The limits of pacifism

by Michael Sean Winters

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Three weeks ago, my colleague Josh McElwee reported on a conference at the Vatican, co-sponsored by Pax Christi and the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. The aim of that conference was to discuss alternatives to classic just war theory. I encourage such discussions, of course, but at the end of the day, in this vale of tears, it is hard to imagine the Catholic moral tradition could ever dispense with just war theory.

Last week, I linked to an article at Millennial by Daniel Petri in which he raised serious and important questions about pacifism and its limits, especially in the context of Syria. While pacifism can certainly maintain a Christian's moral purity and religious identity, it has little to offer in the way of protecting the innocent. "The Catholic tradition teaches that we must protect our neighbor, including using force as a last resort," Petri writes. "Can we really say that at no point during these years of atrocities that we did not reach last resort? Was it truly never just to engage in armed intervention to protect those slaughtered, displaced, and tortured?" 

In a sense, we Christians are all called to be builders of peace, in our families, in our communities, and on the world stage. This is one reason why organizations like Caritas and Catholic Relief Services are so important: By helping people live lives of dignity, these organizations ameliorate the anguish and suffering that too often can lead some to resort to violence. Their work is not only just on its face, it is an example of an effort at preventative medicine against the scourge of violence.

Non-violence certainly has had its champions in the last century, almost all of them worthy of admiration and praise. One thinks of Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. In the face of injustice, non-violence can often achieve an awakening of the conscience of a people and nation, affirming the dignity of one's opponents and thus turning the contentious struggle away from the kind of zero-sum thinking that characterizes a resort to force. There are times and places where non-violence has worked miracles, brought down unjust laws, and changed the fabric of a society.

There are other times, however, when pacifism has led not to miracles but to war. In 1936, Adolph Hitler sent German troops into the Rhineland, which had been demilitarized after the First World War. Both the Versailles Treaty ending that war and the subsequent Locarno Pact, the high water mark of pacifism, had insisted on the demilitarization and provided a remedy for the rest of Europe to resist this violation of international law. Alas, the French government would not act without the encouragement of the British government, and the British government was then led by Stanley Baldwin, a man who was little interested in foreign affairs but convinced that any prospect of violent conflict be avoided. In the grip of pacifist sentiment and policy, Great Britain shirked its last real chance to check Hitler's rise before the war. We now know that the German troops were under orders to withdraw if challenged, that such a withdrawal would have cost Hitler the prestige he had amassed with the military leaders of Germany, and that many of those military leaders were prepared to depose him.

The following year, submarines in the Mediterranean Sea began sinking merchant ships of the coast of Spain. The submarines were undoubtedly Italian, although Mussolini claimed they were Spanish. At a conference in Nyon, Switzerland, France and Great Britain announced that they would begin patrolling the waters and sinking any submarines they encountered. The submarines returned to their bases and the fascist dictator backed down.

Just because a country is led by a dictator, it does not mean that democratic countries like ours should refuse to conduct diplomatic efforts at peace. Anwar Sadat was a military dictator, but Israel welcomed his peace overtures, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace accords, negotiated with the help of President Jimmy Carter, have kept the border between the two countries largely peaceful after decades of hostility. President John Kennedy was right to negotiate the Limited Nuclear Test Ban treaty with the Soviet dictators, just as President Barack Obama was right to negotiate an end to Iran's nuclear weapons program with the Shiite dictators of that country.

Still, in the conduct of foreign policy, any government is well advised to keep as many different tools in its chest as possible, and one of those tools must be the use of force. The people of Great Britain in the 1930s remembered the horrors of the First World War, and their desire for peace was understandable. But, it was the job of the political leadership of that country to correctly diagnose the existential threat Hitler posed, and to realize that there would be no peace with this man or with his regime. The amiable desire for peace led to a war in which millions of people were killed when enforcement of the treaties that ended World War I might have maintained peace or, at any rate, started the war before Hitler was dominant and ready.

If force is the only weapon a government thinks it possesses, it is likely to become stupidly belligerent. If the avoidance of the use of force is the cardinal objective of a foreign policy, a nation can find itself in a war it doesn't want. In our day, the imposition of long-term economic sanctions can sometimes lead to as much suffering as the conduct of a brief war. In some cases, a regime can be removed and a people liberated to pursue a peaceful life: The post-war history of Japan is a stunning achievement by any standard. Germany reunified when the Berlin Wall came down, and most of the countries once coerced into the Soviet system have prospered since 1989, even if Russia herself has lapsed back into kleptocratic dictatorship.

The Holy Father sent a letter to the conference at the Vatican. He wrote: "In this vein, we recall that the only explicit condemnation issued by the Second Vatican Council was against war, although the Council recognized that, since war has not been eradicated from the human condition, 'governments cannot be denied the right to legitimate defence once every means of peaceful settlement has been exhausted.' " The council struck the right balance. The leadership of our church, clerical and lay, should not be too hasty in abandoning the just war theory. We should attend to the positive development in international legal circles represented by the emergence of a right to protect. Attention to weapons and the potential to lower the amount of money countries spend on them is always a clamant need. The Christian witness of pacifists should ever be applauded and serve as a kind of prod to the rest of us, the way a vow of poverty or chastity reminds us of the limits of earthly pleasures. But, just war theory still reflects the demands of justice in an often brutal world. This we would forget at our peril. 

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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