The Ethics of Destruction

The Ethics of Destruction: Norms and Force in International Relations

Ward Thomas
Copyright Date: 2001
Edition: 1
Published by: Cornell University Press
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctt1287f7c
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Ethics of Destruction
    Book Description:

    Many assume that in international politics, and especially in war, "anything goes." Sherman famously declared war "is all hell." The implication behind the maxim is that in war there is no order, only chaos; no mercy, only cruelty; no restraint, only suffering.

    Ward Thomas finds that this "anything goes" view is demonstrably wrong. It neither reflects how most people talk about the use of force in international relations nor describes the way national leaders actually use military force. Events such as those in Europe during World War II, in the Persian Gulf War, and in Kosovo cannot be understood, he argues, until we realize that state behavior, even during wartime, is shaped by common understandings about what is ethically acceptable and unacceptable.

    Thomas makes extensive use of two cases-the assassination of foreign leaders and the aerial bombardment of civilians-to trace the relative influence of norms and interests. His insistence on interconnections between ethical principle and material power leads to a revised understanding of the role of normative factors in foreign policy and the ways in which power and interest shape the international system.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-7169-8
    Subjects: Political Science, Law

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
    Ward Thomas
  4. CHAPTER 1 Ethics, Norms, and the Study of International Relations
    (pp. 1-26)

    The central premise of this book is that Clausewitz was wrong: moderation is not alien to war, and the self-imposed limitations of international law and custom are not “imperceptible” but in fact are often crucial to determining how and when force is used in international relations. This argument is not novel; indeed, much of the work of international lawyers, ethicists, and theologians has been predicated on the idea that not only is restraint possible but it can be based on moral grounds. Nevertheless, this idea has typically been subordinated to the purportedly more sober and mature view that when it...

  5. CHAPTER 2 Principle Meets Power: Groundwork for an Analysis of Ethical Norms
    (pp. 27-46)

    In order to establish a foundation for analysis. a fundamental distinction must first be made betweenmoral principlesandethical norms. I take “moral principle” to mean a proposition or tenet that expresses an abstract judgment about right or wrong. Such a principle must necessarily be expressed in very general terms. While it can serve as a guide to action. the essence of a moral principle is the judgment. not the command, which is only implicit. “Human life is intrinsically valuable” is a highly abstract moral principle; “it is morally wrong to kill without justification” and “it is morally wrong...

  6. CHAPTER 3 International Assassination: “An Infamous and Execrable Practice”
    (pp. 47-86)

    In July of 1991 theLos Angeles Timesreported that intelligence officials from Britain, France, Israel, and the United States had held a series of secret meetings between the previous August and the beginning of the Persian Gulf War in January. A major topic of discussion was the possibility of assassinating Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. British agents operating within Iraq, the story stated, had devised a workable plan for the assassination, which was subsequently approved by the British government. Ultimately, however, President George Bush of the United States, along with the Israeli government, vetoed the plan.¹

    One can imagine that...

  7. CHAPTER 4 Aerial Bombing to 1945: “A Frightful Cataclysm”
    (pp. 87-146)

    In the early morning hours of February 13, 1991, less than a month into the Persian Gulf War, two U.S. F-117 stealth fighters each dropped one two-thousand-pound, laser-guided bomb on the AI Firdos bunker, which intelligence sources had identified as a newly operational Iraqi command-and-control center. Unbeknownst to U.S. officials, the hunker was also serving as a shelter for Iraqi civilians. The F-117s scored a direct hit, destroying the bunker and in the process killing over two hundred Iraqi civilians, including scores of women and children.¹

    Even before CNN began airing grisly scenes of corpses being carried from the bunker,...

  8. CHAPTER 5 Aerial Bombing since 1945: A Norm Revived
    (pp. 147-180)

    The future of the bombing norm could not have looked bright when viewed from the rubble of European and Japanese cities. At the least, international law on aerial warfare was in a state of disarray. Bombing in World War II seemed to make a mockery of the idea of customary law, as the actual practices of states had shown little evidence of legal constraint. The chief counsel at the Nuremberg Tribunal reported:

    Many of the provisions of the 1907 Hague Convention regarding unlawful means of combat . . . were antiquarian. Others had been observed only partially during the First...

  9. CHAPTER 6 The Limits of International Ethics
    (pp. 181-196)

    In the preceding chapters, I have shown how norms governing the use of force can serve as meaningful constraints upon states in the international system. While norms against the bombing of noncombatants and the assassination of foreign leaders have their foundations in moral principles, they derive much of their normative force, as well as their power to command adherence, from understandings held in common throughout international society. Because of the interest most states have in the practices and institutions that constitute international society, as well as the prospect of sanctions for rule-breakers. norms affect the policy calculus of states in...

  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 197-212)
  11. Index
    (pp. 213-222)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 223-226)