Donald Trump and Michael Walzer: Great Minds Think Alike

Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 is not a great intellectual. He is best known as a controversial real estate developer, businessman, and reality television personality. His style of political communication in speeches and presidential-hopefuls’ debates has been likened to entertainment of the lowest of lowbrow kind, such as The Jerry Springer Show. This is not to say that reality television personalities should not run for office in United States. After all, if Jerry Springer could run for U.S. Congress as he did in 1970, why couldn’t Trump in 2016 run for President? The point is something else; generally speaking the reality television personalities are not known as great intellectuals.

Michael Walzer, on the other hand, is described as a prominent American public intellectual, and even as a world-renowned political theorist. Perhaps in this case, then, we may be in the presence of a great intellectual. It would seem so, if the reaction to the recent news that the Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders reportedly listed Walzer as his foreign policy advisor is any measure.

In this tweet Walzer is deemed a foreign policy expert while a Newsweek article characterized him as “a Princeton University [sic] professor who has expounded theories about ‘just war’”. Yet others reacted to this news tidbit by calling Walzer a “liberal Zionist”. Perhaps this is a harsh formulation, but how not to call someone writing in defense of Israel’s “Cast Lead” operation deeming it “not disproportional” a Zionist? And he has been characterized in worse ways, such as being part of the “Cruise Missile Left”.

Less important are the details at this point than the image of Michael Walzer as an intellectual on the left, a liberal, who is an expert on foreign policy. Everything, therefore, that Trump is not, so why bring these two men together in a piece like this? As it turns out, Trump and Walzer have much more in common than meets the eye, but before we get to see this we may wonder why would Walzer be considered “a liberal,” or “on the left,” and why would anyone think of him as a “foreign policy expert”.

To his academic colleagues and groupie-like middlebrow audience (as say in his writings for Dissent Magazine) Walzer is best known for his communitarian position in political theory. The latter, however, is in no way a liberal position; it is deeply conservative, if not borderline fascist in that the idealization of the “voluntary associations” stands in the way of the rule of law, as the most basic tenet of liberalism, and is perfectly consistent with cruelty and injustice. This was captured well in the inimitable words of a truly brilliant Harvard political theorist, Judith Shklar, commenting on the flaws in Walzer’s case: “[Walzer] clearly thinks that [the voluntary associations] are all like Protestant or Reform Jewish congregations or high-minded fraternal labor organizations. Most however, resemble the Teamsters Union, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Anti-Saloon League a good deal more.”[1] The affinity to the right wing style animosity to the state is evident here, much to the predictable delight of the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, including Donald Trump.

When it comes to Walzer’s status as foreign policy expert it stems entirely from his writings on “just war” theory, and this is where the overlap between the two minds, Trump’s and Walzer’s, is the greatest, the difference being that Walzer has spent decades expounding theories on the topic while Trump seems to have formulated his views on the spur of the moment during an interview with CNN. It is worth exploring this in some detail.

The so-called “just war” theory has a long history. It originated in the context of Catholic theology and had clear moral implications, which at least by the second half of the 19th century and certainly by mid-20th century emerged as having exclusively a legal interpretation. Taken as a contemporary legal theory it consists of two components: the jus ad bellum is that part of international law governing resort to international armed conflicts. The jus in bello is the law of war properly so formulated, namely, the body of rules governing the conduct of parties engaged in international armed conflict.

The greatest mind of the Enlightenment period, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, championed exactly this application of the theory as purely a matter of positive international law. More importantly, Kant absolutely rejected any moral theory about war. For him war was beyond the moral rules of good and evil, no war can be just or unjust because war simply falls in the realm of pure necessity. No moral rules are possible that would confer moral-theoretic imprimatur on some wars characterized by specific attributes. Any violent conflict could be claimed to satisfy such characterizations whether it did or not. Hence, the entire project of “just war” theory as situated within the moral normative domain should be rejected. Kant is opposed to the idea of constructing “theories” in the moral normative domain that would render specific wars “just” or “unjust,” for an endeavor of this sort could easily be used to rhetorically turn even an obvious aggression into a morally “good war”. Belonging to the domain of necessity with the only imperative that it be ended as soon as possible, war is still a practice that can be governed by rules, but they must be legal rules. Hence, by mid 20th century the “just war” theory found its proper normative place: exclusively within the legal normative order of the positive international law anchored in the notion of state sovereignty.

Kant saw clearly the dangers of an alleged moral theory that could make some wars just or unjust. In particular he saw a would be just-war-moral-theorist as especially sinister kind of individual who, in another insightful formulation by Judith Shklar, is “encouraging people to enter upon wars recklessly and then baptizing his own side with the holy water of justice. Every enemy can easily be made to look the aggressor.”[2]

This did not stop Michael Walzer from attempting the revival of the medieval version of the “just war” doctrine as a moral one in his 1977 publication Just and Unjust Wars: Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations. Richard Falk promptly warned in his aptly titled early review, “Moral Argument as Apologia,” that the only people that could be excited about Walzer’s revival of “just war” theory as a moral doctrine, were “those who most deeply imperil the human prospect.”[3] Of course, Walzer did not achieve this shift by meeting Kant’s challenge of developing a normative ethical theory that would confer moral-theoretic imprimatur on some wars characterized by precise attributes rendering specific wars “just” or “unjust”. That remains as impossible as ever, and an endeavor of Walzer’s sort remains, as Kant wisely cautioned, as easily rhetorically exploited as ever to turn even an obvious aggression into a “good war”. Instead, Walzer deployed within his “moral theorist” task of writing about war yet another Catholic device: casuistry.[4]

At this point we can turn our attention to Donald Trump’s thinking about war and in particular the idea of a principled approach to war. And since this is the U.S., we are necessarily talking about the journalist’s question that demands of Trump to reveal a doctrine he would rely on when using force abroad. No such doctrine is needed according to Trump; he would make judgments on case-by-case basis. Great minds indeed think alike! The exchange is worth quoting in extenso:

COOPER: On foreign policy. Is there… Have you started thinking about a—sort of a Trump doctrine for using power overseas. What criteria do you look at?

TRUMP: First of all, there can be no doctrine because everything is different. Every situation is different. And I didn’t want to go into Iraq and I’ll say it 100 times. I didn’t want to go, [I said it on] Howard Sterns show … before it ever happened. And if he asked me that question and he’s a friend of mine. He’s a good guy actually, much different than you see on radio. Believe me.

COOPER: It’s a great interview.

TRUMP: He is a great guy. But Howard asked me and I said, “Well, I don’t know.” That was the first time [I] was ever asked. But don’t forget I’m an entrepreneur. They don’t ask me about me simply going into Iraq at that time? And this was long before we went in. And you could see that I was very hesitant…

COOPER: What criteria would you use for sending troops somewhere?

TRUMP: Let me just tell you. Going into Iraq, in my opinion, was one of the worst mistakes in the history of this country. It was one of the worst decisions ever made in the history of this country. It started everything that’s happening today in the Middle East, it is because of that one decision to go into Iraq. OK? It was a horrible decision, including the migration. Everything that, you know, it’s a mess.

Now if Saddam Hussein was there, would we be better off? Absolutely. You know, hey, this was not a nice man. This wasn’t a great guy, but Saddam Hussein did one thing. He killed terrorists. He was a professional killer of terrorists.

Thus, according to Trump, there can be no doctrine for using military power abroad, since every situation is different. Mr. Trump, for example, simply looked at the case of Iraq in 2003 and concluded that it was wrong to go to war against Iraq. While Michael Walzer also thought that Iraq wasn’t a just war what is interesting is to see how these calls are made. No doctrine, no theory; calls are to be made on the case-by-case basis! But, we may wonder, how exactly does a “just war” theorist go about making his judgments in the absence of a normative ethical theory that would confer moral properties to specific wars as being “just” or “unjust”? Walzer sees no difficulties here, he “shares the confidence” of many “men and women who are confident that they know which side’s war is ‘legitimate’.”[5] Mr. Trump shares this confidence exhibited by the theorist Walzer! They are on the same page here, that much is clear, but while it makes sense for Trump to say that his case-by-case approach requires no doctrine of any sort, it is less clear why Walzer’s “practical casuistry” should amount to a methodology within anything that could be considered a “theory”.

There is, however, more overlap between these two minds on issues of war and peace, and one that is of much more disturbing kind. But first a brief conceptual interlude is in order.

While Immanuel Kant urged that “just war” theory must play absolutely no role in the moral normative order, Michael Walzer with his 1977 book reintegrated the doctrine within the moral domain in political theory and moral theorizing. Walzer’s project did not have much traction until after the end of the Cold War, at which point his take on “just war” theory became a key element of something called “international justice discourse” because it had the prospect of accomplishing an imperial project in two ways: on the ad bellum (moral) justice side we could expect the decriminalization of aggression (by a side whose war effort is christened “just”) as a supreme crime of international law, while on the in bello (moral) justice side we could see retroactive decriminalization of real war crimes committed by “good guys” on the way to military victory.

An example can show how decriminalization of aggression works using “just war” theory. In 1999, under the leadership of Unites States, Yugoslavia was the target of aggression by nineteen most powerful countries, members of NATO, even though Yugoslavia attacked none of them. This was contrary to NATO’s own (defensive) Charter and international law. Yet, with widespread confidence described by Walzer this aggression was quickly christened with the holy water of justice and deemed a “good war”. Walzer was chief among many Western publicists who first urged then cheered the aggression conducted as an intense aerial bombardment for 78 days, but was practically alone in also demanding a ground offensive. “I was in favor of a ground invasion, because there would have been fewer casualties,” blurted Walzer in his speech at the occasion of receiving an honorary doctorate from Belgrade University, which is possibly the most inexplicable and incongruent act of my alma mater chronicled in Unjust Honoris Causa.

The illegality of the endeavor did not matter to Western commenters. Thus Judge Antonio Cassese, the first president of the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, asserted, and he was by no means alone in this, that the NATO’s 1999 aggression against Yugoslavia was “illegal under international law” but he still insisted that in his “ethical viewpoint resort to armed force was justified.”[6] Thus, the vocabulary of “illegal but good,” “illegal but justified” or “illegal but legitimate” entered the narratives about international relations with the serious consequence of effectively decriminalizing aggression of powerful Western states and their allies as they engage in wars of choice against the weaker states.

When it comes to the in bello (moral) justice before we look at Walzer’s latest contribution let us turn to Trump and the question of what he would do about terrorism. The context of the question is provided by Trump’s statements that he would go beyond waterboarding and go after the families of those who are suspected of being terrorists:

COOPER: You talked about going after the families of terrorists. You now reversed that essentially …

TRUMP: I didn’t reverse anything.

COOPER: You would still want to go after the families of terrorists?

TRUMP: No, no, I didn’t reverse anything. I clarified very simply we have laws. We have to obey the laws…We have to go after them.

COOPER: What does that mean? Kidnapping them?

TRUMP: You have a terrorist [who is] going to do something and it’s the only way you going to stop it. You know, I tell the story of General Pershing and take a look at General Pershing in 1990 [sic] in the Philippines, how he stopped terrorism. OK. You’ll take a look at it. It’s too long a story to tell on the tape. It will take the whole thing but it’s one of the very interesting and very powerful stories.

Look, we’re going to have to be a lot tougher. We are playing with a different set of rules. ISIS chops off people heads. ISIS drowns people in steel cages and pulls up the cage an hour later. Everyone is gone, 40, 50, 60 people at a time.

COOPER: When you said the other day we have to play the game, you said we got to play the game the way they play the game.

TRUMP: We have to play the game at a much tougher level.

COOPER: What does that mean though?

TRUMP: We have to expand those laws.

COOPER: Does that mean cutting off heads?

TRUMP: No, it doesn’t mean that but we have to expand the laws.

COOPER: What is expand the laws?

TRUMP: Anderson, let me explain something we are playing at this level and they don’t care. They have no rules. And we have these rules that are very onerous…

COOPER: Geneva Conventions on war. There’re ways—there’re rules in a battle.

TRUMP: I know that, but, you know what, it’s funny. It’s very interesting what’s happens with the Geneva Convention. Everybody believes in the Geneva Convention until they start losing and then they say oh, let’s take out the bomb. OK. When they start losing. We have to play with a tougher set of rules. We have laws. We don’t allow water boarding…

COOPER: When you say increase the laws and do more than water boarding, what is that specifically?

While Trump did not explain what he means by “expanding” or “increasing” laws that govern the conduct the American military and intelligence it is quite clear that he is proposing a very simple idea: change laws so that practices that are currently illegal become legal. This is justified by expediency of winning against particularly brutal enemies. This obviously pertains to both domestic and international laws. There is no sense from the interview that Trump has any idea how complex an issue this is, and it may appear naïve or even ignorant to suggest that in order to win against the terrorists we should simply change the laws, even if this means changing or amending international treaties like Geneva Conventions.

For those who may find these ideas by Donald Trump disqualifying let us see what the foremost theorist on “just war” has to say about it. When it comes to the in bello (moral) justice Walzer has added a novel conceptual element to the “just war” theory: the notion of “the good guys”. The idea is that whatever in bello rules are in place they must make it possible for the “good guys” to win. But who are the “good guys”? Well, those who are fighting on the side whose war had been christened as a “just”. If a country is fighting a “just” war, then, writes Walzer, “it can indeed violate the rules of war, and the only limit on the violation is necessity”; thus we get the following principle of sorts: “the greater the danger the just warriors face, the greater their entitlements in battle.”[7] But what follows if the win of the “just” side is not a real possibility? What then? Well, the rules, says Walzer, would have to be changed. We would have to reconsider the content of the jus in bello rules if we could not live within jus in bello and still have the just side win on the battlefield. In other words, we would retroactively consider violations of in bello rules by the “just” side as “good,” “justified” or “legitimate” so that they would not constitute crimes.

We see again that great minds think alike. Both Trump and Walzer find the solution in changing laws (domestic and international) when this is necessary for the “good guys” (that is us) to win wars, even when we started them by committing aggression—the supreme crime of international law.

Consequently, if I were Donald Trump in the White House in January 2017 I would have no need for Michael Walzer’s expertise in foreign policy, for I already think alike, mastering fully in an intuitive way the craft of the theorist. But, if I were Bernie Sanders in the White House in January 2017, I would run as far as possible from Michael Walzer, precisely because Trump would have no use for him.


[1] Shklar, J. (1998) “The Work of Michael Walzer” in Stanley Hoffman (ed.) Political Thought and Political Thinkers, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, p. 381.

[2] Shklar, J. (1979) “Let Us Not be Hypocritical,” Daedalus, vol. 108, p. 20.

[3] Falk, R. (1978) “The Moral Argument as Apologia,” The Nation, March 28, p. 343.

[4] Walzer, M. (1977) Just and Unjust Wars: Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations, New York: Basic Books, p. 45.

[5] Walzer, M. (2013) “Coda: Can the Good Guys Win?,” The European Journal of International Law, vol. 24, no 1, p. 439.

[6] Cassese, A. (1999) Ex iniuria ius oritur: Are we Moving Towards International Legitimation of Forcible Humanitarian Countermeasures in the World Community?,” European Journal of International Law, vol. 10, no 1, p. 24.

[7] Walzer, M. (2013), p. 442.

Aleksandar Jokic is Professor of philosophy at Portland State University.