What Makes America So Prone to Intervention?

A conversation with Stanley Hauerwas, pacifist theologian, on Syria and why "humanitarianism" is a red herring.

A crew checks and secures weapons on a US F-15 fighter aircraft at Aviano NATO base in 1993, when the U.S. was enforcing a no-fly zone over Bosnia.(Luciano Mellace/Reuters)

Stanley Hauerwas, professor emeritus of theological ethics at Duke University, has thought a great deal about America's relationship with war. Probably the most influential pacifist theologian in the U.S. today, he has a lot to say about why the country can't seem to keep out of interventionist conflicts. As we contemplate another in the long list of U.S. military interventions, I talked to him about his theories and why he is skeptical of the various arguments for a strike on Syria.

You're often identified as a Christian pacifist. Why should a secular nation listen to Christians, and why should a nation state listen to the arguments of pacifists?

My way of putting it is that Christians are called to live nonviolently not because we believe nonviolence is a strategy to rid the world of war, but in a world of war as faithful followers of Christ we cannot imagine being anything other than nonviolent.

That doesn't mean in any way that we withdraw from the world, but rather we want to serve our Christian and non-Christian brothers and sisters as much as possible by trying to find ways to live cooperatively in a manner that does not need to resort to violence.

To think however that we can give you a nonviolent foreign policy is just not going to be the case. Because we first of all don't think about what we would do if we were president. We worry about how in the world as faithful followers of Christ we ever ended up being president! But that doesn't mean we're not trying to find ways for both Christians and non-Christians to live lives with as little violence as possible.

Your last book was titled War and the American Difference. What is the American difference, and how does it relate to war, and to our conduct in Syria? 

The suggestion in the book is that war serves as the great liturgical event for Americans, where we sacrifice the youth of the present generation to show that the sacrifices of the youth of the past generations were worthy. So war becomes the great ritual moral renewal of the American society.

Just think of all the language about sacrifice that is constantly used about the service people. And I have nothing but the highest regard for those who conscientiously participate. And I think that we don't respond to what we ask them to do, that is, give up their normal unwillingness to kill, and the moral wound that leaves them with, I think we don't give them the opportunity to know how to express that. And that really drives them into a kind of secrecy that's very destructive.

So I want to say the American difference is that we are a country that literally morally lives by war and the sacrifices war asks to assure ourselves to our right to our status.

And how that works in Syria is that there is not much moral hesitation about whether we  have subjected ourselves to the kind of questioning that would be appropriate to a people who have too long used war as a moral renewal.

The argument for intervention in Syria is that we need to intervene for humanitarian reasons, or to enforce international norms against the use of WMDs (in this case chemical weapons.) Are those good reasons to use military force in this case specifically? And could they ever be good reasons for using military force?

Well, I think no one knows what humanitarian intervention means. If I were a person who was non-American, I would think humanitarian intervention is just another name for United States imperialism. And you could make a very good case for that.

Gassing noncombatants is obviously a terrible thing, but to make a distinction between conventional and nonconventional weapons strikes me as arbitrary. The kind of shelling that was going on in Aleppo is just as destructive as the use of a gas, so it's not clear to me why you draw the red line here. It's kind of left over from WWI and the use of gas there and the 1925 treaty.

And then -- humanitarian intervention. You have to ask what is the relationship between that and "just war"? How has the US made itself an agent in this conflict? I don't see on "just war" grounds how the US has been attacked. I suppose in realist terms, you'd say that the US is a status quo power. It wants to keep conflicts under control because as a status quo power, any conflict has the possibility of weakening our power.  But that's not humanitarian intervention. That's just straight self-interested international behavior. And it seems to me you can say a lot in favor of that more realist view, which I think would lead you probably to not intervene, rather than to intervene.

Arguments about intervention are often couched in terms of self-interest vs. altruism. Is this a useful way to frame the discussion?

No. The construction of altruism vs. selfishness -- Aristotle knew nothing of that. He thought your first obligation was to be your own best friend. And if you are a good person, therefore, you are to follow your own interests because they are for the good. I think that works also for how you think about international affairs.

So it's not a strong distinction between self-interest and altruism.  You have to ask what is the content of the interest that you are pursuing? And it is not at all clear to me on what grounds the US would say it has a strong interest in Syria. I suspect how all that works in terms of the geopolitics of the Near East [has to do with the] place of Israel. And that has not been made articulate within the current discussion.

You wouldn't feel that our policy would be more humanitarian if it were less self-interested?

No, that's right.

So is humanitarianism just a ...

I think it is a promissory note that has as much danger as it does possibility in its use. Because you simply don't know what would count as humanitarian. I thought when the Clinton administration bombed Bosnia in the name of humanitarian intervention, I just thought that was horrendous. I don't know where we go the presumption that we could do that. I mean, the problem with the US foreign policy is that we're just so unbelievably powerful.  And when you've got that kind of power, it's very hard not to use it.  Because if you don't use it, then it just seems that it's just laying there with no end.

For example, I oftentimes say, why did we fight the war in Iraq? Because we could. You still had a military left over from the Cold War that made it possible to be able to engage in that war.

You would say that the issue is less about each intervention, and more about long-term decisions about how much money we're going to put into weapons?

That's right. Always ask, what does a "just war" foreign policy look like? What would a "just war" Pentagon look like? What would a "just war" people look like.?

And it would be a people with fewer weapons. Once you've committed to the huge military, the decision about invading Syria is already beside the point?

Yeah. By the time you get to the point of asking is this intervention or is that war "just," it's too late.

What do you think Americans can do, if anything, to change our relationship with war?

I know this sounds absurd, but I'd return to the draft. One of the problems we currently have is there hasn't been in the population any serious engagement with the ethics of war because we have an all-volunteer army. I would think the return to the draft would be an intervention that would require discussion that might be more helpful in terms of our ability to limit war.