Struggling for Justice Among Nations: A.J. Coates and The Ethics of War

International relations is awash in books of all kinds, yet few of these offer a truly lasting contribution to the debate beyond the well-established doctrines of realism, constructivism, and liberalism. Many of the same books are read and re-read, and few works outside this inner circle break into broader acceptance. Inevitably, some truly important books get left out of the discussion, and this is a great loss. One of this number is A.J. Coates’ The Ethics of Waroriginally published in 1997 and re-released in 2016 with a new introduction and substantial revisions to the book’s final section.

Coates’ book initially appears to be a general introduction to the study of ethical conduct in war in the vein of Michael Walzer or David Rodin. Where Walzer advances a secular view of just war theory focusing on state sovereignty grounded in “independent community,” Coates’ avoids the legalism required of such a view. His focus centers on intention rather than the strict, rules-based framework of Walzer. In addition, Walzer formulates his concept of national defence as the natural extension of the individual’s right of self-defence, whereas Coates speaks admirably of the Augustinian tradition, which directly denies that national defence can, or ought to, be based on the individual’s right to self-defence.

Rodin, by contrast, moves to the opposite extreme, arguing not only that national defence cannot be construed as the collective rights of a nation of individuals to self-defence, but that national defense, as a concept, does not offer a morally acceptable basis for action. Rodin’s tentative proposals include a potential exploration of universal pacifism or a grounding of war in the concept of punishment rather than defence. In either solution, Rodin relies upon the strictures of international law to provide a larger referee, something that Coates studiously avoids advocating throughout his work.

Coates’ vision, as opposed to his contemporaries, is far more compelling — and far-reaching. Coates offers a holistic approach to understanding the role of morality in war, and in so doing provides a compelling addition to our understanding of war by emphasizing the mutually reinforcing nature of the moral and the material. One must prioritize moral action in international affairs, but one cannot judge actions as moral or immoral in the absence of facts and strategic analysis—an addition rarely, if ever presented to American readers. Coates positions himself between the theoretical debate of international ethics and the more practical concerns of international relations theorists.

Competing Traditions

Coates begins by supplying a detailed and persuasive case for the primacy of ethics in war and the use of force. He then lays out a broad framework detailing the three most important competing visions of war – realism, militarism, and pacifism – and the extent to which they incorporate an understanding of moral action. These camps rarely overlap, and little effort has been made to integrate these separate modes of viewing international relations. Coates attempts just this in his book. He examines each of these competing schools against the tenets of just war theory, in order to show why just war remains most compelling tradition of all.

Coates opens by noting that to speak of a just war is not to rubber-stamp aggressive actions with post-hoc justifications. Rather, just war theory provides a framework that not only allows, but requires an understanding of war as at best a deeply flawed instrument prone to abuse. Coates writes, “However ‘just’, no war is ever so pure or ever so untainted as to be entered into without grave misgivings.” This is the advantage of just war theory – it always keeps the horror of war at the forefront.

This is key to Coates’ broader framing, and it demonstrates why his work is of such import. In many American discussions of foreign policy and in much of the broader field of international relations, morality is typically treated with much less importance than many other factors. Coates aims to turn this on its head.

Prior to developing a framework for considering the place of morality in warfare, Coates establishes a foundation by arguing that moral action ought to be of primary importance in wartime decisions. Acknowledging the controversial nature of this claim, Coates nevertheless declares his intention to make a case for a theory of just war. To understand why this is important, one must understand the context in which he wrote. In the 1990s, with the Cold War just ended, the widespread belief in the primacy of peace made an intellectual defence of war both difficult and unpopular to articulate. It was in this context that Coates wrote, the “assumption that war lies beyond any moral pale is not only a common one, but one that, particularly in the light of twentieth-century experience, often seems irresistible. Nevertheless that assumption will be resisted here.” We face different challenges today than in the 1990s, but that does not diminish Coates’ relevance for our times.

On the contrary, his analysis is more trenchant than ever in today’s world of broadening international commitments. Coates provides an overview of four conceptual approaches to guide our understanding of international relations and war – the realist, pacifist, militarist, and just war traditions. Taken together, these offer a framework for considering the place of morality in questions of war and the use of force. Here, Coates’ position between international relations and just war theorists comes through in earnest. Throughout the book, Coates makes ethical claims backed by historical examples and qualified with practical considerations.

In contemporary discussions of American foreign policy, distinctions are often drawn between internationalists, nationalists, or various other traditions. Yet relatively little attention is paid to the philosophical and ethical underpinnings of each of these, specifically as these ethical frameworks inform broader practical questions of strategy. Their moral framework, the place that morality holds in each view, is largely unexplored in popular discussion. Coates’ takes such a structure as the primary concern.

Unrealistic Realism

The first approach that he considers is the realist tradition. In its purest form, realism appears to be the antithesis of just war theory. While just war theorists believe moral action is an essential component of warfare, realists resist the application of moral structure to international relations. According to realism, states make choices based upon perceived interests, without any (or with little) regard for morality. To a realist, any state that attempts to apply a moral structure to international politics places itself at a severe disadvantage as morality often hampers a state’s ability to respond with all available means.

Therefore, to a pure realist, questions of morality are not simply wrongheaded, but actively hostile to the interests of the state. To realists, “All attempts to subject war to moral limitation are utopian and, through their neglect of harsh and abiding realities, put at risk the delicate and necessarily imperfect balance in which international order consists.” The kind of moralizing essential to the just war theorist’s approach to international relations, is a contradiction in terms to the realist. In part, says Coates, this comes about from differing understandings of the purpose of war. According to realism, war is the natural state of international politics. It is the job of statesmen, therefore, to prevent war by balancing relative power. In this view, war does not require moral opprobrium, but rather must be utilized as an instrument of policy. Just war theorists, by contrast, believe that peace “is war’s essential moral context.” In this view, war is not an instrument, nor morality a tool. Just war requires constant self-examination and renewal, recognizing the legitimacy of war as an act, while demanding a clear-eyed view of its costs.

Realism, in contrast, acknowledges the legitimacy of morality only insofar as it serves political ends. Yet despite its low opinion of morality in international politics, Coates believes that realism “makes a fundamental contribution to the moral understanding of war” in its critique of over-zealous moralism, its support for limited war, and its emphasis on the facts rather than moral sentiment as the basis of decision in international affairs. As one of the most widely accepted and intellectually rigorous traditions, Coates believes realism offers just war both significant challenges and opportunities to learn. Yet he concludes with a caution, “Any account of international relations that seeks to exclude morality is an unrealistic account of international relations.”

The War Lovers

Where realism actively resists the imposition of morality on warfare, militarism goes to the opposite extreme, cloaking itself in a mantle of unimpeachable moral uprightness. In such a view, the problem becomes not a dearth of the moral sense, but a glut of it. The militarist, inclined to view his cause as endowed with righteousness or divine blessing, is more, rather than less, likely to indulge a lust for war. According to Coates, waging a just war depends just as much on controlling the moral sense as it does on the application of morality, and on this point militarism falls well short of the mark. “The moral regulation of limitation of war, it will be argued, is possible, though it depends in great part upon keeping the moral impulse itself in check.” When the moral impulse is not moderated, militarism reigns. The militarist, says Coates:

is an enthusiast for war, a ‘happy warrior’ who shares none of the moral anxiety rightly associated with the just recourse to war. Religious fervor, ideological conviction, moral zeal undermine that deep reluctance to engage in war that is such an essential part of the just war disposition and that finds theoretical expression in those pragmatically based criteria of just recourse… that are meant to temper the military ardour that the adoption of a just cause is inclined to arouse. Militarism sweeps aside these essential moral hurdles, allowing an unobstructed path to war.

Coates argues that “militarism establishes a pre-disposition to war or a moral bias in favor of war.” Coates notes that this position is often applied to fascists or the extreme right, but he believes this is an incomplete picture. In his view, any ideology can fall sway to militarism. Even moderate democracies can succumb to a deep-rooted enthusiasm for war. As he writes, “Even a ‘centrist ideology like Democracy, which prides itself on its moderation and pacific pedigree, can succumb to militarism by transforming war into an ideological crusade.”

The Ethics of War initially went to press in the heady days of liberal peace. In the second edition, Coates offers a few comments on American involvement in Iraq, but never directly addresses how liberal enthusiasm for democracy-promotion in Washington bled into militarism. The closest he comes is during a discussion of President Bush’s statement that “We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge.” As Coates writes, “The President’s concern is understandable, though the way that concern is formulated has worrying implications for the moral restraint of war.”

The Blessings of Peace

The final framework Coates discusses is pacifism. In the pacifist tradition, war is considered “beyond the reach of morality.” As a tradition, “Pacifism stands for the moral renunciation of war.” Much like realists, pacifists have a deep skepticism that war can be subject to moral regulation of any kind. “Both regard the attempt so to subject war as dangerous or counterproductive, increasing rather than decreasing the likelihood of war, adding to its ferocity, and obscuring the moral degradation and corruption that war inevitably brings about.” Unlike realists, however, pacifists do not view war as an instrument, believing that any resort to violence is by its nature corrupting and total, requiring a complete rejection of moral action. The concept of a “just war,” then, is oxymoronic, as war can never be anything more than a moral absurdity.

If militarism is the wholeheartedly idealistic support for war, then pacifism is its opposite — a complete moral rejection of war. Coates finds much to admire about pacifism, specifically its placement of peace as its ultimate aim. Yet he does not accept pacifism’s view of international relations, finding the position too narrowly constructed. In particular, Coates finds that pacifism suffers from a similar defect to militarism. As militarists regard war, so do pacifists regard non-violent action, which becomes an end in itself — preferred for the moral legitimacy it confers rather than its effectiveness at promoting true and lasting peace. Coates likens pacifism to an effectual policy of national appeasement, and it seems unlikely that such a posture would contribute to a broader, sustainable peace.

In addition, Coates notes that pacifists claim to the moral high ground is predicated on “the assumption that non-violent resistance is non-coercive, that here is a morally superior form of action that is not part of a culture or cycle of violence.” Yet Coates notes that non-violent resistance is engineered to create the circumstances for a violent response, and by that measure is a coercive act. The pacifist’s moral claim, located in the non-coercive nature of non-violent action, is at its root coercive, and thus, according to the pacifist, is deserving of approbation. In Coates’ view, this is an issue with which pacifism has not yet fully grappled.

Coates’ support for just war theory over pacifism centers on just war theory’s balancing of the moral and the practical, acknowledging the preference for peace but recognizing a call to act in pursuit of such peace. This is a perfect amalgamation of Coates’ own style, situated as he is between the theoretical (ethics) and the practical (international relations).

Violence and Justice

In each of the traditions discussed, Coates finds something lacking when weighed against just war. And so he concludes his account with a ringing endorsement of just war theory:

In opposition to the amoral and wholly pragmatic approach of the ‘pure’ realist, the just war theorist insists on the moral determination of war where that is possible, and on the moral renunciation of war where it is not. In opposition to the militarist, the just war theorist consistently affirms the moral primacy of peace over war, resisting the cult of violence and the drift into total war to which militarism in both its open and covert forms is prone. In opposition to the pacifist, the just war theorist resists the blanket moral condemnation of war and of all things military, affirming the potential moral instrumentality of war and the virtues of an imperfect and often precarious peace.

Coates’ work should be read, discussed, and debated because it adds an element that is deeply lacking from conversations in U.S. foreign policy, which rarely treats the question of moral action as one of primary importance. Coates bridges a gap that is seldom overcome in international relations – that between theory and practice. His position is unique in the literature of just war theory as he acknowledges the importance of the theoretical, plumbing the philosophical and ethical underpinnings of key traditions within international relations. Yet he also recognizes that any system of ethics must be grounded in history and applicable to the contemporary context of international relations in order to be morally valid.

Just war, in its classical form, is a deeply historical tradition, and Coates brings that history to life, offering illuminating examples from centuries of international relations to exemplify why the principles of just war theory are effective. In his view, they are effective because they are the lived tradition of our history, offering a wealth of insight into not only our moral character, but the practical problems that face participants in international relations.

Coates vision goes beyond the legalism of Walzer or the revisionism of Rodin. He avoids an over-reliance on strict rules-based systems and appeals to international law, offering an integrated, holistic account, not only of the ethical or the practical, but of the way in which each informs and reinforces the other. Such a framework has deep implications for America’s role in the world, and there is much we can learn from the posture that Coates recommends in this most crucial time.