Michael Walzer: «Any Ruler Can Be Brought to the Law»
No. 1 2006 January/March
Vladislav Inozemtsev

PhD in Economics; he is Head of the Department of World Economy at the Faculty of Public Administration, Lomonosov Moscow State University, and Director of the Center for Post-Industrial Studies.

Yekaterina Kuznetsova

Yekaterina Kuznetsova is Director of the European Projects at the Center for Post-Industrial Society Studies. 

Some of your books discuss such notions as ‘war’ and ‘justice,’
which at first glance look incompatible. How do they correlate? Has
the perception of a ‘just war’ changed recently?

Walzer: I have worked on that
issue for quite a long time, and a book of mine, Just and Unjust
Wars [1], has probably sold more copies than any other books
I strongly believe that the notion ‘justice of war’ applies not
only to the means of combat but also to the goals and purposes. If
the justification of war has to begin with an account of the causes
and purpose of fighting, then you turn to the question of the
conduct of war.

So if you take the American war in Iraq, the immediate cause was
justified in different ways: first, as a means of preventing the
development of weapons of mass destruction and deployment or export
of weapons of mass destruction and, second, as a war for regime
change, for democratization, for the creation of a different kind
of Iraqi state. I think the war was unjust on either ground.

The regime of containment, which had been established in Iraq in
1991 after the first Gulf war, was an effective system. It would
have been much better had it been truly supported by the European
states. Had the no-fly zones been enforced not only by American
planes but also by French and German planes, had the inspection
system been sustained by European states, had the embargo on arms
been seriously enforced by European states, I think it would have
been almost impossible for the United States to unilaterally go to

So, the war was the work of the American government. Had there
been a full European commitment to containment, it would have been
stopped. Had there been an international system of containment, the
power of the United States could have been contained. And that
seems to me to be an argument heard not only in Europe but
particularly in those states that opposed the war.

Kuznetsova: How would you specify the Iraqi war
– a preventive war or a preemptive strike? Or was it an act of

Walzer: The Bush administration systemically
confused preemption and prevention. This was not a preemptive war
because there was no immediate threat from Iraq.

It was not a humanitarian intervention because there was no mass
murder going on. There had been mass murder in Iraq in 1991 when we
actually had troops there. We could have intervened to stop it but
we didn’t. In 2003, partly because of the UN-authorized and
U.S.-enforced regime of constraint, there was no mass murder among
the Kurds; the no-fly zone protected them. So it was not a
preemptive war, it was not a humanitarian intervention.

The Iraq War was a preventive war, and preventive war is not
allowed by international law. And it is not justified by the ‘just
war’ theory because the danger that you are responding to is
speculative and lies in the future. And there were other ways of
dealing with the danger.

In this case the regime of constraint was effective, Saddam had
been prevented from developing weapons of mass destruction, and he
had been prevented from killing. After 1991, his regime was
essentially powerless. It could deal with political opponents at
home, but it could not prevent Kurdish autonomy, for example. The
embargo on weapons worked to prevent weapons of mass

Today, Iraq is awash in weapons. Everybody has them. And these
weapons came into the country from Europe mostly – from France,
Germany, Italy and Spain during the UN embargo. There was no
serious effort by the European countries to stop private companies
and arms dealers from dealing with Saddam.

Inozemtsev: The Americans have captured Saddam
Hussein and now the court is judging his case. Can you comment on
the judicial side of this trial? Is Saddam guilty of war crimes or

Walzer: I have a record on this subject, and I
am basically in favor of the trials. I wrote a book about the trial
of Louis XVI. The Jacobins wanted just to capture him and kill him,
as he was an “enemy of the people.” That was the first use of that
phrase. They played with that prescription: as you capture
aristocrats, you just kill them. The Jacobins believed it didn’t
make sense to put them on trial because there was a new regime and
they were enemies of the new regime. By the laws of the old regime
the king was innocent, but the Jacobins applied the laws of the new

Actually there were members of the British Cabinet in 1944-1945
who wanted to do the same thing to the Nazis: as you capture them,
you just kill them. They said: “Don’t try to stage a trial because
a trial would be a show trial, it would be like Stalinist

But I defended the trial of Louis XVI on the grounds that it was
important to show that the king was not immune from justice, that
he was legally responsible. And it was important to show that you
could do justice even to a king, that you could indict him. It was
important to show that you could read him his rights and the
charges, give him a defense lawyer, and treat him like a

I also think the Nuremberg trials were justified. Hermann
Goering said at Nuremberg that the judge panel was a “natural
outcome for the losers in the court of the victims.” But that’s not
true. There were many people acquitted for good reason. Not him.
But these were real trials where defense attorneys were able to
make their case, and people were acquitted.

And I think that the trial of Hussein – who claimed to be a
ruler who could do essentially anything and whose rule was
arbitrary – meant to bring him to the law but to respect all of the
civilized procedural rules. I think that’s exactly the right thing
to do.

Inozemtsev: But in the case of Nuremberg,
people were judged for war crimes while, for example, Slobodan
Milosevic in The Hague Court was judged for genocide. But in the
case of Saddam there seems to be an attempt to judge the head of
state for noncompliance with international regulations and
international law. Is Saddam now in court for the elimination of
Kurds in 1991 or for noncompliance with UN resolutions?

Walzer: At Nuremberg, people were tried for
violation of laws against mass murder. I assume that even in Iraq
there were laws against murder. So Saddam can simply be tried for
gross violations of laws that already existed under the old

Saddam is being tried the way Louis XVI was tried. He is being
tried by the Iraqi court, not the international court. It’s not
like Milosevic. But he may be charged with crimes against humanity
because even if Iraq didn’t sign the genocide treaty, mass murder
is a crime in any human society. So I think – assuming that you are
reading his rights, provide him with defense lawyers, give him time
to collect evidence – these are useful trials because they are
legally, procedurally justified.

Kuznetsova: Thirty years have
passed since the publication of your book about just and unjust
wars. In a practical sense, what can this knowledge about justice
and war give to ordinary people? Can it change their considerations
about war?

Walzer: I came into American political life
during the Vietnam War, and I was quite active in the antiwar
movement. I was a graduate student in those days and a young
professor, so I spent a lot of time traveling, talking at meetings,
and arguing about the war. And at a certain point I wondered: “Is
there some coherent set of principles that I am relying on, being
unaware of that?” And there was, there is.

Many Americans argued that no political regime could send young
men out to die or kill. And there were people who had to justify
what they were doing, saying, “This land belongs to us,” or, “The
enemy is cruel,” and so on.

The causes of war were most impressively described by a Catholic
monk theologian in the Middle Ages, who developed what we now call
the ‘just war’ theory. The usefulness of the theory is precisely
what we discovered in the 1960s and the 1970s in the United States:
it enables us to make judgments and to criticize the behavior of
our government. This is the way citizens in a democracy argue about
war, about what their government is doing in faraway places. Or
what it is not doing, because sometimes we argue not against war
but in favor of war. For example, I was in favor of intervening in
Uganda, which we did not do.

Kuznetsova: How would you specify the Chechen

Walzer: I am not sure because the Chechen
struggle is like Palestinian struggle, probably justified overall.
But they have chosen to fight in ways that are not justified. I
don’t know whether secession or autonomy or some degree of autonomy
for Chechnya is probably justified, given the history and the
ethnic divisions. But terrorism is not justified. A political
movement that becomes terrorist destroys its own basis.

Inozemtsev: Can you make some difference
between terrorist activity and some kind of uprising against the
occupation forces?

Walzer: The difference is in whether you attack
the occupation forces or whether you attack schoolchildren.

Inozemtsev: If the Chechens are ambushing
Russian convoys, it’s not terrorism?

Walzer: That’s not terrorism. They might be
right or wrong, but it’s not terrorism. If we take Israel and
Palestine, which I know much more about, an attack upon an Israeli
army unit or a militia group in the occupied territories may be
right or wrong, but it’s not terrorism. But an attack on a Basra
cafй is definitely a terrorist act. I want to say there should be a
Palestinian state, but not if it’s in the hands of the people who
are recruiting terrorists and killing civilians. So the causes were
right, but these people may discredit them through their

Inozemtsev: We have mainly spoken about the
classical type of war as a war between nation states. But now there
are many wars that have an ethnic or racial background, such as
ethnic cleansing, genocide, and so on. How important is the change
in the nature of warfare since the end of the Second World War some
six decades ago?

Walzer: I guess since the Second World War
there still have been conventional wars between nations, like wars
between India and Pakistan, or Israel and Egypt. The wars in Korea
and Vietnam were in part civil wars. And since that time major
conflicts have been internal in different ways. You can name the
Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, which declared war on its own
people and launched an extraordinary and crazy attack on the urban
culture of its country and started killing literally anybody who
lived in a city, anybody who had education or profession.

And then the Vietnamese communists stopped it, not entirely for
humanitarian reasons – they had strategic goals, but they stopped
it. So there you have a civil war, and the next thing is an
invasion to stop it.

There was a similar case in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) where
India had to intervene, and in Uganda where Tanzania had to
intervene. In all those cases there were murderous regimes and
external interventions. But external interventions look
old-fashioned now. If you think about the aftermath differently,
you want some kind of process of political reconstruction, which is
best administered or regulated by the UN or by some regional

That kind of humanitarian intervention and what comes after is
new. Guerrilla war is somewhat new and raises hard questions about
the combatant and non-combatant line. And terrorism is entirely
new. But I don’t think that the war on terrorism should be mostly a
police war as it raises a whole different set of questions from
your question. It raises questions about civil liberties and the
rights of police vs. the rights of ordinary people.

Inozemtsev: Speaking about civil wars that are
now going on in different parts of the world, does the United
Nations have to deliberate some general principles when dealing
with these wars? How can the big powers deal with this kind of war?
Can the UN or communities of democracies elaborate some universal
principles of intervention?

Walzer: Some universal principles do exist. We
do have the UN Charter; it does talk about the circumstances under
which it is right or not right to use force across the boundary.
The problem is with the reliability of the UN as an enforcer of
these rules. Let’s just look at three cases: the UN would not have
authorized anybody to go into Cambodia; it would not have
authorized India to invade East Pakistan and create Bangladesh; and
it would not have authorized the Tanzanian invasion of
Looking again at Srebrenica in Bosnia, or at Rwanda or at Darfur in
Sudan, no political leader in his right mind would put the fate of
his people into the hands of the United Nations. And it’s not
because the principles aren’t there. It’s because there is no
readiness, there is no real commitment to live by these principles,
to enforce them.

So it is important to think about how to create a more effective
United Nations. But at this moment the principle that I would
recommend is the Iraqi principle: faced with mass murder, anybody
who can stop it should stop it.

Inozemtsev: Maybe it is necessary to form the
United Nations troops on a different principle – recruit soldiers
from various parts of the world that will not be associated with
any of the permanent members?

Walzer: Yes, ideally there should be a UN
police force, which is not composed of Italian, Norwegian, or any
other national army soldiers, but a force composed of individually
recruited soldiers who are committed to the UN, who are paid by the
UN, and who are professionals. But that doesn’t sound as a
political question.

Kuznetsova: I think it’s important to have a
mechanism. For example, when I fail to stop at a stop sign, the
policeman stops me and asks why I didn’t stop at the stop sign
because it’s a law to stop at the stop sign. But if a state commits
a crime, like Sudan in Darfur, there is a Group of Five which
decides whether the state really committed a crime, and the same
group of states decides whether to enforce the law or not. There
should be a law providing forces and there should be forces that
define the laws, the principles. Do you think if you start changing
the principles to make the United Nations more convenient, you will
have to change the UN tack?

Walzer: I think to reform the UN we have to
move it closer to a global state and a global government. However,
I don’t think there is any consensus, any willingness in the
contemporary society of states to allow that to happen. A Security
Council police force might work in some situations and it’s
obviously not going to work in a lot of other situations. It’s not
going to work where there is a great power determined to have its
way, like the Chinese in Tibet. Nobody is going to stop it. And
it’s not going to work against the situation in Darfur. The
situation in Darfur is a model of the way international politics
works. The Arab League is committed to oppose any Western
intervention and after Iraq that is not incomprehensible. And the
Chinese, in their increasingly desperate search for oil, are
committed to support the Arab League.
Inozemtsev: And now a question about the direction
the global society of states, as you call it, is leading us. Are we
heading toward a uniformed civilization? Or are we moving toward a
world split into different kinds of civilization, different

Walzer: It’s both of those. You travel around
the world these days and you hear the same music, you see kids
dressed in the same way, there is a remarkable cultural uniformity
in many areas of life.

At the same time there is a growing resistance to that
uniformity; there is a growing effort to cultivate difference into
a kind of cultural independence. And right now the primary source
of that resistance to globalization is religion. But clearly the
appearance of Hindutwa, of Hindu nationalism, of messianic Zionism,
of radical Islam, of evangelical Protestantism, all of this does
make the world look more different.

The United States goes beyond permitting cultural difference; it
is enforcing a political and legal conformity. If you look at the
difference, it’s a very qualified difference. In Islamic mosques
and Jewish synagogues, and I would guess in Russian Orthodox
churches in the United States, they go on with the character of
protestant congregations, that is, they are being slowly
protestantized. They won’t become entirely the same, but you can
find an Islamic mosque with a woman auxiliary like in a protestant
church, and you can find an Islamic mosque where the congregation
votes on the community’s leader.

Kuznetsova: That is true. You can even sit in
the Orthodox churches in the United States, which is strictly
forbidden in Russia.

Walzer: So, there is an American culture, which
is an angle of Protestantism, which does not demand absolute
conformity, but it is establishing certain ground rules. And
Protestantism is a religion that, despite the evangelicals of
today, fits better with democracy and secularism than Orthodox
Judaism or Islam. We do allow a pretty wide range of cultural and
religious difference but we sustain a political system. We have
what we call “constitutional patriotism.” We have that very strong
sense that holds us together. It’s the commitment to the republic,
to democratic government, to the Constitution, to the Declaration
of Independence.

Inozemtsev: In your recent book Politics and
Passion [2], you analyzed the reasons for the war in Algeria and
you wrote that in the 1960s the people of Algeria decided to be
collectively Moslem, but not individually French. Can you comment
on the recent Moslem uprising in France? Can people who conceive
themselves as part of a huge community integrate into
individualistic European society?

Walzer: The French project has always been to
assimilate immigrants, to turn them into French men and women and
citizens of the Republic where there are just no ethnic or
religious differences. This project worked very well for a long
time. It worked very well with South European and East European
immigrants who came in significant numbers, but relative to what’s
now going on, small numbers. But when France was faced with massive
immigration from Africa and North Africa, the assimilation model
just stopped working. I think it does not work because of the great
numbers of immigrants, not because they are Moslems. I think the
economy has not grown to ensure their economic integration, which
is very important.

And it may be that France will have to move from the
assimilationist model to some version of multiculturalism, to a
greater recognition by the state of cultural difference. However,
the key to solving the crisis is economic integration. The French
authorities have to find jobs for these people, to open
opportunities for personal advance, including in the French
economic system. And if they do that, I think the cultural
questions will be easier to deal with.

Inozemtsev: Is it possible that things like the
uprising in France will happen in America?

Walzer: Well, we have had massive immigration
for a very long time and I think we are more capable of dealing
with cultural difference. We have one big advantage. The first
large Arab immigration to the United States was of Christian
migrants, who assimilated very quickly and that made it easier to
the next Moslem Arabs to fit into American society.

Kuznetsova: But is the U.S. facing a threat of
mass immigration from Mexico?

Walzer: Yes, we may have that kind of a problem
in the southwest. We could have Arizona, Southern California
becoming 80 percent Hispanic and then wanting more autonomy or
wanting to secede. But so far the Hispanic immigrants have been
dispersing around the country. We find significant Mexican, Puerto
Rican, Asian population everywhere you go. I was in Nebraska last
week, giving some lectures in Omaha. And there is a Sudanese
immigration all over Nebraska, that is, in the middle of the United

Inozemtsev: People now speak about different
“imperial” projects, about American empire, about Europe as a kind
of an imperialistic project. In Russia, too, there has been much
discussion about the restoration of the Russian or Soviet Empire.
Can you compare the American and European projects?

Walzer: Well, I think there are people in the
government of the United States who can be accurately described as
imperial bureaucrats, people like Donald Rumsfeld. I think his
conception of what we should do in Iraq was essentially an
old-fashioned imperialist conception. But I don’t think that is a
dominant American style in traditional politics. Two examples
struck me with great force. One is the example of South Korea –
which is essentially an American creation – where we have had a
significant military force (over 50,000 soldiers now) for fifty
years. But a democratically elected South Korean government
certainly refused to go along with American policy toward the

And even more dramatically, in the period just before the Iraq
war, the Turks refused to allow American forces to invade Iraq from
Turkish territory – and there have been American bases there for a
long time. The governments of South Korea and Turkey have
democratic legitimacy, so they are able to defy the United

Insofar as America is committed to some kind of democratic
project, it cannot be a silly imperial project, because then we
will create regimes which we know will at some point refuse to
support our policies.

As for Europe, I think the European project is a wonderful
project. The Europeans are creating a zone of peace in a place
where there were perilous wars for a very long time. They are going
to be set back slightly by the current constitutional crisis. But,
basically, the European Union is an extremely important world and
historic achievement because Europeans are so committed to this
project. They oppose the unilateralist policies of our own
government. So I wish the Europeans were more ready to take up some
of the burden of collective security.

1 Michael Walzer. Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with
Historical Illustrations. New York: Basic Books, 1977.

2 Michael Walzer. Politics and Passion. Toward a More
Egalitarian Liberalism. New Haven (Ct.), London: Yale Univ. Press,