Regime Change and Just War

Regime Change and Just War

Argues that regime change did not justify the Iraq War.

Last year marked the sixtieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the beginning of regime change and democratization in Germany. The allies confirmed their commitment to democratization at Potsdam in July of 1945, where the British provided an admirable example of what democracy means. Elections were held in the United Kingdom while the conference was going on; Winston Churchill, the great wartime leader of his country, was defeated—and immediately replaced at the meetings (Stalin must have been astonished) by Clement Atlee, the leader of the Labour Party. This was a classic democratic moment: the ability of the opposition to challenge and possibly defeat a powerful leader is surely the crucial test of a democratic constitution.

The political reconstruction of Germany was an effort, at least in the Western occupation zones, to enable the German people to enact moments like that. It is important to notice that what was planned was a restoration of democracy, not a creation ex nihilo—the Weimar republic lay only twelve years in the past, and old political parties like the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats were quickly reconstituted. For that reason (and for others too) the German case isn’t a good precedent, as is sometimes claimed, for what the United States has recently been trying to do in Iraq. Still, this was a restoration-by-force, the consequence of military victory and military occupation. And so it raises the question of when or whether forcible democratization can be justified. Or, in the language of contemporary debates, Is “regime change” a just cause for war?

In the case of Nazism, regime change was the consequence, not the cause, of the war fought by the allies. It wasn’t the aim of the wars declared in 1939 by Poland, France, and Britain to transform the German state. Rather, these were paradigmatic just wars; their cause was resistance to armed aggression. And according to the just-war paradigm, resistance to aggression stops with the military defeat of the aggressor. After that, presumably, there is a negotiated peace, and in the course of the negotiations, the victims of aggression and their allies may legitimately look for material reparations and political guarantees against any future attack, but regime change is not part of the paradigm. It is a feature of just-war theory in its classic formulations that aggression is regarded as the criminal policy of a government, not as the policy of a criminal government—let alone a criminal system of government. Individual leaders may be brought to trial after the war; the governmental system is not at issue. But if we understand aggression as an act that follows from the very character of the system—which is how we came to understand Nazi war-making—then regime change will seem a necessary feature of the postwar settlement.

Of course, it wasn’t only the aggressive wars fought by the Nazi regime but also the genocidal ...


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels