How do we decide if we should go to war?

Deciding whether to go to war is a difficult decision.  Sometimes going to war can cost the lives of millions and cause terrible suffering.  However sometimes going to war can save people and eventually improve their lives.  So what should we be thinking about when making this decision?  Below are some thoughts and arguments that will help you prepare for the Zimbabwe debate.

Is war an absolute wrong?

Is going to war always a bad thing?  Is war something we should always avoid?  Many claim that war is never justifiable: it is an absolute wrong, something we should never do.  They argue that the use of violence is completely unacceptable, no matter what it achieves.  But are there any wars which we can justify?  Is war sometimes OK?

Why should we try to avoid war?

There are three main reasons we try to avoid going to war:

1. War causes great suffering.  People get injured and killed.  Furthermore, the consequences of war last far longer than the war itself: buildings and roads are damaged, businesses are destroyed, economies suffer, and people have awful memories of the conflict.

2. We think that (generally) countries should be able to rule themselves, and should not be interfered with by outside powers.  In order to avoid chaos and to protect the rights of states it is important we allow states to keep their “sovereignty” (the power to govern themselves).

3. Sometimes war is against International Law.  Organisations such as the United Nations set down rules for when going to war is acceptable and when it is not.  Whilst most agree that International Law has few powerful punishments for powerful nations that break it, many argue we should still respect it to maintain good relations between countries.

But is it possible to argue that despite these reasons sometimes we should still go to war?

Why go to war?

There are two reasons people often give for why it is acceptable to go to war:

1. Self-defence.  When a country is attacked by another it should be able to defend itself and protect its citizens.  But how far can this argument be taken?  For example, is it possible to argue that attacking a nation that might pose a threat in a few years time is self-defence and therefore acceptable?

2. To prevent suffering.  When citizens of a country are suffering from things like genocide, human rights violations, a lack of democracy and starvation some argue we should be able to go to war to intervene and prevent this suffering.

If you don’t think that war is an absolute wrong then deciding whether or not to go to war is often a balancing act between the reasons for avoiding war and the reasons for going to war.  The next two sections on “Sovereignty” and “International Law” are examples of the balancing act involved in making this decision.


A country’s sovereignty is its ability to do what it wants free from external control.  Deciding to go to war with a country to prevent the suffering of its citizens involves balancing a country’s right to sovereignty against the value of improving the lives of those who live there.

Why should we respect sovereignty?  Some reasons are:

1. We believe countries and the people who live in them have a right to make their own decisions and have control over what happens within their borders.

2. Some claim that interfering in another country’s affairs results in more suffering as outsiders do not know what is best for the country.  Only those who live there know what will make the situation better.

3. If sovereignty was never respected countries would be interfering in each other’s affairs all the time which would be dangerous, chaotic and unstable.  If you think of your family like your own little country, you could imagine what it might be like if other completely different families kept on coming round and telling you how you should act or live your life.

But sometimes we might decide that these reasons aren’t good enough and we should still go to war.  Some reasons are:

1. Sometimes human suffering is so bad that we must intervene.  We just can’t allow things such as genocide, human rights violation and starvation to occur. This might be like how sometimes we expect social services to intervene with a family when we think the parents might be mistreating their children.

2. In many cases only the government and not the people can affect change in their own country.  In these cases it is only the rights of a few people in government rather than the citizens they rule over who rights of sovereignty are protecting.

3. Some claim that rights of sovereignty are conditional upon the government functioning well and looking after its people.

Over the last 20 years there has been an increasing trend towards violating sovereignty to alleviate suffering.  Two examples are the wars in Iraq and Kosovo.

International Law

International Law consists of a variety of international agreements, organisations (such as the United Nations) and customs (what countries normally do).

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is an organisation consisting of 15 member countries that establishes peacekeeping forces and sanctions and authorises military action.  Generally, unless the UNSC authorises military action, going to war is illegal under International Law.  But does it matter if it is?  Should we still go to war even when it means breaking International Law?

And so, if the UNSC refused to authorise military action this is another case where we must balance the reasons for and against disobeying International Law when deciding whether to go to war.

Some argue we should obey International Law because:

1. It is wrong to break International Law.  We should obey law in our own countries so why should we not obey International Law?  The rules it sets out are the rules we should be following.

2. Breaking International Law reduces respect for it.  When powerful nations ignore International Law it makes others more likely to break it too.

But others claim that in some cases we should ignore International Law:

1. Sometimes human suffering is so bad that we must intervene.  We just can’t allow things such as genocide, human rights violation and starvation to occur.  It is far more important to prevent these things from happening than obeying International Law.

2. International Law has no real power to stop countries breaking it.

3. The UNSC is not representative of the world and what is right.  For example, 5 of its members are ‘permanent members’ with ‘veto power’ which means 1 member has the power to stop motions passing even if the other 14 members disagree.


7 thoughts on “How do we decide if we should go to war?

  1. It is evident that the US tries her best to ensure that international law is adhered to,but it is even more obvious that US is the leading international law offender.The endeavors it takes to ensure that the entire world observes the rules of international law are centered upon its own security and no more.


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  3. Thank you a billion times! This really helped me out on an essay, and I also enjoyed just learning this. Thank you so much! 🙂

  4. I have a really important debate coming up and this has helped me out with the impossibly hard to research pros of war so thank you so so so much for this!

  5. The united nations was commissioned to combat issues among countries, without going to war. wouldn’t going to war be a contradiction. thought for thought

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