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Outlawing War

published December 2017

Why “outcasting” works better than violence

Scientific American (cover)

After binge-watching the 18-hour PBS documentary series The Vietnam War, by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, I was left emotionally emptied and ethically exhausted from seeing politicians in the throes of deception, self-deception and the sunk-cost bias that resulted in a body count totaling more than three million dead North and South Vietnamese civilians and soldiers, along with more than 58,000 American troops. With historical perspective, it is now evident to all but delusional ideologues that the war was an utter waste of human lives, economic resources, political capital and moral reserves. By the end, I concluded that war should be outlawed.

In point of fact, war was outlawed … in 1928. Say what?

In their history of how this happened, The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World (Simon & Schuster, 2017), Yale University legal scholars Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro begin with the contorted legal machinations of lawyers, legislators and politicians in the 17th century that made war, in the words of Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, “the continuation of politics by other means.” Those means included a license to kill other people, take their stuff and occupy their land. Legally. How?

In 1625 the renowned Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius penned a hundreds-page-long treatise originating with an earlier, similarly long legal justification for his country’s capture of the Portuguese merchant ship Santa Catarina when those two countries were in conflict over trading routes. In short, The Law of War and Peace argued that if individuals have rights that can be defended through courts, then nations have rights that can be defended through war because there was no world court.

As a consequence, nations have felt at liberty for four centuries to justify their bellicosity through “war manifestos,” legal statements outlining their “just causes” for “just wars.” Hathaway and Shapiro compiled more than 400 such documents into a database on which they conducted a content analysis. The most common rationalizations for war were self-defense (69 percent); enforcing treaty obligations (47 percent); compensation for tortious injuries (42 percent); violations of the laws of war or law of nations (35 percent); stopping those who would disrupt the balance of power (33 percent); and protection of trade interests (19 percent). These war manifestos are, in short, an exercise in motivated reasoning employing the confirmation bias, the hindsight bias and other cognitive heuristics to justify a predetermined end. Instead of “I came, I saw, I conquered,” these declarations read more like “I was just standing there minding my own business when he threatened me. I had to defend myself by attacking him.” The problem with this arrangement is obvious. Call it the moralization bias: the belief that our cause is moral and just and that anyone who disagrees is not just wrong but immoral.

In 1917, with the carnage of the First World War evident to all, a Chicago corporate lawyer named Salmon Levinson reasoned, “We should have, not as now, laws of war, but laws against war; just as there are no laws of murder or of poisoning, but laws against them.” With the championing of philosopher John Dewey and support of Foreign Minister Aristide Briand of France, Foreign Minister Gustav Stresemann of Germany and U.S. Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg, Levinson’s dream of war outlawry came to fruition with the General Pact for the Renunciation of War (otherwise known as the Peace Pact or the Kellogg-Briand Pact), signed in Paris in 1928. War was outlawed.

Given the number of wars since, what happened? The moralization bias was dialed up to 11, of course, but there was also a lack of enforcement. That began to change after the ruinous Second World War, when the concept of “outcasting” took hold, the most common example being economic sanctions. “Instead of doing something to the rule breakers, Hathaway and Shapiro explain, “outcasters refuse to do something with the rule breakers.” This principle of exclusion doesn’t always work (Cuba, Russia), but sometimes it does (Turkey, Iran), and it is almost always better than war. The result, the researchers show, is that “interstate war has declined precipitously, and conquests have almost completely disappeared.”

Outcasting has yet to work with North Korea. But as tempting as a military response may be to some, given that country’s geography we might heed the words from Pete Seeger’s Vietnam War protest song: “We were waist deep in the Big Muddy/The big fool says to push on.” We know how that worked out.

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18 Comments to “Outlawing War”

  1. Mike Simoens Says:

    Outcasting works better than war, yes. But we can do better still.

    War: Swing your sword to kill.
    Cold war: Brandish you sword.
    Outcasting: Turn your back.
    Sanctions: Turn your back whilst offering food to others.

    Let’s go further:

    Brandish your sword while offering food.

    Offer food, unarmed, while others (your friends) brandish their swords.

    Offer food while all the others (your friends) also offer food. Don’t mention the swords.

    Sometimes they will take your food or try to stab you in the back. Self defense is understandable. But I really like how you are highlighting where self defence is perhaps being used as a cloak for outright aggression.

    This is a terrific article. Very thought provoking. Thank you!

  2. Andy Says:

    While exclusion may sometimes work, I doubt if any leader (or family member of the leader) has ever starved to death due to trade embargoes. They leave that to their subjects. :(

  3. Bruce Sackett Says:

    Outlawing anything historically has not worked. (I.E. Alcohol, gambling or sex.) Outcasting creates more suffering of a different nature but is hidden from the outside world so we feel it works.

    Outcasting by removing the tools and toys wanted by leaders of North Korea can slow war but as we now know impatience by other leaders with a similar nature to push people can have terrible consequences.

    The one hope is, with all the mental energy on the planet, if we focus on the problem, it can be solved.

    Look into the minds of those promoting war and find a way to treat abused or deranged individuals before they rise to power and repeat the cycle of pain and suffering.

  4. B. Harry Dyck Says:

    Right on but until the christian church makes humanitarian service and environmental health a serious aspect of their traditional religious norms, it will be an ongoing issue. Leadership will come only when scientists speak up and are recognized for what they are: the resource to human aspirations on earth.

  5. ahansen Says:

    Let the two fat guys with tiny hands and bad haircuts fight it out in the PyeongChang Octagon next month. “Two douchbag enter. No one comes out.”

    IOW: War is good business; invest your kid.

  6. s. einstein Says:

    Consider further exploration and nuancing of exclusion-isolation:(1) what do we need to know and to understand about the “target” to effectively plan,carry out and assess?(2)what are the critical necessary levels and qualities, internally and externally, of the process to effectively operate and be sustainable?(3)how are the ever present realities of uncertainty, unpredictabilities and lack of total control, notwithstanding all of one’s efforts, to be considered in an outcasting policy?(4) what criteria, and their theoretical and empirical underpinnings, can guide a specific choice -indicated; contra-indicated; irrelevant – misusing limited human and nonhuman resources- harmful to…

  7. Dallas Weaver Ph.D. Says:

    As the economy of the world shifted from the source of wealth being based on land to the source being human organizations, institutions, creativity, and imagination, even the theoretical possibility of war being profitable has disappeared. There hasn’t been a profitable conquest in the last half-century as we have seen zero natural resource-based locations like Singapore and Hong Kong prosper. Even the West Bank is a negative sum situation for Israel when you include the military/police cost and even a small part of the opportunity cost of the citizens on both sides.

    If the trillions spent on the Middle East by the US were spent on alternative energy, including expensive nuclear and fast breeders, we would have destroyed the price of fossil fuels and ended most of the conflict a long time ago. If we add in the losses to the citizens of the Middle East caused by their political class, the entire Middle East conflict game becomes even more negative sum for all the players.

    The only local winners in this global negative sum game are the political class who have “enemies” to rally their followers and fill their ego’s and the generals who have huge resources at their disposal.

  8. Bad Boy Scientist Says:

    Some interesting ideas.

    It seems that economic sanctions and outcasting make civilian populations suffer so I wonder if it is that big of benefit. Is starving to death better than being blown up?

    Also, if sanctions slowly weaken a nation, doesn’t it make sense to engage in traditional warfare before one’s military power erodes too far?

    FWIW: One reason the Japanese Imperial Navy bombed Pearl Harbor was because the US had imposed sanctions on Japan.

  9. awc Says:

    No nationalism, no nations, no boarders, no war, no wmd’s, ta daaaa.

  10. Ultraguy Says:

    What if someone threw a war and nobody came

  11. Barbara Harwood Says:

    War has changed dramatically since the days when two armies marched amid pageantry to the agreed battlefield and fought according to basic rules. Instead of pitting equal rivals against each other, we now have an unlimited arsenal of weaponry which is rapidly growing both in size and effectiveness.
    In our modern world starting a war with nuclear weapons is suicide, but we are constantly on guard because suicide has become a way of fighting wars. Outlawing war is no more effective than outlawing crime. It only works if those in power recognize the threat.

  12. david Says:

    War might be outlawed but apparently Conflicts, Civil unrest, Terrorism and racial cleansing is alive and doing just fine. Until the base reasons for conflict are abolished like racism, religion and nationalism, we are doomed to a world full of death and mayhem. Here in the USA we see a lot of violence caused by a few unstable people with access to guns. Guns simply give too much power to people how cannot control themselves.

  13. Kennwrite Says:

    Cruelty, when enacted by a madman against his own people or others, is beyond a legal rationale. When a Hitler, Stalin, or other madman such as the North Korean madman threaten continuously to kill others in a manner reprehensible to the majority of nations, then war is beyond legal determimation (as though ‘law’ has any part in the matter). Law is not some ideal or absolute tonehicj we can appeal; to do so makes no sense. We do our best to prevent the inclemency of war, which is irrational when held as a bargaining tool by a madman, and when our only recourse to staving off the madnan is to retaliate, we havevlittle choice but to send large forces and drop the bomb. This solution sounds horrid, but some solution are horrid no matter ehat the choice, since a conscious decision must be made rather than to do nothing.

  14. RanWiz Says:

    A comment on your comments re: Viet Nam. Pardon my obsession with my position of RESISTANCE to this one war. I took that stance then, and was punished for it in several ways. I knew it was a ‘put up job’ and was ostracized for it. Glad to see your reaction to the Ken Burns piece – most folks have that reaction to the war now. “I told you so” = cold comfort.
    Buffy St. Marie (and Donovan) sang the “Universal Soldier” which called for individual soldiers to simply put down their arms and leave the field of battle. Nice idea, but this does not take into account human nature, which includes needs to maintain ‘identity’ which may include ‘nation’, and results in ‘us versus them’ tribal mentality that will always lead us in the direction of military conflict.
    Your comment about ‘lack of world court in 1600′ is on point – until nations are willing to relinquish some real POWER to a united nation concept, there is no real plan that will govern or moderate nations’ urges to conflict.
    This speaks to the current dichotomy between ‘globalism’ (seen now as a dirty word) and ‘MAGA’. Isolationism or inflated postures will not solve the problem of controlling or better, preventing wars.

  15. Valerie Stansfield Says:

    The biggest profiteers from war today are the arms industries…I am surprised no one here has mentioned them. They exploit the very human trait of tribalism to sell their wares, in the name of security. Deliberately or not, they exploit fear of loss of power in the most powerful…which may be hard to imagine if you are/have been not in that ranking. I wonder if there are others who see it this way.

  16. Al Heck Says:

    Since Hiroshima/Nagasaki, we have had no wars of the classic kind. Mutually assured destruction (“MAD”) is the reason. We seem to have found the solution, but are reluctant to embrace it. “MAD” science will save us. Onward!

  17. Dan Vignau Says:

    1957 Journal of The American Petroleum Institute, if I actually remember the correct title: When we achieve our goals in Vietnam, America will never again have to worry about its supply of oil.

  18. Dan Vignau Says:

    We wage war to sell arms. Wall Street neefs the business to prop up its flawed corporate capitalist creation.