On a Differential Law of War

Should the United States, as the strongest military power in the world, be bound by stricter humanitarian constraints than its weaker adversaries? Would holding the U.S. to higher standards than the Taliban, Iraqi insurgents, or the North Korean army yield an overall greater humanitarian welfare or be otherwise justified on the basis of international justice theories? Or would it instead be an unjustifiable attempt to curb American power, a form of dangerous “lawfare”?

The paper offers an analytical framework through which to examine these questions. It draws on the design of international trade and climate agreements, where obligations have been linked to capabilities through the principle of Common-but-Differentiated Responsibilities (CDRs), and inquires whether the justifications that have been offered for CDRs in these other regimes are transposable to the laws of war. More broadly, the framework tests the extent to which war can and should be equated to other phenomena of international relations or whether it is a unique context that resists foreign analogies.

Rather than offering a definitive answer, the inquiry illuminates the types of judgments and predictions that one must hold in order to have a position on the desirability of CDRs in international humanitarian law, most notably, the degree to which weaker adversaries will be prone to abusing further constraints on stronger enemies, the expected effects of CDRs on the propensity to go to war, who on the enemy’s side is the “enemy,” and what are the duties that are owed to one’s enemies.

Read full article (PDF)