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military-issues

“Just War” Debates and Evolving Uses of Force

Daniel Brunstetter

The challenges:

  • Moving beyond academic critique and arm’s length critiques of defense policy from a “just war” perspective to discussions within military circles based on a more interdisciplinary perspective
  • Engaging with future peace and security policymakers to update the “moral vocabulary” around the use of force to take into account the new dilemmas of force short of war, such as drones

The background and policy setting:

Brunstetter started his Ph.D. in 2000 in the context of “just war” debates, which were shaped by 9/11 shortly thereafter. He was not trained as a Just War scholar. He was interested in the parallels between the 16th century debates about just war and "barbarians" and the Bush doctrine but was pulled away from intellectual history and into contemporary Just War debates in the context of discussions on drones. Brunstetter was involved in the early conversations over drones, when drone use was new, controversial, and being publicly debated. He entered conversations on the ethics of war when his academic work critiquing the Obama administration shifted in this direction. Originally, Brunstetter wrote a critical appraisal of drone use in journal Ethics & International Affairs.[1] Scott Shane from The New York Times, who was working on drones, read this and wrote “The Moral Case for Drones”.[2]The Atlantic asked Brunstetter to write his response to this piece, “Can We Wage a Just Drone War?”[3] Brunstetter’s entire effort was an attempt toward holding the Obama administration accountable in the drone debate. Brunstetter critiqued Obama’s DRONE policy, arguing that the just war framing used in the President's Nobel Prize speech that lauded the concept of just war, did not match the administration's secret drone attacks outside declared warzones. Although the administration eventually used just war language to legitimize drone strikes, Brunstetter wrote a 2013 piece offered more critiques at the Obama administration's use and abuse of just war language, arguing that this language was too permissive given that drones were often framed as limited force, or force short of full-scale war.[4]

The Engagement:

Over the decade following these initial critiques of drone use within a just war framework, Brunstetter reflected that as an academic it is easy to be a critic of policymakers, and it is equally hard for politicians and military leaders who are engaged in a particular policy space to work on theory building. He saw a gap to engage in theory building that would build a recalibrated conceptual vocabulary for policymakers to use. In thinking about how to find answers to the problems he drew out in his critique he constructed a new moral framework, what the ethics of limited force should be. To do so, he drew on history, political theory, and interdisciplinary concepts that shape the way we think about the use of force. The goal was not purely theoretical, but to develop an applied moral framework that provided a richer vocabulary to think about drone use in better ways. He also recognized that making this type of moral argument within critical scholarship was a risk, insofar as his theoretical work would be prone to abuse. And so he feared it being used for unintended purposes.

In 2021, Brunstetter published his book, a decade in the making, that addressed the grey zone and moral ambiguity of the use of force that does not fit neatly into the category of war.[5] He developed a theory focused on “force short of war”, building on Michael Walzer’s work, which is widely read in military institutions. Brunstetter answered Walzer’s call for a theory of limited force.[6] Just as there is a framework for thinking about just and unjust war, Brunstetter wanted to develop a moral framework to think about just and unjust uses of limited force, which would entice military leaders to rethink how they conceive of the use of force outside traditional warzones. Brunstetter’s conceptual goal was to move past the war / not war dichotomy to better understand real world practice regarding the use of force.

Brunstetter’s writing and framing evolved as his view that academics have a responsibility to use their voices to hold leaders and military practitioners accountable emerged and deepened. One way to do so is to not use theory just to criticize practitioners but to build theory through the lens of what practitioners are doing. Brunstetter’s scholarship evolved to provide an argument of what he thought the ethics of limited force should be, developing a vocabulary (such as the concept of escalation) to think about this in better ways. He wanted to use the political theory, international relations, and historical elements of his academic training to make a moral argument that was both critical of existing modes, while also holding practical implications. While practitioners sometimes disagreed with his moral argument, they engaged with his framework more readily because they did not see him as just a critic but someone willing to grapple with the dilemmas they faced. Engaging with his moral framework and utilizing its vocabulary is not a theoretical silver bullet, but a step towards rethinking assumptions about the just and unjust uses of limited force and engaging in productive debate.

For Brunstetter, one of the most important aspects of engaging in this policy space has been to consistently engage students who are from war zones in his class. Given that there is a new conflict emerging on the horizon consistently since he began teaching about just war, Libya, Syria, Mali, ISIS, Yemen, the drone wars, and now Ukraine, student perspectives in these current events are important for challenging assumptions. Brunstetter has joined conference panels and written op-eds on drones and the ethics of war but wants to be attuned to student experiences and the solutions they seek for current events. Moreover, among his former students he has invited back Libyan, Syrian, Iraqi, Afghani, Ethiopian and Pakistani as well as American soldiers to give guest lectures to shed light on the on-the ground human side to these conflicts. These conversations help to ground all the theoretical talk about war and encouraged Brunstetter to conceptualize restraint-oriented solutions.

What were the implications of the engagement?

The implications of this work have played out in both France and the United States. Brunstetter has had several pieces on drones published in French, has been invited to present his research at French military institutes, and works with the new generation of military ethics PhDs. This has allowed him to work with a younger generation of scholars and has expanded the knowledge and network of people working on the ethics of war. Brunstetter’s work has also been published in U.S. military journals and blogs. For example, one piece on the recent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan was circulated and read by military cadets. He chose this audience intentionally in order to reach and influence future and current military policymakers’ thought via a critical yet practical lens.

Just war has always been a contested idea, but by finding points where the moral vocabulary shifts in these debates, this allows policymakers to evaluate policy options better, with an evolved and recalibrated moral vocabulary. Developing a framework of just and unjust uses of limited force thus fits into a long tradition of practical military ethics. Like many ethicists, Brunstetter worries that some will see his work as a stamp of approval to use force, a sort of green-light ethics, without recognizing his deeper presumption against war. But this concern is ultimately outweighed by the importance of not sitting on the sidelines and bringing new ethics into foreign policy conversation. Overall, Brunstetter reflects that his work offered an effective angle to challenging the Obama administration’s drone war language and improve the moral vocabulary around drone use. Brunstetter sees that this work is now being drawn on and shared in military networks and with new Ph.D. students. His initial engagement has thus been the impetus for more far reaching conversations about drones, just war, and military ethics.


[1] Brunstetter, D. & Braun, M. (2011). The Implications of Drones on the Just War Tradition. Ethics and International Affairs. 25 (3):337-358.

[2] Shane, S. (2012). The Moral Case for Drones. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/sunday-review/the-moral-case-for-drones.html

[3] Brunstetter, D. R. (2012). Can We Wage a Just Drone War?. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2012/07/can-we-wage-a-just-drone-war/260055/

[4] Brunstetter, D. & Braun, M. (2013). From Jus ad Bellum to Jus ad Vim: Recalibrating Our Understanding of the Moral Use of Force. Ethics and International Affairs. 27 (1):87-106.

[5] Brunstetter, D. (2021). Just and Unjust Uses of Limited Force: A Moral Argument with Contemporary Illustrations (1st edition). Oxford University Press.

[6] Walzer, M. Just and Unjust Wars.  Basic Books, preface to fourth edition, 2006.

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