Michael Walzer
Michael Walzer; drawing by David Levine


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for being too deferential to national sovereignty.* They viewed the traditional doctrine of sovereignty as a shabby and outdated relic, whose main effect was to protect states against military invasion even when they were guilty of mistreating their own people.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.) If armed force is used against Iran, the rhetorical pattern may well be the same. The official reason will be Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but the proposition that we are entitled to intervene anyway to overthrow an oppressive Islamic regime will be standing in the wings as an understudy. This sort of claim makes Walzer uneasy.

It is not the costs of humanitarian intervention that worry him. Nor is it that our motives are impure or that we might lack international authorization: motives are never pure in politics, and in most cases where Walzer thinks intervention is justified, it has usually been up to an individual country to take up the challenge (the East Pakistan example or Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978). Walzer’s uneasiness is all about respect for political community. Though sovereignty is usually regarded as an attribute of states, the real subject of Walzer’s argument is not the state at all, but the political community that underlies it and the right of that community to determine its own response to human rights abuses within its borders.

You can get a sense of what his opposition amounts to by comparing humanitarian intervention with imperialism. Like any opponent of imperialism, Walzer begins from the premise that people have a right to make their own mistakes and work out their own destinies. If their government abuses their rights, they decide whether to rise up in rebellion or not; it is not for outsiders to do this for them:

If they are free to rebel, then they are also free not to rebel—because they (or the greater number of them) judge rebellion to be imprudent or uncertain of success or because they feel that “slowness and aversion…to quit their old Constitutions,” which Locke noted in his Second Treatise.

An oppressive regime may be internally illegitimate: it may have no right that its own citizens should obey it or support it. But the rest of us have to treat it nevertheless as externally legitimate in the world, not out of respect for its leaders but out of respect for the prerogatives of its people. It is a matter for them to decide, and they will resent anyone who tries to usurp this privilege. “That’s why states objectively illegitimate are able, again and again, to rally subjects and citizens against invaders.” It is a lesson we have not adequately learned in Iraq, and it is certainly a salutary warning in relation to any possible intervention in Iran.


This emphasis on the prerogatives of each political community is at the heart of Walzer’s philosophy. At times, it seems to veer toward relativism, as though the reason we should oppose humanitarian intervention is that our parochial values do not apply in a neighboring parish. The way I read Walzer, however, is not that he holds relativism as an abstract hypothesis, but that he is committed (more or less universally, in a more or less objective and moralizing spirit) to the proposition that distinct communities have the right to work out their own political arrangements and that there are limits to what they should have to put up with from universalist philosophers seeking to trump or supersede this local self-determination. (If political community is the heart of Walzer’s writing, then the hubris of abstract philosophizing is its spleen.) What Walzer calls “communal integrity” has a nonrelative claim upon us; it is not a case of departing from universalism; it is a case of one universal value—self-determination—checking our enthusiasm for the imposition of others.


I said that Just and Unjust Wars is the best-known of Walzer’s books. But there are dozens more (twenty-four in all): a book on the trial of Louis XVI, another on the nature of moral argument, a treatise on social justice, and several books on Jewish political philosophy, the author’s present project. Walzer is also a superb essayist and controversialist. As a contributing editor to Dissent and now co-editor he has written more than sixty pieces for that journal, and a large number also for The New Republic. These brief pieces are elegant and engaged and they survive the passing of the occasion remarkably well. His academic articles in Philosophy and Public Affairs and Political Theory are paragons of thoughtfulness—rich, wise, and clear in their historical illustrations. They are also refreshingly inconclusive; Walzer shows that it is often more important just to grapple with a problem than to defend a bottom line for its solution.

In Thinking Politically, David Miller has brought together sixteen of Walzer’s best essays from 1973 (“Political Action: The Problem of Dirty Hands”) through the 1980s (“Justice Here and Now”) and 1990s (“The Communitarian Critique of Liberalism”) all the way to the present day (“Terrorism and Just War”). Miller has also included one paper unpublished in English, in which Walzer actually relaxes his views about intervention a little by adding man-made famine to the list of horrors that might justify invasion from the outside. This is a splendid collection; much more coherent than most, bound together by Walzer’s theme of respect for political community.

Is Walzer a communitarian? Does he give greater weight to the flourishing of community than to the rights and interests of individuals? There is certainly much that is important for him in a people’s loyalty to traditions that they have long treasured and in the perpetuation of each distinctive way of life. But in these essays I catch a greater sense of respect for plurality and fluidity within each community than I had previously noticed in Walzer’s writings. An essay on “The Politics of Difference” talks respectfully of “a literal multiculturalism, instantiated not only in the society as a whole but in each and every family, even in each and every individual.” In immigrant societies, for example, people don’t just live in separate bounded enclaves; they experience “a life without boundaries and without secure or singular identities.” And yet we are not strangers to one another; with plurality and fluidity comes a refreshing insistence on the primacy of politics, the exhilaration of political competition, and the hopeful untidiness of a polity where no single identity prevails and in which no one ever wins everything.


One of the earlier essays in the volume, “Philosophy and Democracy,” is a stirring defense of the messiness and uncertainty of democratic politics against the propensity of philosophers who, with their abstract theories, want to tidy everything up. I remember reading it in 1981 and being very taken by Walzer’s view that the political philosopher should resist the temptation to present his theory of justice as “Here’s what I would do if I ruled the world.” The philosopher craves political influence; he is not well pleased at seeing his laboriously constructed theory treated as just one contribution like any other in democratic debate, or in watching its subjection to sneers and peremptory rejections, or at best the cheerful misunderstandings and ragged compromises that are likely to attend its reception by a fickle and many-headed demos.


The philosophers that Walzer is uneasy with want to be taken much more seriously than that. In the revival of the subject that took place in the 1970s, some of them looked hopefully to the courts. “The place they hold and the power they wield make it possible for [judges] to impose philosophical constraints on democratic choice.” Not only that, but judges “are readily available (as the people are not) for philosophical instruction as to the nature of those constraints.” (Walzer was writing at a time when there was a confidence at Harvard and Princeton that maybe the Supreme Court could be persuaded to incorporate John Rawls’s theory of justice as an interpretation of “equal protection” in the Fourteenth Amendment.)

Walzer is deeply suspicious of this alliance. It is a bad bargain, he says, for both sides. The judiciary will quickly find its authority diminished if it subjects itself to the theories of intellectuals. And the philosophers would do well to learn a little humility, “to live with the ordinary odds of democratic politics,” accepting the risks of defeat or compromise at the hands of the ordinary people—who are, after all, entitled collectively to determine their own future. Even today this is a very refreshing position.

It is certainly quite striking to see in Walzer’s essays both humanitarian intervention and judicial supremacy falling under the same attack, as different ways of usurping a community’s powers of self-determination. Walzer’s target is a sort of arrogance “among rights theorists, whenever the enforcement of rights is assigned to authorities who stand outside the political arena.” The newest essay in this volume presents Walzer’s argument against humanitarian intervention (in all but a few cases) as a defense of politics—the politics that enables each people to work out its own destiny—“while that of my critics reiterates what I take to be the traditional philosophical dislike for politics.”

Even in the absence of democracy, Walzer wants to hang on to the principle of self-determination. A political community “is self-determining even if its citizens struggle and fail to establish free institutions, but it has been deprived of self-determination if such institutions are established by an intrusive neighbor.” The compromises that people make, the sacrifices they forgo, may trouble a philosopher who is obsessed with human rights. But “I don’t believe,” says Walzer, “that the opposition of philosophers is a sufficient ground for military invasion.”


Better than almost any other political theorist, Michael Walzer has always managed to navigate a route between the topical and the theoretical, and his political commitments on particular issues are woven into a wider fabric of philosophical reflection. The essays in Thinking Politically do justice to both words in its title: they address the enduring issues of political theory, but they also engage that thinking with the political issues of the day. So, as well as three essays on humanitarian intervention, this collection gives us a sampling of Walzer’s views on September 11, Iraq, Afghanistan, the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and the struggle against terrorism.

On each of these issues, his position is not what one would necessarily expect of a self-described democratic socialist, and Walzer has received perhaps more than his share of attacks for being too supportive of the Bush administration’s actions since September 11. I said at the beginning that he was criticized for elevating the principle of sovereignty to such a pitch as to question the principle of humanitarian intervention. The other side of this coin, however, is a very strong principle of national self-defense. And where self-defense is involved, Walzer has little hesitation. He strongly supported the first Gulf War. And this is his comment on the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001:

This was a defensive war (the paradigmatic case of just war) against a regime that did not merely harbor terrorists but was an active partner of the terrorist organization that attacked New York and Washington on 9/11…. And should there be other countries that enter into a partnership of the same kind with Al Qaeda, I would think, other things being equal, they would be subject to a similar attack.

He opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, among other reasons because he did not think that a case could be made for humanitarian intervention. But still he said: “I will not march to stop the war while Saddam is still standing.” In some respects, Walzer’s position on the lead-up to the Iraq invasion is quite misleading. Explaining his opposition to the invasion, he devoted a large portion of his discussion to criticizing the governments of Germany and France for not spending enough on their military and for their belief that “appeasement of Saddam was the best policy”:

Had France and Germany (and Russia too) been willing to support, and had the UN Security Council been willing to authorize, a strongly coercive containment regime for Iraq, the war would have been…unnecessary…. But this would have involved giving up the notion that force was a “last resort,” as the French said, or morally impermissible, as the Germans said. For containment depended on force from the beginning: the no-fly zones and the embargo required forceful actions every day, and the restoration of the inspection regime depended on a credible American threat to use force.

This misrepresents the position of France. While the presence of US troops in Kuwait may well have put pressure on Saddam Hussein to admit inspectors, the use of force, which the French foreign minister said should be the last resort, referred to the full-scale invasion of Iraq that was under discussion at the Security Council on February 14, 2003, not to the day-to-day enforcement of the inspections regime. France accepted the estimation of the chief of the UN inspectors, Hans Blix, that “the key remaining disarmament tasks” could be carried out not in “years, nor weeks, but months,” with the possibility of a sustained monitoring unit to remain in place after verified disarmament to raise the alarm if signs were seen of the revival of any proscribed weapons programs. In a letter to Foreign Affairs published in 2006, moreover, the then ambassador of France to the US stated:

Our position on the question of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was that we needed to have the UN inspectors assess the situation and measure Iraq’s cooperation. Had there been evidence of a secret WMD program or a blatant lack of cooperation with the inspection process on the part of Iraq, we would have ruled out no option, including, as a last resort, military strikes, had that been the decision of the Security Council.

France eventually opposed a rush to war after considering the inspectors’ reports because there was no imminent threat to international peace and security or evidence of a WMD program and because Iraq had started to actively cooperate with the inspectors, including by destroying its al Samoud-2 missiles.

In his 2003 Security Council address French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin also warned that invasion “could have incalculable consequences for the stability of this scarred and fragile region.” It is hard to say now that this warning was not justified.

Even when he is critical of the Bush administration, Walzer has a habit of attacking almost everyone else who is on the same side as he is. He says in an interview, included at the end of Thinking Politically, that

it is hard work trying to sustain an oppositionist politics in the US today—especially when part of what I feel I have to oppose is the idiocy of many of my fellow oppositionists: knee-jerk anti-Americanism, old left dogmatism, and the rejection of any fellowship larger than the sect of the politically correct and the morally pure. I live on the left, but quarrel with some of my neighbors, and in the aftermath of 9/11 the quarrels have gotten more intense.

The same attitude is apparent in his discussion of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Walzer says that most of the people attacking Israel fail to distinguish between an assessment of Israel’s settlement politics (which he condemns) and an assessment of Palestinian attacks on settlers and other civilians (which he says count as “murder exactly”).


Two of the essays in Thinking Politically address the question of terrorism and how to fight it. A meditation on the theme of “dirty hands” in politics, written more than thirty years ago, has some observations on torture which are now (unfortunately) very timely. In that essay, Walzer rejected what he called the easy answers offered by philosophers, though now he worries about his comments being appropriated by people who are less unenthusiastic about torture than he is:

Back in the early 1970s, I published an article…that dealt with the responsibility of political leaders in extreme situations, where the safety of their people seemed to require immoral acts. One of my examples was the “ticking bomb” case, where a captured terrorist knows, but refuses to reveal, the location of a bomb that is timed to go off soon in a school building. I argued that a political leader in such a case might be bound to order the torture of the prisoner, but that we should regard this as a moral paradox, where the right thing to do was also wrong….

This was widely criticized at the time as an incoherent position…. But I am inclined to think that the moral world is much less tidy than most moral philosophers are prepared to admit. Now [Alan] Dershowitz has cited my argument in his defense of torture in extreme cases (though he insists on a judicial warrant before anything at all can be done to the prisoner).

But extreme cases make bad law. Yes, I would do whatever was necessary to extract information in the ticking bomb case…. But I don’t want to generalize from cases like that; I don’t want to rewrite the rule against torture to incorporate this exception. Rules are rules, and exceptions are exceptions. I want political leaders to accept the rule, to understand its reasons, even to internalize it. I also want them to be smart enough to know when to break it.

Again, Walzer is anxious to distinguish himself from “so many people on the left” who oppose every new antiterrorist measure peremptorily and unequivocally. The first obligation of government, he says, is to protect people’s lives.

It isn’t enough to point to the Patriot Act and scream “Fascism!” We have to make the case to our fellow citizens that the government can defend them against terrorism within the constitutional constraints.

He himself said in 2003 that what was being done at Guantánamo was “both immoral and crazy.” But he is not opposed to measures like ethnic profiling or measures that treat foreigners differently from citizens so far as civil liberties are concerned.

This is connected, I think, with Walzer’s particular understanding of how seriously wicked terrorism is. For many of us its wickedness is, in the first instance, its murderousness; secondly, its brutal use of panic and (literally) terror as a political instrument; and thirdly, its wholesale contempt for the laws and customs of armed conflict. Walzer of course condemns terrorism on all these grounds. But there is something more. Terrorists, he says,

devalue not only the individuals they kill but also the group to which the individuals belong. They signal a political intention to destroy or remove or radically subordinate these people individually and this “people” collectively…. Most murderers intend to kill specific people; terrorists kill at random within a specific group of people. The message they deliver is directed at the group: we don’t want you here.

In other words, terrorism is inherently genocidal. (Though this is not a word he uses in this connection, it is pretty much implied by his account: terrorism “is the extension of violence or the threat of violence from individuals to groups…. It is who you are, not what you are doing, that makes you vulnerable; identity is liability.”)

I can imagine this as an account of the wrongness of Palestinian terrorism in Israel; though even in that context, it would be intensely controversial. But Walzer’s account seems less true for terrorism in other contexts (the IRA in Northern Ireland, for example, in the 1970s and 1980s), where the “we don’t want you here” is more like anti-imperialism than genocide. And I’m not even sure how Walzer’s analysis applies to September 11: far from a potentially genocidal onslaught against the American people, al-Qaeda took as its prime target one of the symbols of modern cosmopolitan capitalism: the World Trade Center. Walzer acknowledges the point, but still hangs on to his foreboding: “From the perspective of the victims…terror is a totalizing practice. Random murder implies universal vulnerability.”

Even state terror is not exempt from this analysis. In Just and Unjust Wars, Walzer condemned the use of weapons of mass destruction against Japanese cities in 1945, not only for the war crime it was but for the calculus that made it necessary, namely the American insistence on unconditional surrender in circumstances in which the type of surrender that ordinarily ends wars was plainly available. He has no hesitation in using the word “terrorism” to describe this action, and in the interview he again associates this with the genocidal-tendency thesis:

Consider the American use of nuclear weapons against Japan in 1945: this was surely an act of terrorism; innocent men and women were killed in order to spread fear across a nation and force the surrender of its government…. There can’t be any doubt that the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki implied, at the moment the bombs were dropped, a radical devaluation of Japanese lives and a generalized threat to the Japanese people.

Walzer is certainly right that the atom bombings were acts of state terror: what President Truman threatened, if his terms were not met, was “a rain of ruin from the air the likes of which has never been seen on this earth.” But it was not the moral equivalent of terrorism, which is a military doctrine that holds the laws of war in permanent contempt. The United States did not hold the laws of war in contempt. Americans largely abided by them even during the desperate struggles of 1941–1945; the record of course is uneven and the use of weapons of mass destruction in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was preceded by campaigns of firebombing against civilian targets in Germany and elsewhere in Japan. Still, the violation of the laws of war in the case of these terror bombings is not the same as their wholesale repudiation. And the US showed by its actions immediately after the war that it most certainly did not radically devalue the lives of the Japanese people.

I have emphasized this theme of the terror attack as an assault on a whole people because it is central to Walzer’s overall account of the laws and morality of war. The primary doctrine of restraint in the course of armed conflict is civilian immunity. Why are civilians immune? Not because they are innocent, in anything other than a technical sense; civilians are often more enthusiastic about unjust wars than conscripts are. But the principle of civilian immunity, on Walzer’s account, is justified because it protects the people as a community:

Implicit in the theory of just war is a theory of just peace: whatever happens to these two armies, whichever one wins or loses, whatever the nature of the battles or the extent of the casualties, the “peoples” on both sides must be accommodated at the end. The central principle of jus in bello, that civilians can’t be targeted or deliberately killed, means that they will be—morally speaking, they have to be—present at the conclusion. This is the deepest meaning of noncombatant immunity: it doesn’t only protect individual noncombatants; it also protects the group to which they belong.

That the rules of war look forward to the state of peace (ius post bellum) is an important insight, though I doubt whether that is the whole story about civilian immunity. (We should never forget that the basic principle is always that no one’s life is to be deliberately taken; the principle that soldiers may be attacked is an exception to that, rather than the civilian immunity being an exception to some general permission to kill anybody in time of war.) However, Walzer is certainly right that we need to supplement our account of the law and morality of warfare with a theory of ius post bellum. It is no longer enough to say that the aim of a just war is to restore the status quo; regimes have to be changed or are changed, invading forces remain for a shorter or longer period, infrastructure has to be restored, and rights and duties have to be defined under circumstances of occupation. Walzer has given some attention to this topic in his recent writing. I hope he will say more about it. For even if he is right that we should be very reluctant to invade other countries for humanitarian reasons, it looks increasingly as though we are going to be stuck with the results of such ill-advised adventures for some time yet.

This Issue

March 6, 2008