Double Standards and the Yglesias Doctrine

I've decided that it's time to break out of my new pattern. You know, the one where I wave my hands at some problem and then sitting back and watch as my more competent co-bloggers to do all the serious analysis. That, however, will mean staying away from anything related to economics, since hand-waving is about all that I can do there. So I'll take a stab at saying something interesting about the Yglesias Doctrine. And yes, I know I'm late to the party on that one (see, for example Jane Galt's discussion of the "Condorcet Doctrine").

The gist of Yglesias' post is that the fundamental problem with nation-building in general and with the Iraq war in particular

isn't that the United States is insufficiently virtuous to remake the world, but that no country is sufficiently virtuous to wield the level of power that would be required to remake the world. The exercise of power needs to be constrained by some kind of widely acceptable rules.

Yglesias goes on to suggest that war is justified

  • In direct self-defense.
  • In defense of another country (i.e., we assist Costa Rica in repelling a Nicaraguan invasion).
  • When authorized by a UN Security Council resolution.
  • When called for by a relevant (i.e., the OAS can't authorize an invasion of Burma) regional organization.
  • In many ways, this isn't a bad doctrine. I actually liked it a bit better when I first read it in Just and Unjust Wars...which, come to think of it, was probably right around the time that Matt was worrying about whom to take to the 8th grade prom. So calling it the Yglesias Doctrine is maybe a bit problematic. Still, that's just a quibble.

    My real concern stems from the fact that it's not clear to me that Matt's third and fourth principles actually justify a war.

    Now one might object here that Yglesias isn't actually talking about justifying war; he mentions only the need for rules that limit war. But presumably Matt hasn't just plucked his rules out of thin air. If we're going to bother with picking out some rules, then presumably we'll want to have some reasons for picking the rules that we do. There are lots of strategies that we could use in choosing our rules. We might go the nationalist route (i.e., my country should go to war whenever it is in my country's interest to do so). But that's not really a rule for limiting war, and as such that can't really be what Yglesias was intending. Indeed, given the set of rules that Matt ends up with, it appears that his strategy for choosing rules is to try to pick out a morally justified set of rules. That, at any rate, is what I'm going to assume that Yglesias was gunning for.

    Finding a moral justification for the first two principles -- self-defense and the defense of others -- isn't so terribly difficult to do. Or, rather, justifying the first two principles isn't all that difficult for someone who is already inclined to think that states can sometimes be morally justified. Generally the argument for defensive wars involves an attempt to scale up individual autonomy to the state level. One possible strategy would go something like

      1. Individuals have the right to govern their own lives.
      2. When individuals join together into a society, they continue to have the right to govern their own lives.
      3. Governments are the expression of a society of individuals collectively exercising their right to govern themselves.
      4. A government together with its people comprise a state.
      5. States thus have the right to be self-determining.

    And (5), of course, is more-or-less the principle of state sovereignty.

    Now I don't want to get into trying to defend this argument here. I'm not at all sure that it works; there is, in fact, a pretty serious danger that a composition fallacy has occurred somewhere between steps (2) and (4). I'm not really trying to mount a defense of the Yglesias Doctrine (though in point of fact, I do happen to agree with at least the first two principles). What I want to note, rather, is that the principle of state sovereignty is the fundamental justification for Yglesias' first two rules governing waging war (or the principles of jus ad bellum, as we call it in academic literature). The point is simple: if a state has the right to be self-determining, then making war upon that state is morally illegitimate. It is interfering with the right of the state to be self-determining -- or more accurately, it is interfering with the rights of the citizens of that state to govern themselves as they see fit. War, on this sort of argument, is the international equivalent of a mugging. I'm morally entitled to resist muggers. I'm also morally entitled to help you resist muggers.

    So that covers Matt's first two points. How about the third and fourth, though? How does the principle of state sovereignty help to justify wars that the UN approves? Well, you see, it...it...I mean if you...or maybe....no... Okay, so actually state sovereignty doesn't have anything at all to do with UN approval. Yglesias has, in fact, offered two entirely different types of rules. For the sake of convenience, I'm going to lump rules one and two together under a more general term: the Defense of Sovereignty Principle, or DSP. (And yes I do realize how inelegant that name is.) I'm also going to do the same for Matt's third and fourth rules; we'll call this collective rule the Principle of Widespread Authority, or PWA. So, then, how do the DSP and the PWA differ? One way to think of the difference is that the DSP is a principled rule while the PWA is a procedural rule. More formally:

    DSP: A war against state S is justified if it is waged in response to S's act of aggression.

    Obviously we'd need to do more to specify what, exactly, constitutes an act of aggression. But that doesn't alter my fundamental point, which is that the DSP establishes an objective criterion for legitimizing a war. War against S is justified as a response to a particular action that S has taken. Whether S has taken that particular action is an empirical fact about the world, one that is, in principle anyway, available to any reasonable person. Now contrast that with the PWA which says:

    PWA: A war against state S is justified if it has been authorized by a relevant international body.

    The issue here is that the PWA makes no reference whatsoever to anything that S may or may not have done. Rather, it specifies a particular procedure for determining whether or not a war is justified. Importantly, though, that procedure makes no real reference to the actions of S. Yglesias seems happy enough just to let the UN decide and then to simply sign on to whatever it is that the UN happens to decide. The fourth principle extends Yglesias' strange confidence in the UN to every other regional international body in the world.

    So suppose, for example, that the member states of NATO get together and decide that they really just don't much like Belgian waffles. They then further determine that -- surprise -- Belgium is really the driving force behind the renewed popularity of Belgian waffles. So to counteract this nefarious spread of this crispy-yet-still-chewy, carb-laden, Sunday brunch favority, all of NATO votes to invade Belgium. It seems to me that such a war actually satisfies the PWA. Yet surely Yglesias doesn't want to defend a doctrine that justifies wars against waffle proliferation. Or, if you want a real-world example, the fourth principle might well justify the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on the grounds that the Warsaw Pact approved the invasion. But surely the fact that lots of other countries think that a war against S is justified is not by itself good evidence that war against S is actually justified. It seems to me that any rule about war against S needs to make some reference to the actions of S. We might think of the PWA as a necessary condition for going to war, but it can hardly be a sufficient condition.

    I strongly suspect that what Yglesias is trying to do with his third and fourth rules is to carve out space for humanitarian intervention. (The fourth rule, in fact, looks very much like a post hoc justification for intervening in Kosovo, a war which was waged under the authority of NATO after the UN failed to approve it.) For the record, I'm inclined to agree with Matt that such space probably should be carved. It turns out, however, that making that sort of space is really tough to do. It certainly defies easy one-line rules in blog posts. Really, it's going to require a book. Which is exactly why I'm busy writing one.

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