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Hugo Grotius (1583–1645). The Rights of War and Peace. 1901.

Book II

Chapter XXV: The Causes of Undertaking War for Others

  • Sovereigns may engage in war to support the rights of their subjects—Whether an innocent subject can be delivered up to an enemy to avoid danger—Wars justly undertaken in support of confederates upon equal, or unequal terms—For friends—For any men—Omission of this duty not blamable, from motives of self-preservation—Whether was may be justly undertaken in defence of another’s subjects, explained by distinctions.

  • I. IN speaking of belligerent powers, it was shewn that the law of nature authorises the assertion not only of our own rights, but of those also belonging to others. The causes therefore, which justify the principals engaged in war, will justify those also, who afford assistance to others. But whether any one presides over an household, or a state, the first and most necessary care is the support of his dependents or subjects. For the household forms but one body with the master, and the people with the sovereign. So the people of Israel under the command of Joshua took up arms in support of the Gibeonites, whom they had subdued. Our forefathers, said Cicero to the Romans, often engaged in war to support the rights of merchants, whose vessels had been plundered. The same Romans who would refuse to take arms for a people who were only allies, did not hesitate to assert by force of arms the injured rights of the same, when they became their subjects.

    II. Yet the cause of any subject, although it may be a just cause, does not always bind sovereigns or rulers to take arms: but only when it can be done without inconvenience to all, or the greater part of their subjects. For the interests of the whole community, rather than those of particular parts, are the principal objects of a sovereign’s care; and the greater any part is, the nearer its claims and pretensions approximate to those of the whole.

    III. Some have maintained the position, that if an enemy requires the surrender of a citizen, however innocent, the demand must unquestionably be complied with, if the state is too feeble to resist it. This opinion is strongly controverted by Vasquez, but if we attend to his meaning more than his words, we shall find it to be the drift of his argument, that such a citizen ought not to be rashly abandoned, while there remains any possible hope of protecting him. For as a case in point, he alleges the conduct of the Italian Infantry, who, upon receiving assurances of protection from Caesar, deserted Pompey, even before he was reduced to absolute despair: a conduct which he deservedly reprobates in the strongest terms.

    But whether an innocent citizen may be given up into the hands of an enemy to avoid imminent destruction, which would otherwise fall upon the state, is a point that HAS BEEN formerly, and IS still disputed by the learned, according to the beautiful fable, which Demosthenes told of the wolves, who demanded of the sheep the surrender of the dogs, as the only terms of peace. The lawfulness of this is denied not only by Vasquez, but by one, whose opinions that writer condemns, as bearing a near approach to perfidy. Sotus holds it as an established maxim, that such a citizen is bound to deliver himself up: this Vasquez denies, because the nature of civil society, which every one has entered into for his own advantage, requires no such thing.

    No conclusion can be drawn from hence, except that a citizen is not bound to this by any RIGHT STRICTLY SO CALLED, while at the same time the law of charity will not suffer him to act otherwise. For there are many duties not properly included in the idea of strict justice. These are regarded as acts of good will, the performance of which is not only crowned with praise, but the omission of them cannot escape censure.

    Such is the complexion of the following maxim, that every one should prefer the lives of an innumerable and innocent multitude to his own personal and private welfare. Cicero, in defending Publius Sextius, says, “If I were taking a voyage with my friends, and happening to meet with a fleet of pirates, they threatened to sink our little bark, unless the crew surrendered me as the victim to appease their fury, I would sooner throw myself into the deep, than suffer my companions out of their affection to me to encounter sure death, or even imminent danger.

    But after establishing this point, there remains a doubt, whether any one can be COMPELLED to do what he is BOUND to do. Sotus denies this, and in support of his argument quotes the case of a rich man, who, though bound from motives of charity to supply the wants of the needy, cannot be compelled to do so. But the transactions of equals with each other, must be regulated upon principles very different from those that regulate the mutual relations of sovereigns and subjects. For an equal cannot compel an equal to the performance of any thing, but what he is strictly bound by law to perform. But a superior may compel an inferior to the performance of OTHER duties besides those of PERFECT OBLIGATIONS; for that is a right peculiarly and essentially belonging to the nature of superiority. Therefore certain legislative provisions may be made, enacting the performance of such duties, as seem to partake of the nature of benevolence. Phocion, as it is mentioned in Plutarch’s lives, said that the persons, whom Alexander demanded, had reduced the commonwealth to such distress, that if he demanded even his dearest friend Nicocles, he should vote for delivering him up.

    IV. Next to subjects, and even upon an equal footing with them, as to claims of protection, are allies, a name including, in its consequences and effects, both those, who have formed a subordinate connection with another power, and those who have entered into engagements of mutual assistance. Yet no such compacts can bind either of the parties to the support or prosecution of unjust wars. And this is the reason, why the Lacedaemonians, before they went to war with the Athenians, left all their allies at liberty to decide for themselves upon the justice of the quarrel. To which an additional observation may be made, that no ally is bound to assist in the prosecution of schemes, which afford no possible prospect of a happy termination. For this would be defeating the very end of alliances, which are contracted from motives of public advantage, and not for a participation in ruin. But any power is obliged to defend an ally even against those, with whom it is already connected by subsisting treaties, provided those treaties contain no express condition prohibiting such defence. Thus the Athenians might have defended the Corcyraeans, IN A JUST CAUSE, even against the Corinthians, their more ancient allies.

    V. A third case is that, where assistance has not been expressly promised to a friendly power, and yet is due on the score of friendship, if it can be given without inconvenience.

    Upon this principle Abraham took arms in defence of his kinsman Lot: and the Romans charged the Antiates to commit no acts of piracy upon the Greeks, as being a people of the same kindred with the Italians. It was no unusual thing with the Romans to begin, or at least to threaten to begin wars not only in support of allies, to whom they were bound by treaty, but in support of any friendly powers.

    VI. The last and most extensive motive is the common tie of one COMMON NATURE, which alone is sufficient to oblige men to assist each other.

    VII. It is a question, whether one man is bound to protect another, or one people another people from injury and aggression. Plato thinks that the individual or state not defending another from intended violence is deserving of punishment. A case for which provision was made by the laws of the Egyptians.

    But in the first place it is certain that no one is bound to give assistance or protection, when it will be attended with evident danger. For a man’s own life and property, and a state’s own existence and preservation are either to the individual, or the state, objects of greater value and prior consideration than the welfare and security of other individuals or states.

    Nor will states or individuals be bound to risk their own safety, even when the aggrieved or oppressed party cannot be relieved but by the destruction of the invader or oppressor. For under some circumstances it is impossible successfully to oppose cruelty and oppression, the punishment of which must be left to the eternal judge of mankind.

    VIII. Though it is a rule established by the laws of nature and of social order, and a rule confirmed by all the records of history, that every sovereign is supreme judge in his own kingdom and over his own subjects, in whose disputes no foreign power can justly interfere. Yet where a Busiris, a Phalaris or a Thracian Diomede provoke their people to despair and resistance by unheard of cruelties, having themselves abandoned all the laws of nature, they lose the rights of independent sovereigns, and can no longer claim the privilege of the law of nations. Thus Constantine took up arms against Maxentius and Licinius, and other Roman emperors either took, or threatened to take them against the Persians, if they did not desist from persecuting the Christians.

    Admitting that it would be fraught with the greatest dangers if subjects were allowed to redress grievances by force of arms, it does not necessarily follow that other powers are prohibited from giving them assistance when labouring under grievous oppressions. For whenever the impediment to any action is of a personal nature, and not inherent in the action itself, one person may perform for another, what he cannot do for himself, provided it is an action by which some kind service may be rendered. Thus a guardian or any other friend may undertake an action for a ward, which he is incapacitated from doing for himself.

    The impediment, which prohibits a SUBJECT from making resistance, does not depend upon the nature of the OCCASION, which would operate equally upon the feelings of men, whether they were subjects or not, but upon the character of the persons, who cannot transfer their natural allegiance from their own sovereign to another. But this principle does not bind those, who are not the liege-subjects of that sovereign or power. Their opposition to him or the state may sometimes be connected with the defence of the oppressed, and can never be construed into an act of treason. But pretexts of that kind cannot always be allowed, they may often be used as the cover of ambitious designs. But right does not necessarily lose its nature from being in the hands of wicked men. The sea still continues a channel of lawful intercourse, though sometimes navigated by pirates, and swords are still instruments of defence, though sometimes wielded by robbers or assassins.