A Return to Coercion: International Law and New Weapons Technologies


In recent years, the U.S. has threatened air strikes against Syria and insisted on the possibility of air strikes against Iran, in both cases to deter development of weapons of mass destruction. Such threats represent a return to the idea that international law allows states to impose punitive measures by force. Most academic specialists claim that the UN Charter only authorizes force in immediate self-defense. Many commentators embrace the related doctrine that lawful force can only be exercised against the opposing military force. But there remains more logic in the older view, that international law authorizes force for a wider variety of challenges and against a wider range of legitimate targets. Since there is no global protective service, nations must use force more broadly in self-defense and greater powers must sometimes use force to resist the spread of weapons of mass destruction, to disrupt terror networks, to stop aggressive designs before they provoke all out war. There are good reasons to insist on restraints that limit loss of life among civilians, but civilian property does not have the same claims. But with today's technologies, cyber attacks or drone strikes can focus on carefully chosen civilian targets. That approach can help resolve disputes between nations with less overall destruction -- the ultimate purpose of the laws of war.