Francisco de Vitoria, on just war

One of the prominent figures in the Spanish Renaissance was Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546). He was a Spanish Dominican, renewer of Theology and promoter of the Salamanca School of Natural Law. He is considered the founder of the science of International Law and the notion of human rights. One of the most relevant political philosophers of the 20th century, John Rawls, in his book entitled Law of Peoples and the Idea of Public Reason revisited quotes De Vitoria and, from a liberal conception, adheres to his just war theory. 

Precisely Francisco de Vitoria addresses this classic theme in his essay entitled ” Sobre el derecho de Guerra”/ On the law of war when he asks: “What can be the reason and cause of a just war?” We will address this question below, based on this author, from the perspective of Minerva Strategy Blog.

De Vitoria’s first approach to answering this question states that “diversity of religion is not sufficient cause for a just war.” And he justifies himself with that “even if the faith has been announced to the barbarians with sufficient signs of probability and they have not wanted to accept it, it is not, for that reason, lawful to persecute them with war and strip them of their goods” (Francisco de Vitoria, Sobre los indios, II.15).

Francisco de Vitoria was a professor at the University of Salamanca and his lectures, or relections, on various topics of interest have come down to us to this day. Specifically, the full title of the one dedicated to the notion of just war is entitled: ” Sobre el derecho de guerra de los españoles sobre los bárbaros”/On the law of war of the Spaniards over the barbarians. Contrary to what the black legend on the Spanish colonisation of Latin America claims, the School of Salamanca laid the foundations for human rights and the rules of International Law. And, as has been seen, De Vitoria did not justify war for diversity of religion.  

Another issue addressed by Francisco de Vitoria is that “it is not a just cause of a war to intend to expand dominions” and he argues: “this proposition is too evident to need to be demonstrated. For otherwise there would always be just cause for any of the belligerent wars, and so all would be innocent” (Francisco de Vitoria, Sobre el derecho de guerra, III.11).

The history of mankind contains many examples of rulers who have had expansionist policies beyond their borders.  The results of these offensive wars are part of History and memory. This would not be a justified strategy under current International Law, nor as a cost/benefit analysis in the medium and long term.

Francisco de Vitoria continues “neither is it just cause of a war to the prince’s own glory nor any other particular profit of the prince” and he states that “this proposition is also evident, for the prince must order to the common good of the Republic, both war and peace, and he cannot invest public funds in his own glory, in his own profit, much less expose his subjects to danger. The difference between the legitimate king and a tyrant lies in that the tyrant orders the government to his own interest and profit, while the king orders it to the public good, as Aristotle says” (Francisco de Vitoria, Sobre el derecho de guerra, III.12).

If the ruler wages war for his private benefit, he becomes a tyrant, as Aristotle argued in his work Politics. There the Stagirite philosopher proposed a classic typology of forms of government, where he distinguishes those leaders who promote the common good in their government actions -monarchy, aristocracy, politeia– and those who act for their own benefit or that of their own group -tyranny, oligarchy, democracy-. It is interesting because issues of accountability have been identified ever since the first book written on Political Science, which deals especially with issues of classical democracy in the polis of Athens.

The affirmative answer to the question posed by De Vitoria is the following: “the only just cause for waging war is the injury received” and he affirms that “in addition, offensive war is made to avenge an injury and to reprimand the enemies, as has already been said. But there can be no revenge where there has not preceded an injury and a fault. Therefore the conclusion is evident” (Francisco de Vitoria, Sobre el derecho de guerra, III.13).

Here we get to the heart of Francisco de Vitoria’s argument: defensive war, self-defence, is justified. Bobbio affirms: “it is lawful to repel violence with violence.” The Italian author asks himself: “But does the strategy of atomic war still allow us to maintain the distinction between offensive and defensive war?” (Norberto Bobbio, El problema de la guerra y las vías de la paz). De Vitoria did not speak of preventive wars, but in the answer to Bobbio it is worth analising whether a preventive war is justified in the face of a relevant threat. Situations of strategic funanbulism in scenarios of nuclear deterrence are placed in this risk analysis.

Francisco de Vitoria adds: “an injury of any gravity is not enough to make war”. He clarifies that “this proposition is proved because it is not even lawful to impose such serious penalties as death, exile or confiscation of goods on one’s own subjects for any fault. Now, since all the things that are done in war are grave and even atrocious, such as slaughter, arson, devastation, it is not lawful to punish with war those who have committed slight offences, since the measure of punishment must be in accordance with the gravity of the crime” (Francisco de Vitoria, Sobre el derecho de guerra, III.14).

The key to self-defence is proportionality. Thomas Aquinas already defended it by “moderating the defence according to the needs of the threatened security” (Thomas Aquinas, Suma Theologica, II-II, q. 64,a. 7, c). It is in that passage of the Theological Summa, where the theory of the double effect is formulated: an act has two effects, one intentional -preserving life- and another not, which would be incidental -the death of the aggressor-. The key for Thomas Aquinas is that the act be proportionate to its end.

An application of the doctrine of double effect is proposed by Rawls, when he states that civilian casualties are prohibited except insofar as they are the indirect and unintended result of a legitimate attack against a military target (Rawls, Law of Peoples and the Idea of Public Reason revisited).

The just war theory in Francisco de Vitoria is a classic in the reflection on public affairs. As a good classic, it allows more current re-readings and, as Italo Calvino said, it can be conceived as a talisman, a compass on which to orient oneself when approaching the territories of peace and war.

Kissinger, the global negotiator

From John F. Kennedy until recently, every U.S. president has sought the counsel of Henry Kissinger (1923-2023), along with CEOs and political leaders from around the world. His views on foreign policy, State affairs, and world order have been much discussed. However, his remarkable world record as a negotiator has largely gone unnoticed, leading James K. Sebenius, Nicholas Burns and Robert H. Mnookin to author the book Kissinger, the Negotiator. Lessons from Dealmaking at the Highest Level. Sebenius is a professor with the Harvard Negotiation Project and wrote the book 3-d Negotiation: Powerful Tools to Change the Game in Your Most Important Deals.

Some negotiators prefer strategy and the big picture, whilst others focus on the emotion and empathy, and specific points. Few combine both positions. Sebenius et al. examine Kissinger’s uniquely developed ability to focus on a broader perspective. They characterise his approach as strategic, realistic, prone to change the game, and agile in multi-party situations.

Many people believe that negotiation is simply bargaining; it is not unlike a bazaar, where one person makes an extremely high offer and the counterpart keeps offering the same. Concessions are made gradually with the goal of bringing the parties to a final agreement. Kissinger characterised and criticised this standard approach to negotiation early in his career and later this was reflected in his negotiations: There is no point in moderating offers if the agreement is normally between two starting positions. Effective negotiation would propose a much more radical starting point than one is willing to accept. The more outrageous the initial offer, the clearer the idea of what one “really” wants to be considered a compromise.

Kissinger advised convincing the other side of one’s own underlying objectives and interests rather than exaggerating tactics. He argued that failure to do so hinders effective negotiation. In general negotiations, Kissinger expressed, “I made a considerable effort to leave no doubt of our fundamental approach. Only romantics think they can prevail in a negotiation by trickery: only pedants believe in the advantage of obfuscation. In a society of sovereign states, an agreement will only hold if all parties consider it in their interest. They must have  a sense of participation in the result. The art of diplomacy is not to outsmart the other side, but to convince it either of  common interest or of penalties if an impasse continues”. He continued “The wise diplomat understands that he cannot afford to trick his opponent; in the long run a reputation for reliability and fairness is an important assets. The same negotiators meet over and over again: their ability to deal with one another is undermined if a diplomat acquires a reputation of evasion or duplicity”. 

It is evident that the realist in Henry Kissinger values actions and results rather than words: “Statesmen value the steadiness and reliability in a partner, not the restless quest for even-new magic formulas”.  This brings us closer to a virtuous model, to maintain stable relationships over time, based on trust and reputation, than the Machiavellian model of short-term results.

Analysing the negotiations in which Kissinger was involved, the best contribution to more than 130 meetings between China and the United States in Warsaw was when an ambiguous and elegant formula that both parties could live with was achieved. This enabled the United States and China to cooperate on many other relevant issues. The crucial sentence is as follows:

“The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either sides of the Taiwan Straits maintain that there is but one China. The United States Government does not challenge that position.”

Just words? Hardly. There have been countless examples of such creatively ambiguous formulations of Kissinger negotiations. The common denominator is always face-saving formulations, but they result in both sides declaring victory and being able to move forward from previous deadlocks.

In some cases, however, no word of the agreement may be too costly to pronounce or formalise in writing. These are tacit agreements. However, the constructively proposed agreement may be unacceptable if enforced.  

These tacit agreements, in general, can be useful when there is a group of stakeholders, or a powerful audience, internal or external, that opposes a formal agreement and can impose costs on a negotiator who agrees to them.  Without many of the possible costs, a tacit agreement can be based on the desired content, irrespective of its form.

Constructive ambiguity and tacit agreements have a privileged place in the tactical toolkit of Kissinger, the global negotiator.