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  • Writer's pictureJoe

Contradictory principles in Rawls' *Law of Peoples*

In the Law of Peoples (1993), John Rawls outlines 8 principles of justice among free and democratic peoples. Two principles seem contradictory (see Law of Peoples, p. 37).

5. Peoples have the right of self-defense but no right to instigate war for reasons other than self-defense. 8. Peoples have a duty to assist other people living under unfavorable conditions that prevent their having a just or decent political and social regime.

For #5 and #8, Rawls has left unsettled why peoples should defend other people living under unfavorable conditions if peoples only have a right to wage war in cases of self-defense. If a commonwealth defends people living under unfavorable conditions by instigating war, then they have violated principle #5. One can easily see how this would come about. In the event that a free and sovereign nation, which includes non-political states otherwise unrecognised by an international political body, comes under attack or lives under an authoritarian regime, it seems that we have an obligation to assist them but not the right to start or otherwise go to war with such a regime.

I wonder whether principle #8 should be tweaked in such a way to say that peoples have a duty to defend others only in cases where their freedom is threatened. In this sense, then, we may see how peoples have a right to self-defence in such a scenario. For example, if some group invaded Canada, the United States has a duty to defend Canadiens against the aggressors because the aggressors by being just over the border in Canada threaten the safety and well-being of every American. The proximity, both geographically speaking and socio-politically speaking, of Canadiens gives us a reason to defend ourselves against the invaders. In this case, we may assume that the aggressors invaded a country with similar values. So, if they have attacked a country with similar values, then the invaders have no reason not to attack us. Going to war against the Canadien invaders would be an act of self-defense. Therefore, according to principle #5, Americans have a right to wage war since it is an act of self-defence.

The worry is how far we can extend an argument of self-defence to cover not only proximity issues but also more general topics, e.g., natural resource governance. There is nothing that states one's sovereign country is threatened by the proximate location of an aggressor because the aggressor may have had a strained relationship with the country it invaded but not any of the adjacent countries. It shouldn't be assumed that once one country has been invaded, it is only a matter of time before nearby countries are too. In the past, this was known as the "domino effect." And US politicians, in particular President Lyndon B. Johnson, used it to justify the invasion of Vietnam, claiming that North Vietnam's communist regime would invade the South and make it its own. Eventually, they did that after nine bloody years of war; however, it is difficult to know whether the North invaded the South because of its interest in expanding the country or did so because of the antagonism that had grown during the war with both the South and the US. The domino effect is an artefact of the Cold War era (1946-1989), and we cannot justify our using such an outmoded principle. So, the view that we could justify Principle #8 and #5 using the example above seems to be ill-conceived.

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