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The Moral Standing of States Revisited

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  25 March 2011


“The Moral Standing of States” is the title of an essay Michael Walzer wrote in response to four critics of the theory of nonintervention defended in Just and Unjust Wars. It states a theme to which he has returned in subsequent work. I offer four sets of comments. First, by way of introduction, I describe the controversy between Walzer and his critics and try to identify the central point of contention. Second, I make some observations about the wider conception of global justice suggested by Walzer's remarks, emphasizing the extent of the difference between this conception and the traditional view of a “society of states” to which it stands as an alternative. The central value in Walzer's conception is collective self-determination, so I comment about its meaning and importance. Finally, I consider whether and how concerns about the moral standing of states bear on the kinds of cases of humanitarian intervention that the world community has actually faced since the book and article were written, particularly since the end of the cold war.

Symposium: Walzer and the Moral Standing of States
Copyright © Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs 2009

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1 Michael Walzer, “The Moral Standing of States: A Response to Four Critics,”Philosophy & Public Affairs 9, no. 3 (1980), pp. 209–29, reprinted in Michael Walzer, Thinking Politically: Essays in Political Theory, ed. David Miller (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2007), pp. 219–36. My references to “Moral Standing” refer to the original printing in Philosophy & Public Affairs. The pertinent parts of Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, 4th ed. (New York: Basic Books, 2006 [1977]), occur in chaps. 4–6. For my own critical comments, see “Bounded Morality: Justice and the State in World Politics,” International Organization 33, no. 3 (1979), pp. 405–24. The other critical papers are Richard Wasserstrom, “Review of Michael Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars,” Harvard Law Review 92 (1978), pp. 536–45; Gerald Doppelt, “Walzer's Theory of Morality in International Relations,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 8, no. 1 (1978), pp. 3–26; and David Luban, “Just War and Human Rights,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 9, no. 2 (1980), pp. 160–81. I note also that three of the four critics wrote rejoinders to “Moral Standing”: Beitz, “Nonintervention and Communal Integrity”; Luban, “The Romance of the Nation-State”; and Doppelt, “Statism without Foundations,” all in Philosophy & Public Affairs 9, no. 4 (1980), at pp. 385–91, 392–97, and 398–403 respectively.

2 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. 61.

3 The domestic analogy can take several forms. Traditionally, it runs from individuals to states in a socialized but politically unorganized state of nature where individual agents have obligations to follow principles deriving from the natural law. This is how the analogy is presented, e.g., by Wolff and Vattel.

4 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. 62.

5 Ibid., p. 90; also p. 108.

6 In a paper published about a decade before Just and Unjust Wars, for example, Hedley Bull observed that “it would not be possible to find much support” for a (legal) right of humanitarian intervention “at the present time.” Hedley Bull, “The Grotian Conception of International Society,” in Herbert Butterfield and Martin Wight, eds., Diplomatic Investigations: Essays in the Theory of International Politics (London: Allen and Unwin, 1966), p. 64. There is no mention of such a right in the brief discussion of the “law of nations” in John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, rev. ed. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999 [1971]), sec. 58.

7 Walzer, “Moral Standing,” p. 210.

8 Walzer, “Moral Standing,” p. 212. The remarks about the relationship between “fit” and legitimacy are ambiguous and I am not sure I have it right. The first reference to “fit” is in the context of the presumption owed by outsiders (“Moral Standing,” p. 212). Later, “fit” is presented as a standard of legitimacy, without qualification (p. 214). Later still, “fit” is a fact that might obtain even when a state is “objectively illegitimate” (p. 216).

9 Michael Walzer, “Nation and Universe” (1990), in Thinking Politically, pp. 185–87.

10 The source of my confusion is that, in Walzer's usage, the word “legitimacy” seems to have only one sense, indicated by the metaphor of “fit.” The “legitimacy” that should be presumed by outsiders does not seem to be a different kind of legitimacy from this; the presumption is simply (though it is not simple) that a government “fits” its community: that is, that the state is “actually” legitimate.

11 Walzer, “Moral Standing,” pp. 212, 214.

12 Ibid., p. 216.

13 Ibid.

14 For example, in Hedley Bull, “Society and Anarchy in International Relations,” in Diplomatic Investigations, pp. 38ff.

15 Although these writers share a conception of the (European) order as a society of states with its own distinctive norms, they do not always agree about the content of these norms. For example, whereas Wolff takes an uncompromising view of the rights of sovereignty, Vattel, who presents himself as Wolff's popularizer, holds that a state might be justified in intervening in another state when an oppressed people asks for its help. The very fact of the request would show that the unity of the state, on which its right against interference is based, had been dissolved. Emer de Vattel, The Law of Nations (Le Droit des gens) (1758), trans. Charles G. Fenwick (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Institution, 1916), II.iv.56.

16 Christian Wolff, Jus gentium methodo scientifica pertractatum (1749), trans. Joseph H. Drake (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1934), para. 16.

17 Ibid., para. 7.

18 Ibid., para. 16.

19 Ibid., para. 255.

20 Ibid., paras. 252–58.

21 Kant mentions Grotius, Pufendorf, Vattel, “and many others.”Toward Perpetual Peace, AK 8:355, in Toward Perpetual Peace and Other Writings on Politics, Peace, and History, ed. Pauline Kleingeld (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006).

22 Wolff, Jus gentium, paras. 617,, 621–23.

23 After the single paragraph ruling out humanitarian intervention, Wolff devotes five paragraphs to arguing that states should not seek to influence the religions of other states, or force them to accept missionaries, or allow considerations of religion to get in the way of their duties of humanity and justice. Jus gentium, paras. 259–63.

24 R. J. Vincent, Nonintervention and International Order (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974), pp. 234–37. The Charter refers to the “principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples” twice but says nothing to distinguish it from the principle of nonintervention. Its references to “human rights” and “fundamental freedoms” broach a change of great potential significance but its development was left for the future.

25 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. 61.

26 In “Bounded Morality,” I presented Walzer's theory as an example of a view I called “the morality of states.” I was relying on a longer discussion in Political Theory and International Relations (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979), pt. II. I now think this obscured the distinctions I try to draw here.

27 Wolff, Jus gentium, para. 2.

28 Ibid., para. 28.

29 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. 90; emphasis removed.

30 Wolff, Jus gentium, para. 255.

31 In particular, Michael Walzer, “The Politics of Difference: Statehood and Toleration in a Multicultural World” (1997) and “Nation and Universe,” both in Thinking Politically, pp. 168–82 and 183–218.

32 “A nation is a historic community, connected to a meaningful place, enacting and revising a way of life, aiming at political or cultural self-determination.” Walzer, “Nation and Universe,” p. 214.

33 Walzer quotes Berlin on Herder: “‘He [did] not see, ’ writes Berlin, ‘why one community, absorbed in the development of its own native talent, should not respect a similar activity on the part of others.’”“Nation and Universe,” p. 212 (quoting Isaiah Berlin, Vico and Herder [New York: Vintage, 1977], p. 164).

34 Michael Walzer, “Governing the Globe: What Is the Best We Can Do?”Dissent (Fall 2000), pp. 44–52. This essay should be read together with the remarks about the need to combine a global politics of emancipation with a politics of empowerment in Michael Walzer, “Global Equality,” the concluding chapter of Politics and Passion: Toward a More Egalitarian Liberalism (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004), pp. 133–39. See also Michael Walzer, “Beyond Humanitarian Intervention: Human Rights in Global Society” (2004), reprinted in Thinking Politically, where Walzer observes that we might think of humanitarian intervention as “the first example of the global enforcement of human rights” (p. 251).

35 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. 108.

36 Walzer, “Moral Standing,” p. 217. Or: “when a government turns savagely upon its own people, we must doubt the very existence of a political community to which the idea of self-determination might apply” (Just and Unjust Wars, p. 101). Or: humanitarian intervention would be justified “when the absence of ‘fit' … is radically apparent” (“Moral Standing,” p. 214).

37 Walzer, “Moral Standing,” p. 225.

38 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. 104.

39 Ibid., p. 108.

40 Michael Walzer, “The Politics of Rescue” (1994), in Arguing about War (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004), p. 72.

41 John Rawls, The Law of Peoples (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999), sec. 9. This is not the whole of Rawls's idea—among other things it omits any reference to human rights (to which we return). Joshua Cohen suggests a similar idea in “Is There a Human Right to Democracy?” in Christine Sypnowich, ed., The Egalitarian Conscience: Essays in Honour of G. A. Cohen (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 233. Cohen's paper is illuminating about the relationship between democracy and self-determination.

42 J. S. Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, ch. 3. This theme also occurs in Walzer's account of the value of democracy in Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (New York: Basic Books, 1983), ch. 12.

43 Mill, Considerations on Representative Government, ch. 4. Also “A Few Words on Non-Intervention” (1859), repr. in Mill, Dissertations and Discussions (1874–82), vol. 3,, pp. 238–63; and the discussion on Mill in Just and Unjust Wars, pp. 87–91. Mill thought that this process of political and social development is only likely to succeed (in nations that are not “barbarous”) when it takes place without foreign interference. This adds something to the formulation in the text.

44 Avishai Margalit and Joseph Raz, “National Self-Determination,” Journal of Philosophy 87,, no. 9, (1990), pp. 449ff. Raz and Margalit make an instrumental case for a right of national self-determination whose legitimate exercise and aims depend on various features of the context.

45 Cohen, “A Human Right to Democracy?” p. 234.

46 I borrow the distinction between respecting or honoring and fostering or promoting from Philip Pettit, “Consequentialism and Respect for Persons,” Ethics 100,, no. 1, (1989), pp. 116–26.

47 Walzer approved of the intervention and thought it should have occurred months earlier. Walzer, “The Politics of Rescue,” p. 79.

48 Walzer, “The Politics of Rescue” and “Kosovo” (1999), both in Arguing about War.

49 Michael Walzer, “The Argument about Humanitarian Intervention” (2002), in Thinking Politically, pp. 246–48.

50 Walzer, “The Politics of Rescue,” p. 70.

51 See, e.g., the introduction to Arguing about War, p. xiii.

52 Walzer, “Beyond Humanitarian Intervention,” p. 260.

53 Walzer, “The Politics of Rescue,” p. 76.

54 Andrew Moravcsik, “The Origins of Human Rights Regimes: Democratic Delegation in Postwar Europe,”International Organization 54,, no. 2, (2000), pp. 217–52.

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