The American just war theory in the 21st century: continuity or renewal?

Masakazu Matsumoto


Evaluations of the American war against Iraq are split into two irreconcilable camps among just war theorists. Michael Walzer, on the one hand, is basically critical of the war, saying that the threat of Saddam’s regime did not then constitute the right of self-defense of the U.S. or any other country. Jean Bethke Elshtain, on the other, believes that it is the obligation of the U.S. to defend universal values like freedom and democracy on the world-wide scale, and argues for the justification of the Iraq war. Why and how are such opposite standpoints found in the same idea of "just war"? This paper aims to answer this question by subdividing the kinds and traditions of just war theory. In fact, the doctrine of just war, which goes back more than 1,600 years to the era of St. Augustine, is the gathering of particular ideas that are joined together in their family resemblance yet still different in fundamental ways. Especially, the difference between the modern just war theory and the premodern one is substantial and significant. Historically, the doctrine of just war was born far earlier than the emergence of the modern sovereign state system, and has not always been suitable for it in some crucial respects. In my analysis, Walzer belongs to the modern just war tradition since Grotius, while Elshtain blongs to the premodern one since Augustine. This paper first makes clear in what way the modern and premodern just war traditions are different with a brief, historical overview. Secondly, it develops the distinction further by presenting a detailed analysis of the conflicting evaluations of Walzer and Elshtain over the Iraq war. Finally, this paper points out that the American just war doctrine in this century has been steadily drifting from the former to the latter.


Just War; Michael Walzer; Jean Bethke Elshtain

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