Iain Atack, 'The Ethics of Peace and War'

IssueApril 2006
Review by Trevor Curnow

This book is a useful introduction to some of the philosophical issues and theories relating to war and peace. It begins with an account of three basic approaches to the morality of war; political realism, internationalism and cosmopolitanism.

Political realism argues that moral values have no leverage in international politics, while internationalism looks to give those values some international status, primarily through the medium of international law. Cosmopolitanism, on the other hand, begins from what is sometimes called “world ethics” and the belief that all human beings are of equal value and belong to one international moral community. Consequently, while political realism and internationalism cede centre stage to the nation state, cosmopolitanism does not. This becomes an important theme as the rest of the book unfolds.

The model of the nation state enshrined in the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia has dominated European political thinking ever since, and through European colonialism it has had an enormous impact on world history for centuries. “Peacebuilding”, discussed in chapter 10, is routinely identified with “nation building”. And yet some would argue that the nation state has done more for war than for peace. Indeed, as Iain Atack points out, some have argued that the nation state came into existence precisely to meet the demands of modern war.

However, as such recent developments as Al Qaeda and the “war on terror” have revealed, while some wars may still take place between nation states, increasingly many do not. Wars are fought within states, or in order to establish states, or simply do not involve states at all. This has prompted new kinds of thinking and the revision of old kinds. The chapter on just war theory is a useful review of the topic in the light of present realities, while the chapter on pacifism sketches out the different options available. Because of the value they each attach to the individual, cosmopolitanism and pacifism are shown to be natural allies, although it is an alliance not without tensions.

Anyone new to the topic will find this book a valuable way into it. In a little over 170 pages it covers a lot of ground and makes reference to a number of important works and thinkers in a clear and systematic way.

Topics: War and peace
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