Condemning aggressive war: The secular cosmopolitan consensus

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The broad international condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine provides an example of the resilience of moral principles and a source of hope. This assault prompted the world to reassert the importance of a secular cosmopolitan vision of a peaceful, law-governed world. As I have explained in a book on the topic, secular cosmopolitan values affirm diversity and condemn violence. A brief history of this idea can inspire us to expand and solidify the emerging global consensus.

UN resolutions against Russian aggression

A broad coalition of countries has condemned the Russian assault on Ukraine in a Resolution of the UN General Assembly and in a Resolution of the UN Human Rights Council. The General Assembly Resolution had widespread support as did the UNHRC vote. Russia and four other nations—North Korea, Belarus, Eritrea, and Syria—voted against the General Assembly Resolution. Only Russia and Eritrea voted against the UNHRC resolution. In each case, China, India, and a few other nations abstained.

It would be better if those abstaining nations joined the majority. But international politics is not always a moral game. Nonetheless, the majority vote reaffirms basic principles of world peace. 

It is important to note that the coalition opposed to Russia includes countries with different cultural, religious, and ethnic/racial backgrounds: North American and European nations, Israel, Nigeria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and Japan. Despite their diversity, these countries expressed support for the basic principles of a peaceful cosmopolitan order.

A genealogy of secular cosmopolitanism

One familiar genealogy of cosmopolitan principles governing the morality of war traces the idea through Medieval Christianity. But the idea evolved beyond those Christian roots. Secular just war theory developed along with cosmopolitan principles of international law in the modern era.

We must be careful in reconstructing this story. Non-Christian traditions also provide tools for thinking about the morality of war and international relations. There are resources in Muslim culture, in Chinese thought, and in the religions and philosophies of India, for example. A Eurocentric genealogy can conceal the ugly history of colonialism. But a primer in the European story is useful for those of us in Western nations.

The Christian just war tradition emerged within Christianity out of a dispute between those who thought that Christian morality required pacifism and those who thought it permitted war. A related issue was how Christian values connect with national and political identity.  Were Christians supposed to turn toward “the Kingdom of God”? Or were Christians allowed to fight in allegiance with secular powers?

Christian pacifism typically appeals to the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels—such as “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” (Matthew 5). Christian pacifism is also often linked to a cosmopolitan religious vision critical of allegiance to states and armies. As Jesus said, his kingdom was not of this world (John 18:36). 

Christian just warriors look to other texts for inspiration. The Apostle Paul said, for example, that the sovereign is a minister of God who uses the sword to execute wrath on evildoers (Romans 13:4). Christians defended state violence as Christianity gained power in the late Roman Empire. 

Thinkers like Augustine made this argument by appealing to natural law. Augustine explained the idea of justified political violence with an analogy: fathers have a duty to protect their children, while states have a duty to protect their people. 

The dispute within Christianity continued through the Crusades, as Christendom embraced war as a religious pilgrimage, justified in defense of the Holy Land. As the Crusades ended and the Reformation began, Christian pacifism resurfaced as a response to the militancy of the Roman Church. Some Reformers, such as the Anabaptists, called for a return to the original pacifism of the Gospels. 

Christian conquerors engaged in colonial adventures at this time. But critics within Catholicism, such as Bartolomé de las Casas, argued for limits on the use of colonial violence. As colonial Christian powers set out across the globe, European nations went to war and sorted themselves according to their allegiance to the Roman Church.

The modern secular cosmopolitan ideal

The religious wars of early modern Europe led to the development of modern secular theories of morality and law. These theories used reason as a guide, rather than turning to the Bible. These secular theories developed along with the modern system of European nation-states. The idea of non-aggression between sovereign states emerged as an important principle. In the 19th and 20th centuries, international treaties and agencies developed, which sought to regulate warfare and defend state sovereignty. 

This approach failed to prevent the world wars of the 20th century. But the system of international law continued to develop after the Second World War with the creation of war crimes tribunals, the United Nations, and the formation of the International Criminal Court. 

This secular cosmopolitan system aims to establish international peace without invoking any particular religious doctrine or religious texts. The story told here has a Christian and Eurocentric focus. But the system has evolved beyond those roots. The result has been the kinds of resolutions mentioned at the outset.

Reaffirming shared values

The system of secular cosmopolitan law has not eradicated war—as the Ukrainian war shows. But it has created a shared vocabulary for condemning war crimes and aggression. 

This shared vocabulary is inclusive of diverse nations, cultures, and religions. Much more needs to be done to ensure that war is relegated to the history books. One important part of that project is to understand and expand the power of a secular cosmopolitan vision that affirms diversity and condemns violence.

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