When Michael Walzer’s best-known work, Just and Unjust Wars, was published in 1977, it was criticized by some reviewers for being too deferential to national sovereignty. They viewed the traditional doctrine of sovereignty as a shabby and outdated relic, whose main effect was to protect states against military invasion even when they were guilty of mistreating their own people. Walzer’s critics looked forward to a world in which human rights would become something more than a utopian ideal, a new world order in which armed force would be available to uphold human rights, if necessary without regard to national borders. (The euphemism “humanitarian intervention” is used to refer to a military incursion by one sovereign state in the territory of another to relieve suffering or bring an end to human rights abuses in the second state.) But Just and Unjust Wars, hailed on its publication as “a brilliantly reasoned book about the relevance of moral argument to modern war,” refused to participate in this denunciation of sovereignty and, worse still, it insisted that in many cases states were entitled to resist “humanitarian intervention” as just another instance of international aggression.
Walzer was certainly not an absolutist about sovereignty. He agreed that there were some things a state might do that would lead to its forfeiting any right that outsiders not intervene or any right to resist them when they did. But the situation would have to be pretty extreme, something approaching genocide or ethnic cleansing. Walzer supported the NATO intervention in Kosovo; like many commentators, he deplored the US failure to intervene in Rwanda in 1994; and he regarded the Indian invasion of “East Pakistan” (now Bangladesh) in 1971 as just about as convincing a case of humanitarian intervention as we are likely to get.
But these were exceptional cases. Ordinary abuses of human rights—torture, denials of political freedom, the beating of demonstrators, the repression of women, the indefinite postponement of democratic elections—were not enough to warrant armed intervention, on Walzer’s view. Even if he was not an absolutist, sovereignty was for him a matter of principle, raising a powerful moral presumption against the armed interference of one state (or any number of states) in the internal affairs of another.
Walzer is a political theorist, one of our very best. But these are plainly not just academic matters, and he has approached them in his writings as much in his capacity as a political activist as in his role as a scholar studying the history and morality of warfare. When the United States invaded Iraq and when nobody could find the weapons of mass destruction whose existence was supposedly the reason for our being there, there was a scramble to come up with another justification. And so some defenders of the war turned to the idea of humanitarian intervention: Saddam Hussein’s appalling tyranny had to be overthrown in order to protect the rights of the Iraqi people. (A few had said this all along …