Debate: Is War Ever Justified?

Jan Ting, Bryan Caplan,

Release Date
June 6, 2013



In this debate, Jan Ting, professor of law at Temple University, and Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, discuss whether war is ever justified. Prof. Ting argues that while war should be a last resort, there are occasions where the consequences of not going to war outweigh the costs of war. He uses World War II as an example in which war prevented great evil. Prof. Caplan argues for strict pacifism, saying it is highly unlikely that any benefits of war would outweigh the horrific costs.
They address a number of topics related to war. Prof. Caplan points out that experts’ recommendations about war perform barely better than chance, indicating that the issues involved are too complicated to know for sure. The short-run costs of war are grisly and involve losses of innocent lives. Because of this, Prof. Caplan argues, war should be justified only when the long-run benefits will certainly outweigh these short-run costs. As it is almost impossible to predict the long-run benefits or short-run costs with any certainty, he suggests war should not be a viable option in most cases. He even suggests that it may be wise to eliminate the U.S. military altogether.
Prof. Ting argues that war should not be a first, second, or even third choice, but that it may be necessary, especially in cases where we are up against ideology or religious perspectives that deny reasoning. He uses Nazism and Japanese imperialism in World War II as examples highlighting the need for military intervention. While he does not advocate a hawkish policy, he suggests that we need to be ready and willing to intervene if circumstances require it. Watch the debate and let us know what you think.

What Some Call “Isolationism” Others Call “Common Sense” [article]: Christopher Preble at the Cato Institute argues that military intervention and aid simply allows other countries to “free ride” on American efforts
Subsidizing the Security of Wealthy Allies (video): A Cato Institute video on how wealthy countries “free ride” on US military aid when they can afford to bear the cost of defense
Armed, Overbearing, and Dangerous [article]: A Cato piece on how US military spending far surpasses that of any other country in the world, bloating our army and making other countries suspicious
What Should the United States Do about Syria? [article series]: A New Republic symposium with a host of different takes on US military intervention in Syria. Is intervention morally justified? Is it practical?
Ron Paul on Military Spending versus Isolationism (video): John Stossel differentiates opposition to nation-building from isolationism and lists a litany of jobs the US military is currently expected to perform
Should We Abolish the US Army? [debate forum]: A reddit-like debate forum where two sides battle it out on an issue and you vote for a winner
A Strong and Focused Foreign Policy [article]: Jay Carafano at the Heritage Foundation argues that both isolationism and interventionism are not prudent foreign policy positions
Failing to Fund Defense Will Have Consequences [article]: Jim Talent at Heritage argues that the sequester will undermine US military effectiveness abroad
Why Stop There? [article]: Foreign Policy magazine contends that the debate over cuts in the US military budget boils down to confusion over the proper role of the military

Debate: Is War Ever Justified?

[Movie Clip, Hotel Rwanda, 2004, United Artists]
[Women screaming, men chanting]
JACK DAGLISH (JOAQUIN PHOENIX) [offscreen]: I point at you, you do a shot.
DAGLISH: Hey, whoa. Listen. Sorry about earlier. If I’d known you were in there, I wouldn’t have—
RUSESABAGINA: I am glad that you have shot this footage. And that the world will see it. It is the only way we have a chance that people might intervene.
DAGLISH: Yeah, and if no one intervenes, it’s still a good thing to show.
RUSESABAGINA: How can they not intervene, when they witness such atrocities?
DAGLISH: Well, I think if people see this footage, they’ll say, “Oh my God, that’s horrible,” and then go on eating their dinners.
[End clip]
JAN TING: Well I think Bryan has the easier side of the argument here, given our history, our recent history, that American intervention has not proven successful. And indeed, one could argue has been disastrous, and time after time. Many young people here are too young to remember the war in Vietnam, and I am not, unfortunately, too young to remember it. And so that was a big disaster. And in your young lives you’ve seen the disastrous war in Iraq, and some would argue the war in Afghanistan has been equally disastrous. So how do you make the case for military intervention?
I think I would just say this: that there are times when military intervention on the part of the United States is appropriate. And I think those times include when you’re up against an ideology or a religion that justifies the killing of people in the name of that ideology or that religion. And the examples that I would offer were Franklin D. Roosevelt, who recognized that there was great evil in the world in Nazism, national socialism, in Germany and in Japanese imperialism. Both enamored with the idea of a master race and human superiority of their race and ethnicity. And I think Roosevelt understood that, and he positioned the United States to stand up against it militarily even before the declaration of war. Even before Pearl Harbor. The United States was intervening militarily to support England in their fight against Germany and to support China in their resistance against Japan. Was that wrong? I don’t think so.
And it did lead the United States into war, but that was a war where we belonged. I think in the current environment, we are confronted with a religious movement where people feel it is justified by God to kill young women who are seeking higher education. To kill health care providers who are trying to bring the benefits of science to poor people throughout the world. And I think that is a great evil. And I think the United States is right to lend its resources whenever free people anywhere in the world are standing up to that kind of, I think what can only be called fascism. And when is the right time?
I don’t think any ideology can give us the answer all the time as to what the answer is. Should we intervene? Should we not intervene? We’ve had arguments over Syria and Libya. Those are real arguments. I think the best we can do is reject ideology as a solution to these problems and try and elect people whose judgment we trust. Ultimately it comes down to a judgment question. There are times when it’s appropriate to intervene militarily; there are lot of times when we’re better off not intervening militarily. And it’s our business as free citizens to elect leaders whose judgment we trust on those questions.
BRYAN CAPLAN: I’m going to make the argument hard for myself by defending an extreme position. This is my four-step case for pacifism. First, in modern wars, there are no wars of self defense. War today inevitably means deliberately or at least recklessly killing innocent civilians. This creates a strong moral presumption against war.
Two, to overcome this presumption you’d have to show the long-run benefits of war are so wonderful that they clearly overshadow this grisly short-run cost, and you have to show that there isn’t any cheaper, more humane way to obtain these benefits.
Three, in practice, predicting the consequences of war is extremely difficult. Extremely difficult. Expert predictions are hardly better than chance. The political scientist Philip Tetlock did a 25-years study where he asked people to predict events very early on and then went to see if they were right. They did barely better than chance, even though they were the experts in the areas they were talking about in foreign policy. Saying it’s complicated or there are no easy answers is not a good enough reason to deliberately or recklessly kill lots of innocent people.
Fourth, there are much cheaper and more humane ways to attain the alleged humanitarian benefits of war. First and foremost, free immigration. Do you think that the women who are worried for their lives as they are going to college would even be there anymore if they can get a green card and come here? I don’t think so. Do you think the people in Hotel Rwanda would have been there if they could have just gotten out of the country when they saw the writing on the wall? They would be gone. These are cheaper, much more humane ways of solving these problems than going and attacking other countries, crossing our fingers, and hoping for the best.
TURNER: Okay, so I’ll start the questions. I’ll start with Professor Caplan. And this kind of actually gets at something you were saying before, right? I mean, there isn’t a clear moral principle by which we distinguish between those located within the United States and those outside. So if there were, for example, ethnic cleansing happening in San Diego, we would probably feel obligated to step in. Why would we feel less obligated to step in if it’s happening in Montreal?
CAPLAN: It is a great question. I would apply exactly the same test I just did inside or outside the country. Do we have a clear reason to think that the long-run benefits are so wonderful that they are going to outweigh the short run costs? It may be, within the country, that is actually likely, but, see for example, I am not a fan of guerrilla warfare. What does actual guerrilla warfare in the real word mean? It means you are going to wind up killing recklessly or—either deliberately or recklessly killing a whole lot of innocent people. That’s the real world. Guerrilla warfare is not someone going to a village and saying, “Hello. Would you like to join my crusade to free the world?” It is showing up there with some guns and saying, “You better volunteer to join our guerrilla army now, or else.” And so I would say the principle inside or outside the country is the same. In both cases, if you actually can have legitimately high confidence that the benefits of what you’re doing are so great they are going to outweigh the short run horrors, then I think it’s okay. It’s just very hard to obtain that in the real world.
TING: I feel a lot of sympathy for Bryan’s four points, and I think they argue strongly in favor of not going to war as your first, second, or third choice. And I’m just leaving open the possibility that there are times when it might be justified because you’re up against a moral evil that you can’t reason with, that is, in the name of ideology or religion is going to kill. And I certainly do not think that open borders and open immigration is a solution to that problem throughout the world, because it not only brings the victims to the United States, but it brings the perpetrators to the United States as well. And we’ve seen that in the United States with the spread of foreign practices like honor killings that are taking place in the United States now in immigrant communities. So I think we need to recognize the reality that if you throw the borders open, you admit everyone into the United States, and you bring all of those problems in with it. I didn’t want to mix the two topics together, but there we are.
TURNER: There’s a clear border between them and I do not want to cross that. Do you want to?
CAPLAN: So Jan, let’s go back to your World War II example. All right, so the United States went and stood up for China against Japan. Now what actually happened? As you know, we were talking about it before, the result was that the communists seized control of China and murdered far more people than the Japanese did during the entire reign of terror of the Japanese Empire. That’s what I’m talking about. You may say there’s a clear gain here. It’s not clear. If you think it’s clear, it’s because you don’t actually understand what’s going on.
TING: It would have been worse for the world if Japan had won. It would have been worse for the world if Nazi Germany had won. Yes, there were terrible consequences as a result of American intervention, but it would have been worse. And I think the United States did the right thing. I think the judgment of history is clear on this point. The United States did the right thing to lend its military might to the struggle for human freedom against forces of ideological and religious tyranny. And I think there may be times in the future—maybe this is one of the times, I don’t know, I hope not—when we’re called upon to do it again.
CAPLAN: The judgment of history is clear when you don’t have to predict the future. That is the problem. It’s easy to look back and say that we did the right thing; however the counterfactual which you would have actually had to face at the time is, it possible that the Empire of Japan would have calmed down the same way that Mao’s China calmed down? Totally possible. We don’t know. So to say that we look back and it turned out to be better—it is far from clear that it actually was better. Mao killed way more people than the Japanese did in the midst of decades of war.
TURNER: But isn’t there a problem with your, so you have a limiting principle of pacifism, which is, namely, you do a kind of cost-benefit analysis—
CAPLAN: I mean it’s not just cost-benefit analysis. I say you need to have a clear evidence of much larger benefits.
TURNER: But you seem to be denying at the same time the very possibility of that clear evidence.
CAPLAN: I don’t deny the possibility, just the empirical likelihood. If someone says, I know the future for certain, here’s how it’s going to be: This is going to cost five lives and save a million lives. My answer to that person is, how could you possibly know that? Are you willing to bet? Let’s put some money on it. Let’s go and check out your betting record on things like this.  Let’s do ten bets, see how many you get right. You’re going to be wrong a lot.
TURNER: But what about in the incident in San Diego? Again, we’ve got ethnic cleansing going on in San Diego. I mean, like, do we tell the police chief, listen, you’ve got five minutes to do this. Very sophisticated. I want you to place nine bets and et cetera, et cetera, right? I mean, I think it’s pretty much, it’s clear what our principle is in this case. We assume it will be worth it to prevent ethnic cleansing in San Diego.
CAPLAN: Assuming isn’t good enough. If you actually know, great. If your example is constructed so that it’s a no-brainer, fine. But in the real world, it’s not a no-brainer. And even cases you think are easy. Let’s think about the U.S. defense of Kuwait against Iraq. Seemed like a no-brainer. What came of that? Everything else that followed.
TURNER: Let me put up a question to Professor Ting: So you mentioned we have kind of a justification of the principle of intervention, the principles behind intervention, based on the experience in World War II. But again World War II was like 10 wars ago.
TING: Right.
TURNER: So in other words, isn’t so—
TING: Ancient history. Peloponnesian Wars.
TURNER: Right. So have we reached a point where the logic of intervention is sort of a perpetual motion machine? We have intervened here and now we must intervene here and now we must intervene here?
TING: Well, I think there is a problem. We have a World War II mentality. We got surprised in Pearl Harbor, and we’ve been reacting to that ever since. And I think it’s a problem. And, again, I’m very sympathetic to Bryan’s arguing, that there are a lot of arguments why war should be your last, absolutely your last resort. But should it be taken off the table? Should we unilaterally disarm? If we’re never going to, isn’t the logic of peace at any price saying we’re going to unilaterally disarm? It would save us a lot of money, I concede you that, but I don’t think we’re ready to do that. I think we understand that there are bad forces at work in the world, and we need to defend ourselves against them, otherwise why do we have a country? Right? Unless you’re an anarchist, and maybe some of you may be, but why do we have a country? We have a country to defend ourselves against evil elsewhere in the world. And I think we need military forces to do it. And why should you have military forces if there are no conceivable circumstances in which you’d ever use them?
TURNER: Okay I want to go to the last segment which is the inter-questioning. So who went first last time? I think Bryan you went first last time. Do you have a question to Bryan?
TING: Are you in favor of abolishing the U.S. military given the fact that you’re so committed to never using it? Isn’t that the logical outcome of what you’re saying?
CAPLAN: The answer is a definite maybe. Here’s what I would say. It is often the case that countries have military problems because they have a military. The Soviet Union was at risk because the Red Army was powerful. When the Red Army collapsed, the Soviet Union became safer, because they were no longer terrifying and frightening and terrifying other countries. Other countries were no longer scared for their lives. It is easy—it is often possible for unilateral disarmament even to reduce the risk that a country faces. And note that it doesn’t specifically require that you have democracies on the other side. Communist China was still on the Soviet border. They disarmed. They did not get a sneak attack from communist China. As a general rule, being better armed does not always make you safer. It often makes you less safe, because it provokes other countries, angers them. So I would say it is a very good idea for the U.S. to greatly reduce its military spending and at least see what happens. I think that it’s quite likely that we could get an outcome as good as what the Swiss have: namely, since no one is scared of them, nobody bothers them.
TURNER: You want to respond?
TING: No one can accurately predict the future. I mean I agree with Bryan on that. But I think your example of China kind of disproves your fundamental point about how bad the consequences were of World War II. Yeah, communism triumphed in China. But look where they are now. They’re a communist state that’s studying free-market principles and trying to absorb them as quickly as they can. So the future is not foreseeable, at least very far into the future, and I think that calls on us to use our judgment and not ideology in going forward. They are complicated. factual—
We can’t simplify the world as much as we would like to and reduce it to a handful of principles. It’s a complicated world, and the difficult path forward for us is to study the world, learn as much as we can about it, appreciate the complexity and the detail in the world, and argue about the best way forward for us. And I think the best way forward for us is to maintain some level of military strength and be prepared to stand up for American principles and values when they are under attack by evil forces elsewhere in the world.
TURNER: Professor Caplan, do you have a question?
CAPLAN: It seems like there’s a long list of evils that you’re unlikely to want to do anything about. Do you want to invade Saudi Arabia so they stop oppressing their women? Do you want to threaten war against China  unless they switch to democracy? There are many U.S. allies that commit the very crimes that you’re talking about, but as long as they’re our buddies we do very little about it. And it seems like most people have no problem with that. What do you think?
TING: I don’t think you can say just because there’s a lot of problems in the world that we’re going to intervene everywhere. In fact, I’m very sympathetic to the notion that we ought to have an aversion to intervention, absolutely. And I’m saying that there are a small number of situations, like when you’re battling an unthinking ideology of racial superiority as prevailed in Nazi Germany and in Japan, or maybe now, when you’re battling a religious intolerance that calls for the murder in the name of God, as though God is ordering these murders and issuing fatwas on people. Maybe that’s a situation where people are willing to stand up and defend themselves for the United States to lend some support to free people elsewhere in the world willing to stand up and fight. And I think we need to have armed forces standing in reserve to lend that support where it’s in our interest and in the interest of humankind to do so.
TURNER: Professor Caplan, do you want a last word?
CAPLAN: It seems like really all that you’re saying is even though we have a lot of evidence that our best thinking isn’t very good, let’s do it anyway and rely on it. I think we really need to take seriously the true complexity. It’s so complex that even if people try their best, they’re very bad at doing this. And saying we’re going to go and attack a country and kill a lot of innocent people when we just have a guess that it might be better is not good enough.