Political Theory

The Real Reason We Need Declarations of War

John Sides Sep 4 '13

This is a guest post by my colleague Eric Grynaviski.

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With Obama’s request for Congressional approval for any action in Syria, the war powers debate is once again front page news. Some at the Monkey Cage,  Forbes , the Nation, and  Huffington Post have suggested that Obama should seek an explicit declaration of war; elsewise he is ignoring the constitutional role of Congress in foreign policy. Their concern is democratic control over foreign policy.

But this concern misses another reason that declarations of war are important. As I argue in a recent article in International Theory, declarations of war were historically about something more: providing public justifications for war.  More important than simply saying “there is a state of war” is giving reasons why that war is justified.

Historically, this is what declarations of war did.  They were a set of reasoned, conditional demands that another state must meet to avoid the use of force.  And by making these demands explicit, states, empires, and other communities fulfilled an obligation to each other: to use public reason to resolve conflicts before turning to violence.

In Rome, for example, leaders would first create a list of demands its enemies needed to meet for war to be avoided. They would deliver these demands to their enemies, which were open to discussion and debate by foreign embassies. Then, their enemies had about a month to comply. If the enemy refused to comply, Rome would move to a state of war, announcing this by throwing a bloodstained spear into the enemy’s territory. Declarations of war were invitations to debate the cause for war as well as ultimatums that limited the cause of war to a well-specified set of demands.

Thinking of declarations this way satisfies two moral intuitions.  The most important is that discussion and debate between enemies is a hallmark of civilized international behavior.  Cicero, an earlier defender of declarations, wrote that “there are two ways of settling a dispute; first, by discussion; second, by physical force; and since the former is characteristic of man, the latter of the brute, we must resort to force only in case we may not avail ourselves of discussion.” In other words, states have an obligation to meet and discuss issues that risk war and try to reach agreement. This definition of declarations as reasoned and conditioned is included in the Hague Convention Relative to the Opening of Hostilities (1907).

The second intuition, which is more modern, is that neutral states should have the right to judge others’ decisions and when their liberties or interests are affected—and perhaps even to control or at least influence those decisions.   This idea underlies the Hague Convention as well. One French drafter of the convention explained that citizens in belligerent states as well as neutrals are entitled to an explanation, because they are entitled to judge and dispute that explanation.

Why does all 0f this matter today?  First, this conception of declarations of war leads to a different set of questions through which any attack on Syria should be evaluated.

  1. Is the demand conditional? Is there a clear set of demands through which Assad can avoid an attack?
  2. Has the Obama administration provided clear ways for Assad or neutral governments to discuss the demands? Is the administration willing to listen and debate with others about U.S. justifications for the use of force, or is it simply posturing to enhance the legitimacy of a future intervention?
  3. Has the Obama administration provided clear ways for those most affected by any plausible attack—presumably innocents inside of Syria—to evaluate the attacks, influence their course, or exercise a veto over U.S. policy (if feasible)?

If the Obama administration has met these obligations, then the U.S. government has declared war (at least in fact if not in letter), and done so in keeping with the spirit of international law.

Second, this conception rightly focuses us outward, rather than inward.  The current debate only focuses on the question of “who declares”—Congress, as the Constitution states, or the president, as has often been true, at least de facto.  But this other conception—with its emphasis on stating conditions and providing justifications—focuses on “why declare.”  Answering this question then enables others—not least Syrian innocents—to better evaluate whether they would endorse military intervention by the U.S.

A final point underscores the need for any declaration of war, period.  The refusal to declare war appears to have a strong racial basis. The United States has a long history of declaring war against white, European states such as Britain, Germany, and Spain, as well as Mexico (Santa Anna came from a Spanish family). These declarations usually are reasoned, conditional statements. Wars against non-white, non-European peoples, in contrast, rarely involve declarations of war (e.g., the Barbary States, Native Americans, the Philippines (1899), Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and many others). A quick analysis, in fact, likely would find that white and European are necessary conditions for U.S. declarations. The link between U.S. policies over time to denigrate non-white peoples, such as Native Americans, and the refusal to use public reason to address them may betray the legacy of race in foreign policy decision-making that has recently come to interest International Relations scholars. Refusing to address the Syrian people today, by assuming that the proper crowd to assess claims about war are in the Beltway rather than overseas, continues that legacy.