The Elements of Politics

Henry Sidgwick

Chapter 17

International Law and Morality

§2. This application of the distinction of ``legal'' and ``moral'' to international duties is, I think, convenient; and its convenience seems a sufficient reason for retaining the old term ``international law'', with proper explanations. At the same time, if we retain it we can hardly find the decisive criterion for applying the distinction in the difference of the sanctions effectively attached to the two kinds of rules respectively; since we must admit that civilised States have often made, and more often threatened, war to compel other States to acts or abstinences which have not been imposed on the latter by the generally accepted rules of international law: and in many cases it cannot be said that the coercion that they have exercised in such cases has met with general disapproval. For instance, it seems to have been generally held in the eighteenth century in Europe that a State may reasonably and properly go to war merely to prevent a formidable aggrandisement of a neighbour and maintain the ``balance of power''; but it has never been a recognised rule of international law that a State may not grow so strong as to alarm its neighbours. So again, in more recent times wars to liberate ``oppressed nationalities'', or to promote the union into one State of divided groups of persons having a common nationality, have been widely approved; though it has certainly never been held to be a rule of strict international duty that a government should grant independence to any portion of its subjects who dislike its rule, if they belong to a different nationality from the rest. In short, if we consider the practice of modern States, we have to recognise that, besides the violent coercion exercised by States on each other in consequence of alleged violations of international law, coercion no less violent has been commonly exercised without such justification, yet not generally disapproved; and therefore that we cannot effectively distinguish the rules of international behaviour that are to be called laws by the sanction actually attached to them. If we keep close to actual facts, we can only define international law as a system of rules to which it is generally held that States, under ordinary circumstances, not only ought to conform, but may legitimately be compelled to conform; and which will accordingly be applied, in deciding disputes between States, by duly qualified arbitrators: while we, at the same time, admit that circumstances are liable to arise under which a State will incur no general disapprobation for overriding these rules, on the ground either of some imperative national interest or some alleged higher principle of international morality.

That this is an unsatisfactory state of things is clear and so long as it continues we cannot but expect---as was before said---that the most important issues between States will not be settled by arbitration. It may perhaps be said that at least in the case of a conflict between the supposed interest of any particular State and the received rules of international duty, the opinion of impartial persons ought to be clearly declared against the State in question. And this seems to me undeniable when the conflict is clear: i.e. when it is clearly for the interest of the community of nations that a recognised rule should be observed, while it is for the apparent or immediate interest of a particular State to transgress it. But even in the private relations of individuals in a modern civilised State cases occasionally occur in which an individual is widely held excused for breaking a rule which it is yet thought desirable to maintain as law: and we must expect similar cases of approved or excused illegality to be more frequent in international relations, owing to the comparative fewness of the members of the society of civilised States, and the far greater importance of any one State relatively to the whole society. More commonly, too, there would not in such a case be an undeniable conflict of national interest with a clear rule of international duty; the promptings of the discordant interests of States would be combined with divergent views of imperfectly defined rights. Such a combination is necessarily favoured by the inevitably less perfect definition of international---as compared with ordinary civil---rights: owing partly to the absence of a common government in the society of nations, partly to the imperfect internal cohesion of many States, and partly to the great differences in the degree of civilisation attained by different human communities. For instance, the first of these causes renders necessary and legitimate an extension of the right of self-defence which it is difficult precisely to limit. War must be admitted to be justified not only by actual aggression, real or alleged, but also by unmistakable manifestations of an aggressive design:---a nation unmistakably threatened can hardly be condemned for striking the first blow, if by so doing it gains an important advantage in self-defence. But this enlarged right of self-protection is easily extended to justify anticipation of a blow that is merely feared, not really threatened: and thus by gradual transitions we are led to a more or less plausible apology for hostile interference merely to prevent a formidable increase of strength on the part of a neighbour. I think that moral opinion should set itself steadily against this latter extension of the right of self-protection: still, it is obviously difficult to define exactly the degree of danger that would justify hostile action.

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