Thursday, August 28, 2008

War (Cont'd)

When does a state of war exist among states? Earlier I started posting on this topic, but then got side-tracked by my own lack of focus. I began that post by noting that, while there is a easy answer to this question—two states are at war whenever the relevant sovereign powers have officially declared war to exist—but being so easy, it is also uninteresting.

I am interested in a plausible definition of war, and this requires some theory about what war is. This is complicated by the fact—I think—that two (or more) states can be at war without acutal, on the ground (or in the air) hostilities having actually broken out. England and France were at war with Germany starting in 1939, but there was no actual fighting for seven months. In fact, until the era of rapid mobilization, this state of war without occurrent hostitilies was quite common. Alternatively, hostilities may obtain between countries even while they are not at war (U.S.-Iranian relations in the 1980’s and 1990’s as a possible example).

My first idea was to borrow some concepts from Habermas, and to model states of war and peace off of his concepts of communicative and strategic discourse. To be at war is for only strategic relations to obtain among states, regardless of whether or not actual hostilities are present. One is at war, that is to say, when one has recognized the other state as an enemy—an enemy being a foe towards whom all attempts at mutual understanding and cooperation have been renounced, and only strategic interaction acknowledged. This theory relies upon the appropriateness of the analogy between communicative discourse aimed at understanding and diplomacy, on the one hand, and strategic discourse aimed at manipulation and war on the other. I think that there is something to this. Diplomacy, at its best, does seek to establish a common set of principles both (or more) countries accept as normatively binding. But the problem with this is probably obvious: much if not most diplomacy is not oriented towards achieving understanding, but instead operates according to precisely the sort of manipulation Habermas cites as characteristic of strategic discourse. Strategic discourse is manipulative, it should be noted, but it need not be deceptive. Strategic discourse distinguishes itself from communicative discourse in that it does not rely upon the mutual acceptance of norms. The gun-to-the-head scenario is a classic example: with a gun to your head, I can get you to admit that you love Bono, but not because you find the Bono-loving norm rationally binding. It’s just that you would prefer to make that foolish declaration over being shot. Strategic dicourse is governed by a utility calculus, and typically, even if it is deceptive, this is only because in general most strategic interaction involve situations of imperfect information (both as to facts and to intentions) with both sides trying to game the other.

This coda, however, is not fatal to the analogy. We could define war as that situation existing among states where all intention towards communicative understanding has been forsworn, and only strategic calculations figure. But again, there is a problem. For one thing, it is the fundamental thesis of Realpolitik that this is precisely the situation obtaining among states at all times, both in peace and in war. Realpolitik could even be defined as the theory that only stragetic relations obtain among states. Therefore, Realpolitik and this theory of war are inconsistent with one another, and one or the other would have to abandoned. There’s nothing absurdly wrong with this, but I’d prefer a definition of war that is neutral among competing foreign policy frameworks.

So let’s add this addendum: two states are at war when all communicative understanding has been forsworn, only strategic calculations figure, and physical hostilties are either threatened or actual. According to this definition, the Vietnam War was, in fact, a war, but so was the Phoney War (because hostilities, while not actual, were threatened). Anyway, I'm not completely satisfied with this definition, but it's good enough for now.


  1. One problem with this definition of war is that it would make wars interminable. Usually, wars are concluded by means of some sort of treaty. And while of course a sovereign might sign such a treaty under direct threat of death, that need not be so. In other words, while treaties do not necessarily require "communicative understanding," it seems like they sometimes do, and historically many wars have concluded by means of just such a treaty. But if war requires that all communicative understanding be forsworn, such treaty-signing would be impossible while the war obtains.

    Besides, adding the "physical hostilities are either threatened or actual" clause doesn't really get you out of the problem posed by Realpolitik. Not at all, it seems.

    Oh, and Bono wanted me to ask you: How long? How long must we sing this song?

  2. Harper's Magazine, a few years ago, had a picture of all the current irredentist conflicts in the world, and it was startling. Moreover, one can usually find the historian on campus bemoaning the state of mankind as we have continually fought wars in the modern period. There is one every few years, and while philosophers need not be cynical, we should give pause, at least partially, to the consequent interminability of war. I do not mean to sound like Hobbes, but sometimes, my cynicism gets the better part of me.

  3. Roman,

    I take your points, but I was more interested in a definition of war that would allow us to claim that a state of war exists, even when no sovereign involved has declared as such. The Vietnam war, by law, was not a war, and I think that there is something wrong with this. As to the problem of Realpolitik, my issue always was somewhat different than what you pose here: I would define Realpolitik as the theory that only strategic relations exist among sovereign states (international law is not governed by laws normatively binding on parties. EG, states agree to abide by the international laws against torture insofar as it is in their interest--state x agrees on the belief that, in the case of war with state y, state y will not torture its soldiers, given that state y does not want state x to torture ITS soldiers--not insofar as states believe that torture is wrong). But assume that Luxembourg decides to adopt realpolitik as its foreign policy framework. It is highly doubtful that Luxembourg would threaten hostilities to any of its neighbors. I do not want to say that Luxembourg is at war with its neighbors in such an eventuality.

  4. Vancouver,

    Interestingly, I know of at least some academics who would argue that the human is slowly but ineluctably becoming nicer, less violent. Jared Diamond has observed that the chances of dying a violent death in most hunter/gatherer societies was around 50%, whereas the chance of you or I dying a violent death are almost statistically nill. Similarly, Steven Pinker I believe is working on a book arguing that our moral instincts, like empathy and an aversion to violence, have progressed remarkably even just over the past three hundred years. In case you haven't seen it, you can check out Pinker's piece here:

    Anyway, I do sort of agree with both of them. I mean, today, many people like myself consider even lethal injection to be a barbaric practice, whereas, my doppelgaenger in 17th century England probably would have delighted in the occasional public drawing and quartering.

  5. Michael: I shutter at the transforming climate of ethics turning into some weird empirical moral psychology. Be that as it may, while the context of living conditions change, there seems to be a missing assumption. Of course, there is less violence in some parts of the world where we have finally peaked out at the population rates. I don't think the comparison carries much weight. If we identified all those people living in abject poverty, I'm certain the threats have changed from hunter/gatherer as well. People might be less inclined to fight others in our current living conditions, yet when wars are fought the morality and definitions still apply. I don't know if I am being that clear.


    Roman, I take your points. Shouldn't we draw a distinction between war and violence? Better yet, we need to adopt a new mode of thinking allowing for sub-state actors as agents that can initiate war with a state. Bin Laden, for all intensive purposes, wasn't elevated to the level of a state actor as Lewis Lapham said in Harpers eight years ago. Instead, what I think Lapham and many fail to realize is the future of all war in the future, as long as there is only the US as a superpower on the block, is asymmetric.