Monday, June 12, 2017

National self-defense

I think many of us have the intuition that it is permissible, indeed often morally required, for a decent country to defend itself against invaders when there is a reasonable hope of victory. The “decent” condition needs to be there: it was not permissible for Nazi Germany to defend itself against the Allies—they had the duty of surrendering. The “reasonable hope” condition needs to be there as well: if the consequence of fighting is nuclear attacks on all one’s cities, one should probably surrender.

If the Ruritanians invade Elbonia, a decent country, with the goal of killing all Elbonians, then at least if there is a reasonable chance of repelling the invaders, it is permissible for the Elbonians to defend themselves with lethal force. Only slightly less clearly, if the Ruritanians intend to cause no physical harm to Elbonians if the Elbonians surrender, but will wipe out Elbonian culture—they will forbid the use of the Elbonian language, ban the national pastime of painting intricate landscapes on pigeon feathers, and so on—then lethal self-defense is still likely to be permissible.

But what if the Ruritanians invade Elbonia simply in order to take away Elbonia’s sovereignty, so that if the Elbonians surrender, they lose sovereignty but nothing else? The Ruritanians won’t kill anyone, won’t disposs any individuals or corporations of their property, won’t interfere with any aspects of Elbonian culture, won’t conscript Elbonians into their military (the Ruritanians have an all-vounteer army), will not harm the Elbonian economical, educational and healthcare systems, etc. But they will take over national sovereignty. Moreover, the Elbonians are confident of this because the Ruritanians have a centuries-long record of expanding their empire on such terms, and many neighboring countries have lost their sovereignty but had no other losses. Furthermore, it is the Elbonians alone that are at issue. For geographic reasons, the Ruritanians are unable to expand any further, and so Elbonians in defending themselves cannot say that they doing so to protect other countries. And there are no other countries in the world capable of imperialism.

It is only permissible to wage war for the sake of a good that is proportionate to the great evils of war, after all. The question here is this: Is maintenance of national sovereignty worth the deaths—both Elbonian and Ruritanian—and manifold other harms of war?

I don’t know. A state is a valuable form of human community. The destruction of a state is prima facie a bad thing. But if the goods of culture and ordinary life are maintained, it does not seem to be a great bad. Suppose that there was no invasion, but the Elbonians voluntarily voted to join the Ruritanian Empire. Then while there would be some bad in the loss of the Elbonian state, it need not be a tragedy, and on balance it could even be for the good. It is, of course, gravely wrong for the Ruritanians to bludgeon the Elbonians into joining their Empire. But the good of sovereignty just might not be great enough for the Ruritanians to have a moral justification to resist to the death.

If this is right, then sometimes the mere fact that a war is one of just national self-defense is not enough to justify fighting. Do such perfectly clean cases occur? I doubt it: imperialist countries aren’t likely to be as nice as my hypothetical Ruritanians. However, one might have cases that are slightly less clean, where the expected damage to local culture is likely to be small relative to the expected harms of a protracted war, even if that war can be won by the defenders. Moreover, in real-life cases one needs to consider the value of policies that discourage future such attacks by this and other imperialist countries. If all small countries surrendered as soon as there was a Ruritanian-style invasion, then we could expect Ruritanians and others to mount a lot more invasions, which could indeed be harmful.

So our initial intuition about the permissibility of national self-defense is, I think, roughly right, though only roughly.


Christopher Michael said...

I have a question about this bit:

“The 'decent' condition needs to be there: it was not permissible for Nazi Germany to defend itself against the Allies—they had the duty of surrendering.”

Suppose that we hold all the facts about world history constant up to and including 3 September 1939. The Nazis invade Poland on the 1st and the UK and France declare war on the 3rd. But now suppose that on 4 September, Hitler is assassinated by a German citizen and, after the dust is settled, somebody opposed to all his war plans ascends to power and German Nazism is essentially ended. Hitler's successor immediately withdraws all troops from Poland and all other foreign territory, and declares peace, so to speak.

Is it still the case that Germany is morally obliged to surrender to the UK and France? Do the UK and France have a moral right to invade German territory to force them to surrender? If so, why and to what purpose?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think it depends on the terms of surrender. Clear case: If the UK and France demand the summary execution of every German soldier, there is no need to surrender. A more realistic point. Of course, Germany owes some reparations. But reparations as ruinous as the ones after World War I impose grave harm on both the guilty and the innocent, and so it might be permissible to fight in order to avoid the unjust imposition of the kind of ruin that followed World War I.

But suppose the demanded terms of surrender are just. Then it would likely be wrong for Germany to resist the terms. But it could still be wrong for the UK and France to continue fighting, since it could be morally required for them to compromise in order to avoid bloodshed. So if fighting continues, it would be a case where both sides are wrong to fight. I suspect that cases like that are not uncommon. The British should not have resisted the American Revolution, but, probably, the Americans should not have revolted.

Heath White said...

I think that in the ancient and to some extent medieval worlds your scenario was pretty common. The typical peasant gave his taxes to Oppressor X or Oppressor Y, and X and Y might fight over the right to receive these taxes, but it was mostly a matter of indifference to the peasants. The Roman Empire, for example, had a fairly light hand on local government during its expansionary period.

In these kind of cases, I guess the local elite needs to ask itself, "are we better rulers than the invaders?"

Alexander R Pruss said...

Yeah, and not just better, but better by a large enough margin to justify fighting.

Taking such considerations seriously may lead to something mid-way between pacifism and the usual way of interpreting just war theory.

A thought in the vicinity, too, is that national cultures are very resilient to loss of sovereignty. Indeed, sometimes a culture is accentuated by loss of sovereignty (the golden age of Polish literature was the 19th century when there was no Poland).

Unknown said...

Dear Dr Pruss,

Just to clarify, have you read 'The Prisoner of Zenda'? (the novel in which Ruritania figures)

If you have read this book then not only are you unbelievably widely read for an analytic philosopher, but you are also an utter BOSS.


Jason Wojtyla

Alexander R Pruss said...

I listened to a librivox version of it some years back. :-) Ruritania occurs in a number of works of literature, I think.