Michael Walzer's 1977 book "Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations" highlights five central issues discussing the justification of war/foreign intervention. President Obama's speech at the UN General Assembly this past week addressed all five central issues that Walzer contends must be examined when it comes to foreign intervention.
1) What is the value of sovereignty and territorial integrity to the men and women who live within a particular state's territory?
Walzer suggests that the greater the value on sovereignty, the higher the moral barrier to intervention is for people who live within each state. And the lower the value on sovereignty the lower the moral barrier to intervention. In his speech, President Obama highlights that allies of the Syrian Assad regime cited "principles of sovereignty to shield his regime." In essence the President recognizes that the allies of Syria: Iran, Russia, China, place great value in preserving sovereignty/territorial integrity and this is what serves as their barrier to intervening in Syria. On the other hand, the President redefines how states should not let sovereignty "be a shield for tyrants to commit wanton murder, or an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye to slaughter." The President stressed the message that states should all wish to place a high value on sovereignty as it is "the center of our international order". President Obama upholds sovereignty while stressing that it is not unconditional when it comes to "slaughter". Which leads to the second central issue Walzer discusses:
2) How much "systematic killing" justifies war?
In his speech, President Obama begs the following question: "should we really accept the notion that the world is powerless in the face of a Rwanda or Srebrenica? If that’s the world that people want to live in, then they should say so, and reckon with the cold logic of mass graves." One could argue that this question is asked rhetorically with an underlying tone of anger and disappointment. The UN Charter article 1 stresses that the Organization is to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations in the attainment of universal peace. The President strikes at the purpose for the General Assembly meeting to harmonize for peace and not to justify "mass graves", at least according to the UN Charter. For President Obama "mass graves" justify intervention when it comes to "systematic killing". President Obama stresses that all "places where horrendous violence can put innocent men, women and children at risk, with no hope of protection from national institutions" intervention is justified and he foreshadows increasing interventions with fragile or failing states. And his speech leads into the third issue that
3) If a war is justified, who should fight it?
According to President Obama: "We (USA) cannot and should not bear that burden alone." The President stressed that when it comes to interventions, the US feels that more countries around the world need to step up and participate in playing a role to prevent failing and fragile states such as Syria from committing atrocities against it's own people. The President cited coalition building and initiatives to support countries that combat terrorism. He cited how "in Mali, we supported both the French intervention that successfully pushed back al Qaeda, and the African forces who are keeping the peace." But once these coalitions are formed and other states step up to the plate in the international arena with fighting extremist, terrorist networks and tyrants:
4) How should intervention be conducted?
The President explores several options that go beyond unilateral military intervention stressing that the objectives "to achieve peace and prosperity [...] can rarely be achieved through unilateral (military) action". In this address the President stresses Diplomatic endeavors and calls world leaders to intervene with humanitarian and economic development aide. Urging "all nations here to step up to meet humanitarian needs in Syria and surrounding countries. America has committed over a billion dollars to this effort, and today, I can announce that we will be providing an additional $340 million" was one of the ways that the American Head of State felt intervention should be conducted. When it comes to diplomatic interventions, in the particular case of Syria, the President "welcomed the influence of all nations that can help bring about a peaceful resolution of Syria’s civil war." And when the nations intervene with these diplomatic, multilateral military, and economic actions they ca then bring peace to regions of civil unrest, failing states with humanitarian aide.
5) What kind of peace should the intervening forces seek?
The President was on a defense, defending US foreign policy and the forms of peace it seeks:
"the United States is chastised for meddling in the region, and accused of having a hand in all manner of conspiracy; at the same time, the United States is blamed for failing to do enough to solve the region’s problems, and for showing indifference toward suffering Muslim populations." He stressed that the most important thing about a long standing peace is to create one where disengaging does not "create a vacuum of leadership that no other nation is ready to fill." Walzer agrees as he cites that intervening forces should show how they do not have pursuit for their own imperial ambitions, have readiness to leave, are a part and parcel of the post-development of the state they intervened in. President Obama with his words attempts to dispel the notion of American Imperial ambition: "The notion of American empire may be useful propaganda, but it isn’t borne out by America’s current policy or public opinion." He dispels the notion that US intervention is to pursue strategic interests such as obtaining natural resources: "Ultimately, this is the international community that America seeks – one where nations do not covet the land or resources of other nations".
It seems that Walzer's central issues for justifying intervention still apply in the 21st century. And it seems that President Obama addressed each of these central issues with clear US foreign policy endeavors. Endeavors that stress partnership and low-tolerance for violation of international charters and laws when it comes to violence against people resulting in mass graves. Endeavors for long-term development and resolutions and short-term humanitarian aide. The President intelligently spoke of the assumptions and critiques that states hold against the US for its intervention and defending US intervention. Will his ideas put out the fire in Syria? Only time will tell. Until then, Walzer's central issues will continue to be contemplated by leaders everywhere in justifying their interest and actions in intervening or refraining from engaging in military action.