American Forces under Supranational Control: The Ethical Issues

By Dr. Manuel Davenport, Texas A&M University


Under what conditions could an ethical justification be provided for allowing American forces to serve under U.N. or any other supranational command? Two kinds of conditions are logically possible. First, there could be conditions such that basic American values, including survival, could not be maintained unless American forces submitted to supranational control. Secondly, there could be conditions such that basic human values could not be maintained unless Americans were willing to submit to supranational control even at the cost of sacrificing their own national interest.

Consider, to illustrate the first kind of condition, a situation in which peace in the Middle East, and, therefore, a continued supply of oil to the United States, would require placing American military services under U.N. or Saudi Arabian control. In such a situation the United States might well agree to submit its forces to supranational command in order to serve the national interest . But suppose, to create a second situation, that it becomes obvious that the only way to guarantee a continued supply of Middle Eastern oil is to crush Islamic fundamentalism by conquering and colonizing Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, and suppose further that such action is opposed in the name of self-determination and religious freedom by the majority of the members of the U.N. The U.S. might find itself then forced to choose between national interest and basic human values. If it were to choose to submit to the wishes of the U.N. in order to preserve the basic human values of political and religious freedom, it would find itself in the second kind of condition in which it would sacrifice its own national interests.

Political Realism

There are those, of course, who claim that there is nothing that we should value more highly in international relations than our own national interests. Such persons, who call themselves "moral realists," "political realists," or just plain "realists," contend that there is no ethical justification whatsoever for considering such human rights as self-determination and religious freedom for non-Americans because morality has no place in international relations. It may appear that they are rejecting morality altogether, but most modern and contemporary realists, including Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, and Richard Holbrooke do not deny the need for morality in domestic affairs, but do argue that in the international arena we should not allow morality to get in the way of our national interests. To claim that we should not let anything stand in the way of selfish interests is, of course, a moral position, and the name of this moral position, as pointed out by Plato (1) and Hobbes (2) is "ethical egoism."

The interesting question, then is: Why do moral realists, who would be insulted to be called "egoists" in the conduct of their personal lives, insist upon ethical egoism on the international level?

Thomas Hobbes, 1588-1679, the English political philosopher most closely identified with modern moral realism provides the most plausible answer. Even though we are born selfish, he argued, it does not follow that we should continue to be selfish. If all humans in all situations always act to promote only their selfish interest, we will live in a state of "perpetual war" in which what is right will simply be a matter of who is the strongest.(3) In such a state of war we would have no choice but to seek our own self-preservation and no one would have any moral claims upon us because there is no common law and no social power to enforce one if it existed.

Hobbes believed that we should do everything we can to avoid living in such a state, which means that we should agree to sacrifice some personal liberty for the sake of common security and form a government with common laws and sufficient power to enforce them.(4) Once we have established by mutual agreement such a government, we have moral obligations to each other and must replace ethical egoism with moral principles based on the Golden Rule.(5)

Thus, Hobbes, like contemporary realists, could justify non-egoistic morality within a nation as necessary to save us from the dangers of anarchy, and at first glance it seems that he could use a similar argument concerning international relations. In international relations there is no common law or power to enforce it, so, according to Hobbes, it makes no sense to say that nations have moral obligations to each other. Nations live in a state of anarchy and each must pursue its own self-interest.(6) But doesn't it follow from this that we should establish by contract on the international level a government with power sufficient to prevent international anarchy? Certainly on the domestic level we should submit ourselves to a national government, but we should only because it serves our selfish interests to do so. What must be emphasized here lest we misunderstand Hobbes and other political realists is that he advocates following a Golden Rule morality on the domestic level only because doing so is the best way to promote our selfish interests.

So the question for Hobbes, on the international level, is will it serve the selfish interests of nations to form and submit to an international government? And his answer was: “No.” In order to create a strong international government individual nations would have to weaken themselves to the point that they could no longer serve their own peculiar, national interests, and we could not expect an international government to do more than serve common or average national interests.(7) Thus, given that no international government can serve our selfish interests as well as we can on our own, for the political realist there can never be the ssecond kind of condition in which a nation is ethically justified in submitting to supranational control for the sake of human values more important than national interest. On the international level a political realist will work for human rights only if doing so serves the national interest, and clearly to sacrifice national interests for human rights does not.

Political realists, of course, may refer to human rights in the context of actual or proposed war crimes trails in order to shame the enemy's leaders, to create collective guilt, or to ensure that a defeated enemy stays defeated. But they would not do so if convinced that it would be contrary to the national interest. In a recent TV interview, Richard Holbrooke, in regard to the desire of the U.N. to try certain Serbs for alleged war crimes, said, "We will not let this moral crusade interfere with the peace process." NATO, relations with Russia, and the safety of American troops are all more important, he was telling us, than punishing those guilty of war crimes.

Ethical Objectivism

At the opposite ethical pole from the moral realists are those who who believe in a common morality; those who believe that there are universal and objective moral principles which dictate that to do intentional harm to the innocent is absolutely wrong, and that these principles should not be violated merely for the sake of good results. Those who hold these beliefs may be called "ethical objectivists" because they believe that the basis of moral principles is independent of our subjective desires and is to be found in something external to human desires such as, for example, the will of God, the laws of nature, or both.

Historically, the outstanding advocates of ethical objectivism are St. Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274) the official philosopher of the Roman Catholic Church and Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) a German Protestant philosophy professor. Whereas Hobbes believed that political society is artificial, in that we create it by means of a social contract, Thomas and Kant believed it to be natural. We have political society, in other words, because we are political animals. It follows, then that all humans should be viewed as members of a single social order.(8)

Clearly, then, for both Thomas and Kant an international government, if based on objective moral principles, is an ideal worth working for, even though human nature may make it impossible to achieve. But ethical objectivists are not Hobbesians and do not need to have an international government in place in order to have an ethical justification for sacrificing selfish national interests for the sake of universal human values. Those who deprive us or other humans of their basic values forfeit, thereby, their own right to basic values and It is morally permissible, therefore, that those who kill be subjected to capital punishment, that those who steal have their property seized, and that those who threaten the order and stability of a peaceful society have war declared upon them.(9)

What is critical for the ethical objectivist in the conduct of even punitive actions is not that we promote our national interest but that the proper moral principles are followed. The Thomistic moral rules of war, usually called, "Just War Criteria," serve to prevent us from going to war unless otherwise basic human values will be destroyed, and to prevent us in the conduct of war from inflicting harm beyond what is necessary for self-defense.(10) Kant's basic moral principle requires us to never act so as to diminish or destroy the ability of human beings to make moral choices.(11) What this implies for the conduct of war is that nations should outlaw "such acts of warfare as must make mutual confidence impossible in time of future peace."(12)

Thomas would certainly agree because for him the only possible moral jjustification for war is that it is the only way to bring about a situation in which all nations may pursue and enjoy the basic human values of life, family, reason, and community. For a Thomist or Kantian, then, actions which deprive the innocent, i.e., those who have not harmed anyone, of their basic values or moral agency must be opposed and punished. The rape of Nanking by the Japanese, the extermination of Jews by the Germans, and the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia by the Serbs would be for the ethical objectivist clear and obvious examples of such actions. However, it is necessary that in punishing such actions we must do so in a manner that preserves peace in the future.

Preserving the peace requires the accomplishment of two different, and, often, conflicting, objectives. We must see that no external enemies remain, among those defeated, who will threaten us in the future,(13) but we must not, as suggested above, create conditions that would foster and perpetuate hatred and the desire for revenge. Those truly guilty of immoral actions, i.e., those who knew what they were doing and willed to do it,(14) must be punished, and the punishment must be proportionate to the crime, for unless this is done, we become co-participants in the crime, but even executions, if called for, must be carried out with full respect for the humanity of the criminals.(15)

Decisive, proportionate, and humane punishment of those who are truly guilty is the most prudent means of preserving the peace, and would be ethically justified, and, indeed, obligatory, for the ethical objectivist. If the best or only way to prevent or punish immoral behavior in the international arena would require placing American forces under supranational control, then doing so would be ethically justified for an ethical objectivist. If we fail to to punish those who have engaged in “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia, for example, we become co-participants in their crime, and if the only way we can arrest and punish the guilty is by means of placing our forces under U.N. command, then we have an ethical obligation to do so. This is the position that has been taken by Richard Goldstone, the first chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.(16)


It is the claim of Rule-Utilitarians that they occupy the happy middle-ground between the extremes of Political Realism, with its cynical view of human nature and morality, and Ethical Objectivism, with its overly absolutistic and idealistic view.

Rule-Utilitarianism was developed by John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) as both a revision of Bentham's earlier quantitative Act-Utilitarianism and a critical response to Kant's ethical objectivism.(17) Bentham's Act-Utilitarianism held that, "An action is right if it results in the greatest quantity of happiness for the greatest number," and Mill modified this by substituting for "the greatest quantity," "the greatest quality."(18) Kant claimed that, "An action is right if we could will that the rule of our action should be followed by all others," but as Mill pointed out that this would require us, despite Kant's protests to the contrary, to consider not merely an objective moral principle but also the results of the universal adoption of our rule of action.(19)

Mill's Rule-Utilitarianism, then, may be described as the theory that, "An action is right if it follows a rule that is justified because it generally results in the greatest quality of happiness for the greatest number." Mill did not write about possible applications of his theory to moral problems in war, so in what follows I will be guided by the work of a contemporary Rule-Utilitarian, Richard Brandt.(20) It is Brandt's thesis that the actual rules of war, those stated in formal treaties, have evolved and have been embraced because they are rules that generally result in the greatest quality of happiness for the greatest number.(21)

They are, to use an analogy which is mine and not Brandt's, like the rules of poker. We would not agree in playing poker to a rule which says you must check if you have four of a kind. We will not accept, if we are Rule-Utilitarians, a rule of war that says we cannot win.(22) We might agree, however, to rules that would limit possible losses; for example, in poker we might have a limit on the amount that could be bet or the number of raises allowed. We might accept, in war, rules that would allow respect for those who lose; for example, we might prohibit the wanton killing or torture of prisoners and the rape of civilians.(23)

In poker there are borderline situations in which it is difficult to determine how to maximize long-range utility. For example, should we allow players to check and raise? Most poker players agree that we should not, but some disagree. In war, also, there are similar borderline situations. Should we allow strategic bombing or reprisals? Such actions are rarely, if ever, effective, and a Rule-Utilitarian would have to have strong evidence that such actions would make a significant contribution to victory before ruling that such actions are permissible.(24)

The morally justifiable rules of war, then, for a Rule-Utilitarian are those "that would maximize long-range expectable utility,"(25) and so the answer a Rule-Utilitarian would give to the question, “Should we submit American forces to supranational control?” would be, “Only if doing so would maximize our long-range expectable utility.” It follows, then, that a Rule-Utilitarian would not nnecessarily follow a fixed policy in regard to placing a nation’s troops under U.N. command, for example. On the other hand, one good, and perhaps the strongest, reason for doing so would be to cause thereby the actual rules of war to more closely approximate the morally justifiable rules of war.

When the United Nations formed the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in 1993, for example, John Fox, Director of the Open Society Institute, argued, "This is it . . . Either we go back to the de facto law of the jungle or we press ahead to the next stage of enforcing the writ of international law."(26) He and other supporters of this tribunal and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda Arusha, Tanzania and Kegali, Rwanda formed by the U.N. in 1994 are much more interested in establishing a precedent that in handing out punishments. After all, as of March 1996, only 63 had been indicted by both tribunals and only two indictees were in custody.(27)

A Rule-Utilitarian could agree that these tribunals should proceed promptly in order to increase our moral awareness and make more moral the actual rules of war. In the former Yugoslavia it is estimated that over 20,000 women were raped, and these rapes were used as a means of "ethnic cleansing." Prosecution of these rapes and other gender-related acts of violence as war crimes will both force an expansion of the previous meaning of "genocide" and create new, more moral rules of war,(28) and if this requires placing American forces under U.N. control, we are morally obligated to do so.

Political realists have argued that Dusko Tadic, a cafe owner from Kozarac, is a minor war criminal at best and is in custody only because he was foolish enough to visit relatives in Germany. The major war criminals, Serbian President Milosevic, and Bosnian Serb leaders Karadzic and Mladic, cannot be taken into custody without destroying the Dayton peace agreement, and IFOR, the NATO peacekeeping force, has refused to seek out and detain even those already indicted by the tribunal.(29) Ethical objectivists, on the other hand, insist that if we fail to try such war criminals we become co-participants in their crimes. Not only has Richard Goldstone taken this position but so has U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, John Shattuck.(30)

Rule-Utilitarians would agree that in an ideal world all violations of human rights should be punished, but in the actual world we may not be able to do this. Our failure to do so, however, should not prevent us from appreciating that our attempts to establish international justice can lead to increased moral awareness and an improvement in the actual rules of war. Because improvement in the quality of life for all humans is more important than serving our selfish, national interests, we should not hesitate when necessary to place our forces under supranational control, but we should realize also that doing so cannot be an inflexible policy and that it will not always succeed.

Manuel M. Davenport Texas A&M University


1. The Republic of Plato, trans. F.M. Cornford (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), pp. 17-19.

2. Thomas Hobbes, De Cive or The Citizen, ed. S.P. Lamprecht (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1949), pp. 26-27.

3. Ibid., pp. 28-30.

4. Ibid., pp. 66-68.

5. Ibid., p. 59.

6. Hobbes, Leviathan, in Masterworks of Government, vol 2, ed. L.D. Abbott (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1947), pp. 19-20.

7. David R. Mapel, “The Contractarian Tradition,” in Traditions of International Ethics, ed. Nardin and Mapel (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 188.

8. St. Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, Q. 90, Art. 3., in Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas, ed. A.C. Pegis (New York: The Modern Library, 1948), pp. 611-613; and Immanuel Kant, “Eternal Peace,” in The Philosophy of Kant, ed., C.J. Friedrich (New York: Modern Library, 1949), pp. 465-469; cf. also, Kant, “Idea for a Universal History,” op. cit., p. 129.

9. Thomas, Summa Theologiciae, vol. 35 (London: Blackfriars, 1972), pp. 81-85; Kant, The Philosophy of Law in Contemporary Moral Problems, ed. J.E. White (St. Paul: West Publishing Co., 1994), pp. 196-199.

10. U.S. Catholic Bishops, “The Just War and Non-Violence Positions,” in War, Morality, and the Military Profession, ed. M.W. Wakin (Boulder: Westview Press, 1986), pp. 239-255.

11. Kant, Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1949), pp. 41-46.

12. Kant, “Eternal Peace,” p. 434.

13. Thomas, “On Kingship,” in The Pocket Aquinas, ed. V.J. Bourke (New York: Washington Square Press, 1960), p. 245.

14. Thomas, “How the Morality of an Action Is Judged,” op. cit., p. 203.

15. Kant, The Philosophy of Law, p. 196.

16. James Podgers, “The World Cries for Justice,” ABA Journal (April 1996), pp. 54, 61.

17. John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1953), pp. 12-27.

18. Ibid., pp. 7-9.

19. Ibid., p. 4.

20. Richard B. Brandt, Morality, Utilitarianism, and Rights (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 336-353.

21. Ibid., pp. 339-341.

22. Ibid., p. 343.

23. Ibid., p. 344.

24. Ibid., pp. 344-347.

25. Ibid., p. 351.

26. Podgers, p. 53.

27. Ibid., p. 55.

28. Ibid., p. 54.

29. Ibid., pp. 60-61.

30. Ibid., pp. 54, 61.