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Optional Self-Defence War Against Lesser Aggressor Essay

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Updated: Aug 9th, 2020

The issue of war and peace is a central matter of concern in developing bonds in the global arena as well as between states. It has always been a stumbling point in the theory of international relations. Now some numerous approaches and theories describe the acceptability of waging wars. Nevertheless, most of them are based on myths, including but not limited to the myth of optional war and the myth of national self-defense (Oberman 2015; Rodin 2014). Some of them focus on the conditions under which waging war is required, while others concentrate on the permissibility of military conflicts. Still, the question is, why is it ever possible to state that there are optional wars? Therefore, the belief that there is no such concept as optional or permissible war is the foundation of the paper at hand, as states are either required to become involved in conflicts due to self-defense issues or prohibited to as it points to the fact that they enjoy moral corruption and seek ways to justify unnecessary bloodshed (Oberman 2015).

Waging a war is a complicated decision, especially given a normative democratic theory. From the perspective of this approach, democratic states are rarely concerned about other democracies as they are believed to be predictable. It means that in most cases, other democracies are perceived as a pacifist and demonstrating no interest in aggressive actions (RAND n.d.). Still, the growing interconnectedness between international relations actors, as well as the increasing role of economic issues in the regulation of interstate bonds, makes it complicated to identify the real aggressor. In this way, the issue of the permissibility of wars is becoming more and more challenging.

To speculate the justification of the self-defense wars, it is critical, to begin with obtaining an understanding of such a concept as the lesser aggressor. It can be explained by the volume of potential harm a state might inflict when initiating military actions aimed at violating another state’s rights, such as sovereignty, national wealth, or territorial integrity. In this way, lesser aggressors are those that can do less harm compared to other potential aggressors (McMahan 2014b). From this perspective, waging wars against lesser aggressors is often seen as permissible because it is believed that averting small harm is beneficial for the state’s future welfare as well as helpful for improving its global image. This assumption is based on the belief that defeating a lesser aggressor—killing a small group of people—would serve as a warning sign for other potential aggressors as states demonstrate their power in such a way (Crisp 2013).

Nevertheless, it is essential to remember that lesser aggressors might create unofficial political and military pacts, thus increasing the volume of potential harm when waging wars against them (McMahan 2014b). At the same time, it is critical to point to the fact that the concept of lesser aggression if often connected to actions and political decisions that do not entail the risks of killing both civilians and soldiers, thus not jeopardizing vital human rights (McMahan 2014a). It means that even though they do not imply bloodshed, both individual lesser aggressors and their alliances might significantly destabilize international relations and negatively affect interstate bonds. It is the problem that is directly connected to the question of the permissibility of self-defense wars against lesser aggressors.

Still, to find a relevant answer to the problem under consideration, it is critical to realize that war theory is closely connected to particular myths. For instance, the myth of the optional war and the myth of the self-defense war are the two that are most relevant when questioning the permissibility of wars. Understanding them is essential for becoming aware of the most common motives that get states involved in wars and make them tolerate risks of potential human losses. At the same time, it is essential to realize that both are closely related to another and should be viewed integrally.

To begin with, the myth of optional war justifies waging military conflict even in cases when a country is not required to do so. It means that states initiate conflict because they believe that they are permitted to do so. One instance of such optional wars is a humanitarian intervention aimed at addressing internal political issues even if the other states have not asked for any kind of help (Oberman 2015). The reason for pointing to the significance of humanitarian aid in the form of military help is the fact that it can be well connected to the matters of national self-defense even though it is another state. Still, it is essential to mention that in this way, states initiating humanitarian interventions also demonstrate their power, thus decreasing potential risks of lesser aggression within their territories.

The concept of humanitarian wars is closely connected to the myth of self-defense wars because it is the second type of optional war (Oberman 2015). Nevertheless, the idea of self-defense wars is more intricate because it incorporates different aspects of national security. As mentioned above, the first aspect to justify self-defense war is the criticality of protecting a state’s sovereignty. It can be related to both aggressions and humanitarian wars (Stilz 2014). Still, this idea is ambiguous because not only democracies but also totalitarian regimes strive for the protection of sovereignty, thus claiming that self-defense wars are permissible. This concept was referred to as the Hegelian Myth—the desire of tyrannies to maintain their positions in a particular state, thus ignoring fundamental human rights, such as the right to life, and waging self-defense wars (Tesón 2004).

Another common justification of self-defense wars is the desire to protect the norms of nonaggression. It is seen in the belief that any aggressive activities of other states should be treated in the same way, thus demonstrating that it is the wrong approach to developing bonds between countries (Oberman 2015). The support of nonaggression by promoting military activities is illogical because it involves the violation of the right to life. However, it is critical to draw the line between a real threat and nonaggressive activities that do not involve risks to human life and a state’s sovereignty (Walzer 2015).

Except for protecting sovereignty and promoting nonaggression as the fundamental approach to developing international relations, there are other popular justifications of the self-defense war as well. For instance, one of the most commonly recalled issues is the challenge of preserving national wealth, which is commonly measured in natural resources (Szabó 2012). In similar cases, it is critical to realize that sometimes the desire to possess national resources is no more than robbery. It means that the activities of other states are not connected to aggression and that these states are not motivated to kill civilians or even soldiers (Øverland 2010). Instead, their only drive is to illegally transport natural resources to their states, thus increasing their national wealth.

Finally, it is critical to remember that there are instances of crooked politics, for instance, sending troops abroad without any justifiable reason. In some cases, humanitarian wars can be perceived as a crooked political decision. The idea is that the troops are sent without the real need to stabilize internal or international relations (Mapel 2004). In such cases, waging a self-defense war might also turn into the representation of crooked politics because it violates nonaggression norms and puts the lives of innocent people—both civilians and the attacking soldiers—at risk (Rodin 2004b).

Now that the primary motives for becoming involved in self-defense wars are clear, it is easier to find the answer to the question under consideration. Still, it is critical to point to the fact that this challenge is highly subjective and that there are numerous opposing opinions regarding the matter of concern. In this way, there are both supporters and critics of the belief that self-defense wars are justifiable. For instance, Rodin (2014) believes that there are self-defense wars that are impossible to justify in most cases mentioned above. This means that the robbery of national resources, the annexation of particular territories, or even limitation of political freedoms are not reasons for waging self-defense wars, because they do not impose risks to human lives or dignity (Rodin 2014; Steinhoff 2013).

At the same time, Rodin (2004a) points to the criticality of an adequate reaction to humanitarian interventions. The researcher claims that similar actions can be treated both aggressively and non-aggressively based on the motives of the other parties involved in the conflict. In this way, the focus should always be made on relations between citizens and states instead of bonds between states. This means that human life, not a state’s interests or international image, should become the highest priority (Rodin 2004a; Rodin 2004b). The author supports self-defense wars in the case of unjust bloodshed or violation of human rights, including killing people or enslaving them (Rodin 2014).

Nevertheless, Rodin’s dual perception of the permissibility of self-defense wars is a common subject for both support and criticism. For instance, Hurka (2005) shares the belief in the proportionality of treating lesser aggressors. In this way, the author believes that regardless of the complexity and controversy of the national self-defense myth, it is a comprehensive approach to perceiving self-defense wars due to its focus on estimating conflicts individually (Hurka 2005). The same opinion is supported by Ilsaas (2008). However, the author goes further and believes in the criticality of viewing the potential influence of conflicts on the development of international relations. In this way, if lesser aggressors neither violate vital human rights nor destabilize international relations, self-defense war is not justifiable (Blair 2008; Ilsaas 2008).

At the same time, Rodin’s approach is severely criticized. For instance, Tesón (2004) does not support the belief in the state–person relations, claiming that self-defense wars are permissible when opposing tyrannies and minimizing their potential influence on peace in the global arena. More than that, McMahan (2004) states that there are no arguments for justifying self-defense wars because all parties involved act immorally and violate international law and human rights. In this way, neither the lesser aggressor nor the party reacting to its activities should be supported (McMahan 2004). The same assumption is expressed by Tadros (2014), who believes that similar actions can be perceived as punitive wars and are immoral and should not be permitted.

To sum up, it is vital to state that the issue of the permissibility of self-defense wars against lesser aggressors is a complex and ambiguous matter of concern. Regardless of a wide variety of perceptions of the problem, that of Rodin seems the most comprehensive and well-developed because of the focus on state–person relations and the criticality of protecting fundamental human rights. Nevertheless, I cannot but support the idea of estimating the influence of lesser aggressions on the development of international relations as well as stability in the global arena. Therefore, based on conducted research and studying different opinions regarding self-defense wars, my conclusion is that it is possible to justify it in the most critical cases. In this way, if the lesser aggressors do not violate human rights and destabilize international relations, reacting to similar instances with military actions is immoral. Instead, it is advisable to deploy diplomatic leverages for solving conflicts and avoiding bloodshed. That said, in my opinion, the annexation of territories or robbery of national resources cannot be perceived as the instances that permit waging self-defense wars. Using them as such might point only to enjoying moral corruption in all involved parties and creating the image of cruel states that do not respect international law and nonaggression norms.

Reference List

Blair, J 2008, ‘Tensions in a certain conception of just war as law enforcement’, Res Publica, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 303-311.

Crisp, R 2013, , Web.

Hurka, T 2005, ‘Proportionality and the morality of war’, Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 33, no.1, pp. 34-66.

Ilsaas, P A 2008, ‘Blair on Rodin: rejoinder’, Res Publica, vol. 14, no. 1, pp. 313-316.

Mapel, D R 2004, ‘Innocent attackers and rights of self-defense’, Ethics & International Affairs, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 81-86.

McMahan, J 2004, ‘War as self-Defense’, Ethics & International Affairs, vol. 18, no. 1, 75-80.

McMahan, J 2014, , Web.

McMahan, J 2014, “What rights may be defended by means of war?”, in C Fabre & S Lazar (eds), The morality of defensive war, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 115-158.

Oberman, K 2015, ‘The myth of the optional war: why states are required to wage wars they are permitted to wage’, Philosophy & Public Affairs, vol. 43, no. 4, pp. 1-38.

Øverland, G 2010, ‘Conditional Threats’, Journal of Moral Philosophy, vol. 7, no. 1, pp. 334-345.

RAND n.d., , Web.

Rodin, D 2004, ‘Beyond national defense’, Ethics & International Affairs, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 93-98.

Rodin, D 2004, ‘War and self-defense’, Ethics & International Affairs, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 63-68.

Rodin, D 2014, “The myth of national self-defense”, in C Fabre & S Lazar (eds), The morality of defensive war, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 64-84.

Steinhoff, U 2013, ‘Rodin on self-defense and the “myth” of national self-defense: a refutation’, Philosophia, vol. 41, no. 1, pp. 1017-1036.

Stilz, A 2014, “Territorial rights and national defense”, in C Fabre & S Lazar (eds), The morality of defensive war, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 203-228.

Szabó, K T 2012, Anticipatory action in self-defense: essence and limits under international law, Springer, Amsterdam.

Tadros, V 2014 “Punitive War”, in H Frowe and G Lang (eds), How we fight: ethics in war, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 18-37.

Tesón, F R 2004, ‘Self-defense in international law and rights of persons’, Ethics & International Affairs, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 87-92.

Walzer, M 2015, Just and unjust wars: a moral argument with historical illustrations, Basic Books, New York.

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