Jean Bethke Elshtain’s article: „International Justice as Equal Regard and the Use of Force” and the Just War theory

Seminar Paper, 2007

14 Pages, Grade: 1,0

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1. Introduction and purpose of the paper

2.”International Justice as Equal Regard and the Use of Force” examined
2.1. International Justice: what it is and to whom it is owed
2.2 Elshtain’s theoretical tool: The Just War tradition
2.3. What it is and by whom it is enforced

3. Critical approaches – is Just War theory reigning supreme?

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction and purpose of the paper

“Our nation enters this conflict reluctantly -- yet, our purpose is sure. The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder. We will meet that threat now, with our Army, Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard and Marines, so that we do not have to meet it later with armies of fire fighters and police and doctors on the streets of our cities.”[1]

When President George W. Bush delivered in his 2003 address to the nation the administration’s reasoning for the then upcoming major military offensive to bring down Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the argumentative and theoretical groundwork of the so-called Bush doctrine resounded through news agency offices and university lecture halls all around the planet. His call for the use of decisive force in the battle against evil regimes and rough states and the spread of democratic values and western standards in troubled regions of the world caused highly divided reactions among politicians, intellectuals and broad parts of the world’s population. While many – mostly conservative – Americans firmly supported the administrations “grand strategy”, the more liberal U.S. cultural and academic elite and broad parts of the Western Europeans strongly opposed this new polarising approach of U.S. foreign policy. Among the many conservative intellectuals who were arguing actively in favour of the Bush doctrine was the well recognised Just War theorist Jean Bethke Elshtain. Her work on international justice and security combines basic elements of Christian theology, Just War thinking and calls for an active engagement of the United States in the distribution of justice and democratic standards throughout the politically weak regions of the failed and failing states in this world. As a highly well recognized academic figure, whose work got her an appointment to the presidents Council of the Endowment for the Humanities in 2006, it appears to be useful and interesting to take a closer look at one of her rather controversial articles.[2] In the examined article she eloquently tries to persuade the reader of the moral obligations the United States and other strong democracies are facing in their foreign policy. Many of the arguments and assumptions that Elshtain makes in her work about Just Wars and the justified use of force resemble the Bush administrations post 9/11 foreign policy doctrine and its imperative for an active engagement in international security affairs. Without intending to go as far as to claim that Elshtain’s theoretical concept to some extend served as groundwork for the Bush doctrine, this paper will try to concentrate on the basic assumptions of Elshtain’s article, entitled: “International Justice as Equal Regard and the Use of Force”, find out to what degree it can be located within the Just War Thinking and its sub-traditions and provide an overview of the critical approaches to both the article and the Just War theory concept as a whole. It will be shown that Elshtain’s argument is of highly normative quality and that it lacks convincing clarifications and clear distinctions in some important sections.

2.”International Justice as Equal Regard and the Use of Force” examined

2.1. International Justice: what it is and to whom it is owed

Introducing her view on international justice “as an equal claim to the use of coercive force”[3] on behalf of those individuals who suffer from the “horrors” of “radical political instability”[4], Elshtain clarifies that other than widely assumed, a basic political groundwork – in her words: “a central legitimate locus of power and authority”[5] – must serve as the basis for any other democratic establishments. Distributive justice, she argues, can only be established in an environment, where “political accountability” alongside with a “structure of power and law”[6] preceded. Therefore, any threats to these basic preconditions must be challenged with decisiveness and insistence. In her eyes, it is upon the powerful and able individuals and entities to help establishing and securing these requirements in regions where they cannot be taken for granted, or - even worse – have never been given yet. The obligation to help establishing basic political and structural conditions as the just mentioned results for her from the moral imperative of equal regard treatment of every human individual on this planet. This surprisingly noble approach to the security and welfare concerns of the helpless and maltreated individuals in the many failed and failing states is in Elshtain’s view owed to a necessary and logical combination of “Christian Universalism” and the respect of “universal human rights” that is best embedded within the Just War theory.[7] Christian teaching, in which the human xenophobic nature is being challenged by a call for “hospitality – caritas”[8] – the equal treatment of both neighbour and stranger – serves as framework for her moral concept. As one of the most prominent contemporary advocates of the Just War tradition[9] school of thinking, she urges for the use of its theoretical frame in order to be able to handle “matters concerning international justice”[10]. In order to satisfactorily understand this concept of “comparative justice”[11] as she names it, a decent assertion of the main elements of the just war theory and her specific understanding of it, is inevitable. Therefore, the following sub-chapter will try to serve this purpose.

2.2 Elshtain’s theoretical tool: The Just War tradition

The Just War tradition might best be determined as a philosophical "conversation about the legitimacy of war"[12] that originated already more than 2000 years ago in the writings of Cicero. Others trace its origins back to the thinking of St. Augustine who broke with the Christian pacifist tradition by granting "with regret" the possibility that war may be just if it is waged in defense of a common good and to protect the innocent from certain destruction.[13] Today divided into an almost unmanageable array of sub-traditions and divisions, it is probably explained best by Walzer, who names it a set of "articulated norms, customs, professional codes, legal precepts, religious and philosophical principles and reciprocal arrangements that shape our judgments of military conduct”[14]. But not only does it provide a common language enabling its users to judge about the legitimacy of an armed intervention, it also lists a certain catalogue of procedural rules and required legal and moral premises that are necessary to conduct a justified war. From what has just been said about Just War tradition and its perceptions, one might presume this theory to be a rather pragmatic realist approach to the dangerous anarchy in the international system. On the contrary, it bases its argument for military interventions on the principle of nonaggression and the universal obligation of nonintervention and the individual right of security of persons. Now, how does an argument for Just Wars go together with the moral imperative of nonintervention and "mutual respect for the equal sovereignty of each society”[15] ?

In order to help secure this very concept of international justice and its imperative of peace and mutual respect, violations through aggressions might have to be answered by the use of force against the violators. Although the use of force should be avoided it in the first place, it might sometimes be necessary or even morally demanded. In her text: "International Justice as equal regard and the use of force", Elshtain’s further clarifies that for her, the just war argument should make no "unbridgeable conceptual and political divide (…) between domestic and international politics”[16]. Therefore she finds it necessary to work at the international environment though the frame of a citizenship model that would remove the borders of legal and moral responsibility away from the manifested state system concept originating from the Westphalian Treaty of 1648, where justice was solely "pertaining to members of a particular entity"[17] – most likely a certain state or kingdom. The citizenship model view would, in contrast, constitute a world wide justice approach that applies to the entire human race. What are these main proced


[1] President G.W: Bush adressing the American people, informing them about the launch of the military interventions in Iraq in March 2003.source: Access: March 1, 2007.

[2] Elshtain, Jean B.: International Justice as Equal Regard and the Use of Force, in: Ethics and International Affairs, Volume 17.2, September 2003.

[3] Elshtain, Jean B.: International Justice as Equal Regard and the Use of Force, in: Ethics and International Affairs, Volume 17.2, September 2003, p. 64.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Elshtain, 2003: 63.

[6] Ibid

[7] Elshtain, 2003:65.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Burke, Anthony: Just War or Ethical Peace? Moral Discourses of Strategic Violence After 9/11, in: International Affairs 80 (2), March 2004, p.236.

[10] Elshtain, 2003: 65.

[11] Ibid 66.

[12] Bellamy, Alex, J.: Just Wars: From Cicero to Iraq, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2006, p.2.

[13] Elshtain, Jean, Bethke: Reflections on war and political discourse: realism, just war and feminism in a nuclear age, in: Elshtain (Ed.): Just War Theory, Blackwell, Oxford, p.265.

[14] Walzer, Michael: Just and Unjust Wars: A Philosophical Argument with Historical Illustrations, New York, Basic Books, 1977, p.44.

[15] Snauwaert, Dale, T.: The Bush Doctrine and Just War Theory, in: The Online Journal of Peace and Conflict Resolution, 6.1., Fall 2004, p.126. Access: 21.03.2007.

[16] Elshtain, 2003:66.

[17] Ibid.p.65

14 of 14 pages


Jean Bethke Elshtain’s article: „International Justice as Equal Regard and the Use of Force” and the Just War theory
Dresden Technical University  (Institut für Politikwissenschaft)
Theories of Justice
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ISBN (eBook)
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Jean, Bethke, Elshtain’s, Justice, Equal, Regard, Force”, Just, Theories, Justice
Quote paper
Alexander Kasten (Author), 2007, Jean Bethke Elshtain’s article: „International Justice as Equal Regard and the Use of Force” and the Just War theory, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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