City Journal

Monique Canto-Sperber and André Glucksmann
“Polemos Is the Father of All Things”
A dialogue on war and morality
Spring 2014
TATE, LONDON/ART RESOURCE, NY
Henry Gibbs’s depiction of Aeneas and Anchises fleeing burning Troy

André Glucksmann: It may surprise you to hear me say that I do not find the notion of “just war” very pertinent. If a just war is a war that I consider just, this does not mean very much; it’s nothing but a personal opinion. On the other hand, the notion as it is elaborated by Cicero or by Saint Augustine is deeply ontological. It derives from the idea that there is order in the world that can be disturbed by an act of aggression. In this Roman and Christian model, a just war is one that either restores peace to the world (Cicero) or that reestablishes the order of Providence (Augustine). But here lies the mystery: How do you account for the popularity of this notion in a world in which we do not believe in order as understood by the Romans or as understood in Christianity? This popularity shows that we continue to understand war within a horizon of peace that we take to be more fundamental: order is primary, and war is secondary. This model implies the right to make war (jus ad bellum) in order to restore peace.

In the Greek paradigm, on the other hand, it is the state of war that has priority. We are always in bello—in a state of conflict—and war is justified insofar as it aims to moderate violence or to avoid the end of the world. Thus, the central problem is that of jus in bello (justice in wartime). To sum up: either we understand war within a horizon of peace, or we understand peace within a horizon of war. These two paradigms imply very different codes of conduct. In our day, I would say that our ways of justifying war must derive essentially from jus in bello and not from jus ad bellum; this is because we are immersed in situations in which war is always possible and in which the effort to master this possibility is open to question. In brief, just as the idea of a just war strikes me as anachronistic, so the idea of justice within war (the rules of which were codified in the Geneva Convention or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) is urgently relevant.

Monique Canto-Sperber: For me, the notion of just war remains relevant because it testifies to our double heritage of reflection on the ethics of violence. In the ancient world, war was regarded as a quasi-natural consequence of interactions among cities and among human beings.

It is only in early Christianity, which tended to recommend abstinence from all violence, that we first see even the possibility of a “just war.” This teaching, in which war and the good are closely linked, would be significantly modified by Grotius, a contemporary of Descartes. Grotius detaches the recourse to war from the pursuit of the good and gives “just war” a more procedural definition. The following question then comes to the fore: To what degree, within a given juridical order, are there legitimate reasons to make war, and by what means? Henceforth, states are held responsible, and criteria must be fixed. These criteria relate both to legitimate reasons to enter into war (jus ad bellum: the right to self-defense, the duty to put an end to a massacre) and to acceptable means of making war (jus in bello). We today are heirs of both these visions (Augustine’s and Grotius’s), whether we acknowledge it or not. According to the first, war is legitimate if its goal is to eradicate an evil and to establish a good. Humanitarian interventions, or wars that are supposed to promote freedom and democracy, take their inspiration from this principle. Their tendency is to identify the justice of war with a general moral claim. According to the second vision, the justice of a war cannot be conceived without reference to a complex network of reasons, justifications, rules, and limits. This view holds justice within warfare (jus in bello) to be the central question. Both these conceptions are opposed to pacifism, according to which, strictly speaking, any use of violence is intrinsically evil.

A.G.: In the 1980s, in the middle of a discussion with German pacifists, I put this question to them: If you (environmentalists and leftists) had possessed weapons of mass destruction in 1943, would you have been willing to give them to the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto to enable them to dissuade the Nazis from exterminating them? I never had a response. Pacifists kill by letting people be killed. To resist the injustice of a killer is to base one’s authority and legitimacy on the negation of this injustice. And this justice in no way depends on the existence of God, as Grotius wrote. Grotius had a tragic sense of history, on the Greek model. He did not appeal either to a divine or to a Roman peace but rather to the necessity to control and to oppose war’s fury, even by taking up arms. He thus made war on war in a framework that came to be called jus in bello.

M.C.-S.: I would like to emphasize how artificial the opposition between idealism and realism often appears in the area of international relations. Values and norms are no less real than passions and interests. The world’s violence is a fact, not a thesis. The fundamental moral question is thus how to channel this irreducible violence; hence the intellectual utility of elaborating rules that avoid moralism while preserving a minimal justice. Thus, a just war will be, first, one that accords with an irresistible moral judgment that says, “That is intolerable, we cannot let that happen” (because of harm inflicted on individuals or because of a direct threat to global security). Second, a just war will be one that requires moderation and a justification of the means used in combat. To be sure, other kinds of wars might claim a moral justification and might be undertaken in the name of some good, but such wars risk escaping all limitation; they risk an escalation of violence that cannot be contained because it is based on moral arguments.

A.G.: Morality and realism are polar opposites only in philosophy classes. Take the example of the Kremlin’s war in Chechnya. One can oppose this war on moral grounds because it killed as many as one out of five Chechnyans, including several thousand children. Or one can oppose it pragmatically: thanks to this carnage, the Kremlin is becoming harder and harder to control, while civil society suffers repression and censure. Morality and realism go together: an autocratic power that disposes of the world’s second-greatest nuclear arsenal is a danger not only for the Chechnyans but for the Russians themselves and for the entire world. Similarly, since we allowed the genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda, a true pestilence has spread over Africa, as we have seen in the Congo and in Darfur.

M.C.-S.: It is important to note that, until the mid-twentieth century, wars were conducted by states, the only recognized international actors, and this in a context marked by fairly clear distinctions between war and peace. Today, these distinctions are no longer so clear. Wars no longer involve two clearly identified opposing states, which renders obsolete the traditional means of regulation, such as reprisals, deterrence, and so on. This is obvious in the case of terrorism—this invisible, elusive, unpredictable enemy for whom the notion of a truce has little meaning. It follows that the main danger no longer seems to lie in some “clash of civilizations” but rather in the profusion of cases of competitive mimicry: passions are fed by rivalries that spring inevitably from the interaction of cultures. On this point, Raymond Aron’s views have proved prophetic: he predicted that the internationalization of the world threatened to engender violence. This leaves us with a very difficult question: how to define justice in the fight against terrorism—or rather, against terrorists. How can rules be respected in the face of an enemy that respects none at all? This recalls the classic dilemma: How do we treat an arrested terrorist who might possess information that could save hundreds of people? Here perhaps a moment of humility is in order. But one condition still obtains: anyone who might depart from accepted rules concerning the treatment of prisoners is under an absolute obligation to take responsibility for his actions.

A.G.: In uniform or not, whether in the service of a state or of a group working in its own name, the terrorist is defined as an armed person who deliberately attacks those who are not armed. What is the solution? Despite what seems to be the view of French officials, it certainly is not to double Interpol connections between states to facilitate the policing of terrorists. There is a simple reason that this will not work: several states use terrorists as their agents. The age of Great Wars is over, but “there are still warriors,” Ernst von Salomon prophesied in 1920. The great dragon—the Soviet system—has collapsed, but its totalitarian offspring have swarmed across the planet, as the dissident Vladimir Bukovsky has observed. Contemporary movements motivated by hatred of the West are Westernized movements; we have exported not only our weapons but also our techniques, our typewriters and then our computers, and our intellectual methods. Over and above the globalization of commerce, there is the world market in armed violence. “Polemos is the father of all things,” Heraclitus wrote. Polemos—war, and not divine Providence or the love of peace. Polemos “designates some as mortals and others as immortals”; he disenchants, demythologizes, and sows revolution. He “makes some men free, and others slave.”

Polemos raises the ultimate stake: liberty or death. Troy was a well-ordered city, but Troy had to fall. “Polemos is the father of all things”—such was the watchword of the Greek conquerors. The end of the Cold War confirms the views of Shakespeare and Heraclitus, thinkers of war, against those of most contemporary experts who were dreaming of a pacified history. On the other hand, I would tend to defend Kant. The philosopher of Königsberg does not seem to embody the pacifist spirit.

Kant was more ironic; when he titled his treatise “Perpetual Peace,” it referred to a sign above a cemetery. Perpetual peace is death! But he was also more positive. He thought that nations by themselves could not control the furor of war and thus that there had to be alliances among republics and states ruled by law—not against terrorism but against terrorists: mafias, religious groups, nationalists, or God knows what. You are right to introduce this nuance. This perspective strikes me as absolutely fundamental, as long as we clearly understand that we have enemies. Unfortunately, we are instead in the process of breaking up the European Union and the Atlantic alliance, which might have been tools for the mastery of global violence.

M.C.-S.: Over the last 15 years, we have seen an increasing enthusiasm for cosmopolitanism, for the idea that the management of the world’s affairs can be turned over to a global civil society. But this is a deformation of Kant’s thought. My interpretation of Kant’s cosmopolitanism has much in common with yours: Kant was opposed to the notion of world government. For him, the moral quality of agreements between states depended upon the rule of law as a moral principle that the state would export into its alliances with other states. This is something that we could attain as Europeans and, more broadly, throughout the Western world.

A.G.: In his famous speech on Iraq at the United Nations, Dominique de Villepin sang the praises of “international law.” But this law has had nothing to say and no means of action during most of the great crises of our time: Cambodia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia, and the Caucasus.

M.C.-S.: What I find most striking is that we find ourselves engulfed in violence to an unprecedented degree, and at the same time we talk ceaselessly about international harmony, except for occasional interruptions by American initiatives—and all that with an utterly naïve optimism and good conscience. This conjunction is also unprecedented in human history. Lucidity would require us instead to reconcile pessimism in diagnosis with optimism in action, to cite one more formula from Raymond Aron.

A.G.: I note the same paradox. The reigning international doctrine assumes that we are made to get along, but the problem is that the evidence does not support this view; it is a lovely vision that the evening news contradicts every day. Thus we are compelled to seek a guilty party that must be the sole cause of all evil. And here again I observe that we have still not left behind the Roman-Christian model, for which peace is primary. Since peace does not happen, it must be the fault of some single bad actor, and this happens to be America! The Greek model seems to me more judicious: by accepting war, devastation, and fury as our horizon, we will elaborate strategies of prevention and deterrence—and thus increase the chances for peace.

Interview conducted by Alexandra Laignel-Lavastine and translated by Alexis Cornel

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