Summary of "An Answer to War: Conflicts and Intervention in Contemporary International Relations"

Summary of

An Answer to War: Conflicts and Intervention in Contemporary International Relations

By Roberto Toscano

This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Roberto Toscano, "An Answer to War: Conflicts and Intervention in Contemporary International Relations," in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner, (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), pp. 263-279.

Toscano begins by observing that with the end of the Cold War, conflicts theorists must "jettison" the bulk of the tools they used to understand international conflict. Theorists should shift their attention away from game theory, weapons systems and the "theology of deterrence" and instead focus on the mechanisms that can cause, prevent or stop conflicts. They must shift away from large-scale systematic interpretations which attribute conflicts to external forces. Instead they must recognize the polycentric, pluralistic nature of many contemporary conflicts.

Two Types of War

The ancient Greeks distinguished between two types of war. Stasis referred to "a conflict between groups mutually recognizing a basic affinity, though seeking to solve by force a divergence of interests."(p. 264) Polemos referred to total war against a wholly alien enemy. The current international system of treaties and the UN is geared toward regulating wars of the stasis type, such as the recent Falklands/Malvinas war. However, polemos type wars, now called ethnic conflicts, are proliferating, with the ironic twist that the alien enemy is often now one's neighbor.

Toscano asks why polemos conflicts are on the rise in contemporary times. There can be no simple, single cause. Toscano rejects the view that some ethnic groups are naturally more violence prone than others. This view is both racist and historically false. Material and socioeconomic factors do play a role in creating ethnic conflicts. When resources or space is scarce, the situation may be perceived or presented as "zero-sum," where death for you means life for me. Yet situations of scarcity also require the "ethnic lie" to spark them into polemos style conflict. The "ethnic lie" refers to the stories, myths, stereotypes and propaganda used to redescribe some people as different, alien and threatening. Economic, historical and sociological factors alone do not account for polemos type conflicts. The role of political leaders, the media and intellectuals must also be taken into account.

Responsibility for Ending Conflicts

By conflicts Toscano means to refer narrowly to "armed, organized violence."(p. 266) Every group has some responsibility to seek coexistence and oppose conflict. Everyone is threatened by the occurrence of violent conflicts; if not directly then indirectly, as allowing such conflicts to go on undermines the international rules and norms regulating the use of violence. Advanced countries have some responsibility to se to it that poorer nations prosper and improve their well being. Although affluence does not guarantee coexistence, history shows that it is a necessary condition for ending ethnic antagonism. As Toscano observes, "we are confronted with the very actual and very delicate issue of intervention."(p. 270) In the long term we may seek a world without collective violence. But in present we have no choice but to seek to regulate conflicts.

Self-determination and Sovereignty

The principle of a people's right to self-determination originally promoted peaceful coexistence between states. But in the modern world this principle has become problematic as demands for self-determination have sparked many conflicts. Toscano identifies four ways in which the principle of self-determination presents a problem. First, there are no clear criteria for what constitutes a people, and so what groups possess the right to self-determination. Second, groups often assert a right to self-determination without considering other competing rights and principles, such as the principle of the territorial integrity of states. Third, because the principle of self-determination is often asserted in a dogmatic way, without regard to its costs or consequences. Fourth, the indiscriminate assertion of the right to form one's own nation-state actually threatens to undermine the security and stability of the whole international system -- a system which is based, paradoxically, on respect for the nation-state.

Toscano concludes that "the revindication of the principle of self-determination is legitimate in the abstract, but, since it is applied without criteria and limitations, it ends up producing devastating results."(p. 270) We must continue to respect the principle of self-determination, but as a relative, not absolute, value. In particular, its exercise must be tempered by two points. First, while the international community is not equipped to rule on whether any group is actually " a people," it can evaluate and set limits on the means by which putative people's pursue their claimed rights to self-determination. Second, "the international community should mold its behavior, in manners relating to self-determination (and recognition of new state entities) to a sense of responsibility rather than the adhesion to abstract principles whose application can bring about real tragedies."(p. 272)

Similarly, the principle of state sovereignty is important, but it cannot be taken as absolute. State sovereignty must be limited by the rules necessary to maintain coexistence. Acceptance of limited sovereignty is the only way to make the state compatible with the existence of international interdependence, of an international order, and with internal levels of authority at the regional and local levels. Acceptance of limited sovereignty, then, is the only way to ensure the continued existence of the state.


The United Nations Charter endorses the principle of state sovereignty. Toscano points out that interventions are by definition coercive, and so breach a state's sovereignty. UN interventions have been legitimated by appeal to Chapter VII, which allows breaches of state sovereignty in response to "threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression."(p. 274) The UN Security Council has construed these terms very broadly, to include interventions in the cases of internal conflicts, human rights violations, and for humanitarian concerns. Traditionally, interventions may also be legitimate if undertaken as a matter of individual or collective self-defense, or to protect nationals that are in another state's territory. This principle has also been extended to include protection of non-national subjects, as with international cooperation in order to end piracy or the slave trade, for example. Generally, problems in staging interventions are due not to any lack of legitimacy, but to a lack of political will.

Toscano suggests seven criteria which should shape interventions. First, the international system must observe equality in the application of rules. Powerful and weak states alike must be subjected equally to the law. Second, interventions should be proportional to the problem they address. Third, interventions must be backed by the political will to bear the costs, including the cost in lives, of intervening. Fourth, proposed interventions must be practically realizable. Fifth, we must consider the consequences of intervening. Is the proposed "cure" worse than the "disease"? Sixth, given the limited resources available for intervention, we must develop triage criteria to decide which conflicts to address. Finally, interventions may have multiple goals, some of which may be in tension. For instance the goal of arresting and prosecuting leaders who are war criminals may conflict with the need to secure their consent to the stationing of peacekeeping troops. These may also be the leaders with whom a political settlement is being negotiated. In responding to genocide, humanitarian commitments to providing aid impartially may be in tension with moral and practical needs to distinguish between the victims and the killers.

Toscano concludes that we must face such dilemmas, and face up to the costs of intervention. Hiding from these issues will allow violent conflicts to proliferate, with a much greater cost in the long run.