Wars of necessity, wars of choice
26 Apr 2017|

In his recent public address at ASPI (excerpted here on The Strategist), Senator Nick Xenophon argued for parliament to play a greater role in the authorisation of military action. His argument turned, in part, upon a now familiar distinction:

‘In requiring Parliamentary approval, it is necessary to distinguish between ‘wars of choice’ and ‘wars of necessity’. Wars of necessity refer to military actions taken in self-defence and require the use of rapid and/or covert military force… no Australian military actions ought to occur without parliamentary authorisation, except in self-defence.’

In essence, that would amount to a parliamentary veto on the use of force in almost all cases where Australia has previously used military force. In World War 1 we weren’t acting in self-defence—except, perhaps, of the British empire. Nor were we doing so in World War 2, at least not before the Japanese attacked Australia directly. The Korean War, the Vietnam War, the two Iraq wars, the war in Afghanistan, and even the current role that we’re playing in Iraq and Syria, don’t seem to fit well under a self-defence heading.

But I’m unconvinced that the distinction between wars of necessity and wars of choice is especially useful. Under that rubric, for example, all actions in support of an ally become mere wars of choice. That seems like odd terminology. Isn’t the signalling of a degree of obligation the whole point of making an alliance? By allying ourselves with other countries, aren’t we effectively saying that we accept an element of automaticity to our involvement in conflicts where they are attacked? (Not in conflicts where they attack others, note.) If we sign an alliance under which we accept that obligation, it sounds more than a little odd subsequently to claim that we take all such treaties as denoting mere wars of choice. If we thought that, why did we sign a treaty?

Moreover, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the notion that wars of necessity are just wars of self-defence. In World War 2, even before the Australian continent was attacked, we confronted a group of adversaries who wanted fundamentally to reshape the world. Even if they hadn’t attacked Australia, I don’t see how we could have sat that one out. If the Axis powers had won, we’d have been living in a different world—one shaped by autocratic great powers with no time for democracy, liberty or rights. Was our participation an act of choice, when the war itself was a global conflict fought—at the abstract level—over the freedom to make choices? The notion that strategic necessity begins only at our own coastline strikes me as deeply flawed. We have to think about consequences, not geography. Even in relation to distant events, some consequences are so unacceptable that Australia finds itself committed to conflict.

None of the above is meant to deny that some wars are ‘wars of choice’. Some are. And the reasons for choosing—to take part, or not to do so—are typically complex. After all, decisions to go to war aren’t made just on the basis that some people will die—they’re made on the basis that military action is an instrument of statecraft which helps to shape the international environment. Sometimes the threat of military action is employed as part of a deliberate strategy to drive an adversary down a different path. Is the Australian parliament better equipped to make those choices than the executive? Certainly, it’s more politically diverse. But that’s part of the worry: on any question on which the major parties were divided, the cross-benchers in the Senate would get to determine Australian strategic policy. And I don’t see that they’re better equipped, nor more entitled, to do so than the government of the day.

Part of the complexity in deciding to undertake military action lies in deciding how we’ll undertake it. Article 4 of the ANZUS Treaty says we’ll ‘act to meet the common danger’. There are two constraints on action. The first one, which critics typically point out, is that any such action must be the result of an ally working through its due constitutional processes. But the second—often overlooked, but probably the more significant—is that the treaty doesn’t say how we should act. In support of our ally we could choose to send either the whole ADF or one especially enthusiastic private and his dog—or any force package in between. That’s where choice lies, even in relation to alliance commitments. So, does parliament have some special skill in devising force packages? No—it’d largely be the prisoner of the advice it received from the executive about such matters.

Overall, then, I’m not a fan of separating wars into ones of necessity and ones of choice. I think the language blinds us to the notion of alliance obligation, devalues the utility of military force as an instrument for shaping international outcomes, and prioritises self-defence and geography over the more useful metric of consequences when we’re committing military forces to action.