not discard or outrightly reject the just-war tradition, the need to revisit it in light of changed context is an extremely relevant intervention. One cannot keep using the old lens when the reality has undergone substantial change.

The book is an important contribution to the ongoing debates around the issues of ethics and morality in broader international politics where appeals to just-war and post-war justice continues. It would be of interest of scholars as well as the practitioners of international politics. In particular, the theoretical contribution and the practical implications need serious attention by the ones deciding the epistemological debates and the ones deciding the genesis, continuation and aftermath of actual wars.

Dr. Abhishek Choudhary

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."