Army Watches Burning Oil  Arlo K. Abrahamson/U.S. Navy/Getty Images

Long Reads

When May States Use Force?

The US-led airstrikes against Syrian installations involved in that country’s chemical-weapons program have once again raised the question of when it is appropriate to take military action against a sovereign state. It turns out that there is less disagreement than one might assume.

MELBOURNE – The missile strikes against Syrian military installations that the United States, the United Kingdom, and France recently carried out, in response to the government’s apparent use of chemical weapons in the rebel-held town of Douma, have once again raised the question of when the use of force against a sovereign state is permissible. The contexts vary. Countries might use force to wage a defensive war, to exercise the “responsibility to protect” against genocide or other crimes against humanity, or to prevent the acquisition or use of weapons of mass destruction. But the question is always the same: When is it right to fight?

There will always be interested parties or international lawyers contesting individual cases. Yet, among policymakers and those who advise them, there is more international consensus on the appropriate use of force than meets the eye. Spelling out the scope and limits of that consensus may help to clear the ground, both for the current debate about Syria and for debates about future cases.

At least since the controversy over NATO’s military intervention in Kosovo in 1999 – in which the alliance bombed Belgrade, the Serbian capital, without authorization from the United Nations Security Council – there has been widespread international agreement on three points. The first is that there is a difference between legality and legitimacy. The use of force can be legitimate without being technically legal; and it can be technically legal without being regarded by the world as legitimate.

To continue reading, please subscribe to On Point.

To access On Point or our archived content, log in or register now now and read two On Point articles for free and 2 archived contents. For unlimited access to the unrivaled analysis of On Point and archived contents, subscribe now.


Log in;
  1. Nazi Sturmabteilung (SA) Troops in Anti-Semite Street Brawl Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

    The Great Crack-Up, Then and Now

    The Great War laid waste to the economic and political foundations of Europe, but did not establish a new international order, thus setting the stage for the disasters of the 1930s and 1940s. 

    As the world approaches another period of vast economic and political change, the lessons of the interwar interregnum are more relevant than ever.