What Would Grotius Do? The Founder of International Law Speaks Out on Iraq
FindLaw, Apr. 3, 2003
Are the U.S. and Britain waging an illegal war against Iraq? And if they were, how would we know?
For centuries, scholars and statesmen have dreamed of devising a system of international law that would provide precise answers to questions like these.
Unfortunately, international law has always been the Snuffleuphagus of jurisprudence. Like Big Bird’s elusive mastodon-like pal on Sesame Street, it exists to the extent we believe in it. To some, international law is not only real–it’s our best friend. But when they try to show it off to skeptics, it has a tendency to vanish into thin air.
Why? International law is based on universal consent, rather than majority rule. So nations can essentially “opt out” of rules they don’t like. Even when the rules are clear, nations have guarded enough of their sovereign privileges to prevent any really effective international arbitrator from arising with the power to enforce them.
Because its jurisdiction is voluntary, the International Court of Justice (better known as the “World Court”) is the international equivalent of Judge Judy. Countries may choose to plead their cases in The Hague, but no one can make them show up. If they ignore the Court’s judgments, no wail of police sirens will ensue.
Although the U.N. Charter allows the Security Council to authorize the use of force, it also gives veto power to the Council’s five permanent members (the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain). When the interests of the big powers clash, deadlocks and toothless compromises are frequent, while true resolutions remain rare. Badly divided on the use of force against Iraq, the Council could neither authorize the U.S.-led action nor condemn it.
Fortunately, with the legality and legitimacy of the present conflict in Iraq very much in doubt, there is still one untarnished authority to whom we can turn. He has remained largely quiet during the crisis, offending none of the principal antagonists.
To the war’s critics, especially in Europe, he is a symbol of balance and humanism, of respect for the rule of law over the law of the jungle. And to the Bush Administration, he represents an era for which they are openly nostalgic–a world of independent states looking out for themselves, their judgments unclouded by the illusory security afforded by ineffective international organizations.
He is the Dutch scholar Huig de Groot. Better known by his Latin pen name, Hugo Grotius, he is perhaps the world’s leading authority on international law. According to most accounts, he virtually invented the field.
But you won’t find Grotius pontificating about Iraq on CNN or Fox, or even on the Op-Ed page of The New York Times. He’s been keeping a low profile–at least since his death in 1645.
Despite this not entirely self-imposed silence, Grotius is willing to share his views with those who patiently inquire. Curling up one evening with an copy of his 1625 bestseller De Jure Belli ac Pacis (On the Law of War and Peace), I was able to ask the old master for his opinions on the present crisis. The questions are mine, but Grotius’s answers are quoted directly from the text.
Q: The Bush Administration has argued that it is waging war against Iraq now in order to protect the U.S. from possible attacks in the future. But how can this war be justified on the grounds of self-defense, if Iraq has not actually attacked the U.S.?
Grotius: A just cause of war is an injury, which though not actually committed, threatens our persons or property with danger…. The danger must be immediate, which is one necessary point. [But] when an assailant seizes any weapon with an apparent intention to kill me, I have a right to anticipate and prevent the danger.
Q: The Bush Administration says Iraq has made efforts to acquire chemical, biological and nuclear weapons with just such an intention. But the U.S. has tolerated such weapons in the hands of other countries and holds some of them in its own arsenal. Doesn’t this inconsistency undermine its self-defense argument?
Grotius: [T]his kind of defense derives its origin from the principle of self-preservation, which nature has given to every living creature, and not from the injustice or misconduct of the aggressor.
Q: So it’s not that the weapons themselves that are bad, it’s that they’re being developed by a potential adversary? That sounds a bit subjective. We’re supposed to be talking about law. Isn’t there a danger that leaders will claims fears of attack, and the consequent need for self-defense, as a pretext for conquest?
Grotius: Many wrongs proceed from fear… Xenophon says, “I have known some men, who partly through misrepresentation, and partly through suspicion, dreading one another, in order to prevent the supposed intentions of their adversaries, have committed the most enormous cruelties against those who neither designed, nor wished them any harm.”
Q: That’s exactly the problem–what if our fears have simply run amok? It’s possible that Iraq would never have used its weapons against us. How certain do we have to be about a threat before we can act?
Grotius: Apprehensions from a neighboring power are not a sufficient ground for war. For to authorize hostilities as a defensive measure, they must arise from the necessity, which just apprehensions create; apprehensions not only of the power, but of the intentions of a formidable state, and such apprehensions as amount to a moral certainty.
Q: “Moral certainty” is a pretty high standard. At that point, isn’t it already too late? Shouldn’t we strike before the threat even arises–by waging what the Bush administration has called “preventative war”?
Grotius: Some writers have advanced a doctrine which can never be admitted, maintaining that the law of nations authorizes one power to commence hostilities against another, whose increasing greatness awakens her alarms. As a matter of expediency such a measure may be adopted, but the principles of justice can never be advanced in its favor…. [T]o maintain that the bare probability of some remote or future annoyance from a neighboring state affords a just ground of hostile aggression, is a doctrine repugnant to every principle of equity.
Q: So unless there’s an immediate threat, “preventative” war can never be just. But even so, isn’t it better to ensure our safety now and worry about justice later?
Grotius: In matters of moment, where the lives of men are at stake, the decision should incline to the safer side, according to the proverbial maxim, which pronounces it better to acquit the guilty than to condemn the innocent. War being an object of such weighty magnitude, in which the innocent must often be involved in the sufferings of the guilty, between wavering opinions the balance should incline in favor of peace.
Q: Easy for you to say. You’re already dead. If we follow your advice and put justice and caution first, can we ever be sure that we are safe from attack?
Grotius: Such, however, is the condition of human life, that no full security can be enjoyed. The only protection against uncertain fears must be sought, not from violence, but from divine providence, and defensive precaution.
Q: “Defensive precaution” sounds like a containment strategy. Do you think there are measures that could have been taken to contain Iraq short of war?
Grotius: If any one intend no immediate violence, but is found to have formed a conspiracy to destroy me by assassination, or poison… I have no right to kill him. For my knowledge of the danger may prevent it. . . . [M]y knowing it will lead me to apply for the legal remedies of prevention.
Q: Many opponents of the war previously criticized “legal remedies of prevention” like sanctions and no-fly zones. If the threat from Iraq doesn’t justify war, how can it serve as the basis for a containment regime, which also causes innocent suffering?
Grotius: Sovereign powers have a right not only to avert, but to punish wrongs. From whence they are authorized to prevent a remote as well as an immediate aggression. Though the suspicion of hostile intentions, on the part of another power, may not justify the commencement of actual war, yet it calls for measures of armed prevention, and will authorize indirect hostility.
Q: I take that as a vote for continued containment. But was it working? What about all those U.N. resolutions Saddam flouted? And what about evidence that despite the resolutions, he continued to develop weapons of mass destruction? Aren’t they just cause for war?
Grotius: How honorable it is to be heedless of our own lives, where we can preserve the lives, and promote the lasting welfare of others. A duty that should operate with greater force upon Christians, who have before their eyes continually the example of Him who died to save us, while we were enemies and ungodly. An example which calls upon us, in the most affecting manner, not to insist upon the rigorous prosecution of our justest rights, where it cannot be done but by the calamities which war occasions.
Q: Turning the other cheek may sound good in Sunday school, but I doubt we can sell it to the American public after 9/11. Is there any point at which you’d give up on containment, and support the use of force?
Grotius: Now and then a cause of such imperious necessity occurs, as to demand the decision of the sword, and that is when, as Florus says, the desertion of a right will be followed by calamities far more cruel than the fiercest wars.
Q: I don’t suppose you can tell me whether Iraq is a case of “imperious necessity” or not. But what about some of the other justifications offered by advocates of the war, such as protecting our oil supplies and enhancing the stability of the region?
Grotius: The advantage to be gained by a war can never pleaded as a motive of equal weight and justice with necessity.
Q: In its recent policy statement, “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” the Bush administration announced that it will not allow any other country to challenge America’s military superiority. It also stated that the U.S. will use its power to promote “freedom, democracy and free enterprise,” which it identified as the world’s “single sustainable model for national success.” If this war allows us to impose our way of life on troubled countries like Iraq, is that such a bad thing?
Grotius: As to the argument in favor of universal dominion from its being so beneficial to mankind, it may be observed that all its advantages are counterbalanced by still greater disadvantages. For as a ship may be built too large to be conveniently managed, so an empire may be too extensive in population and territory to be directed and governed by one head. But even granting the expediency of universal empire, that expediency cannot give such a right…
Q: What about human rights? Saddam is a brutal dictator, guilty of all kinds of cruelties against his people. Isn’t that cause enough to remove him?
Grotius: It is a rule established by the laws of nature and of social order, and a rule confirmed by all the records of history, that every sovereign is supreme judge in his own kingdom and over his own subjects, in whose disputes no foreign power can justly interfere.
Q: I expected you to say that. You wrote your book four hundred years ago, before the horrors of totalitarianism shook our belief in state sovereignty and gave birth to international human rights law. But can’t you think of any instances where humanitarian intervention was justified?
Grotius: Where a Busiris, a Phalaris or a Thracian Diomede provoke their people to despair and resistance by unheard of cruelties, having themselves abandoned all the laws of nature, they lose the rights of independent sovereigns, and can no longer claim the privilege of the law of nations.
Q: OK, I’m relieved to hear you say that. But here’s the problem. How do we know when to believe a leader who says he’s waging war for another people’s freedom, and when he’s abusing our credulity to achieve other aims?
Grotius: Pretexts of that kind cannot always be allowed, [as] they may often be used as the cover of ambitious designs. But right does not necessarily lose its nature from being in the hands of wicked men. The sea still continues a channel of lawful intercourse, though sometimes navigated by pirates, and swords are still instruments of defense, though sometimes wielded by robbers or assassins.
Q: Nice metaphor. I suppose that if our leaders have tolerated Saddam’s barbarity for the past twenty-five years, we should be skeptical when they cite it as a reason for going to war now. But you make a valid point–even if our leaders are insincere, they may inadvertently succeed in doing some good. At this point, we can only hope so. It will be sorely needed to counterbalance the unintended harm.
I’m still having some trouble figuring out exactly where you stand. You seem to doubt the justifications advanced for this war, but, like many of us, find it a difficult question. Meanwhile, the decisions are left to those who admit no uncertainty. Does it disturb you that international law could not prevent this war, or at least assure us that if waged, it would be a just one?
Grotius: There is no intermediate line between a straight line and a curve. But it is not so in morals, where the least circumstances vary the subject, and admit a latitude of interpretation, settling the points of truth and justice between two extremes. So that between what is right and what is unlawful there is a middle space, where it is easy to incline to the one side, or to the other. This occasions an ambiguity somewhat like the difficulty of deciding the precise moment where the twilight begins, and where it ends…
For where the power of law ceases, there war begins
Dean G. Falvy, a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law School, is an attorney focusing on corporate and international law. After due consideration, he thinks Gulf War II is a mistake.
Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), a graduate of the University of Leyden and the Universite de Orleans, served as Sweden’s ambassador to France after being exiled from his native Holland. He is known to have had doubts about the Thirty Years’ War.