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In the modern period, war has been a political and social tool for the advancement of the international agenda of many powerful nations. Furthermore, from the beginning of the modern era, there has been a clear distinction between what the international community can see as a just war and what many will consider an unjust war. One of the most significant aspects of what many commentators will consider an unjust war is what international relations commentaries have termed the war of aggression, which is a war that occurs without any apparent reason for the initiation of the war.

This is an aspect that has been explored in the international relations classic Just and Unjust Wars by the American political philosopher Michael Walzer. This essay seeks to argue that aggression is a moral crime. The essay is divided into three major parts. The first one seeks to define aggression, the second one the aspect of anticipatory self-defense and its relation to aggression. The third seeks to find the nexus between aggression, morality, and criminality.  

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Before the atrocities of the First and Second World Wars, aggression as a crime was unheard of. In most regions of the world, the moral philosophy around how nations had carried out wars was grounded on the principle ‘might equals right’. This was apparent in that in those periods, wars to foster colonization were acceptable to a majority of the most dominant nation-states in the world. Back then, those were mostly European ones.

Thus, nations could fight wars specifically with the manifestly stated reason of subjugating others. However, in the contemporary era, with the development of the international law of war, wars that do not meet international legal criteria are mostly considered the wars of aggression. In this case, the word aggression is both used negatively and pejoratively, as it refers to an action that the doer cannot justify and that he/she does without provocation. Thus, in international law, aggression has come to represent the acts of war that are legally unjustifiable, wrongful, and utterly illegal in the international legal regime.

Furthermore, such acts of war may lack a cause; they may be unnecessary or may be done with the wrongful intention such as political subjugation. To deal with the aspect of the war that other nations and international commentators many consider to be a war of aggression, i.e. attacking another nation without a seemingly just cause, some nations have developed the doctrine of ‘anticipatory self-defense’. Nation-states use this doctrine as a moral and quasi-legal justification for such wars.

Anticipatory Self-Defense

In international relations, anticipatory self-defense, or in other terms, the pre-emptive war is a war, in which a nation attacks another and justifies its actions as being defensive ones from an anticipated attack from a certain nation-state. According to Walzer, this occurs when a nation-state defends itself against a threat that is imminent but not actual. While this theory has undergone criticism from some international commentators and politicians, Walzer acknowledges that a nation-state can fire the first shot if they are sure that they are about to be attacked themselves. This threat should be instant, overwhelming, and the one that leaves no space for deliberation, according to Walzer. Consequently, if one takes Walzer’s point of view, this puts the state in a situation where morally and legally, it has to act to protect its interests and attack the targeted state. Walzer has even likened this preemption as akin to a reflex action, in which the state that feels threatened “throws up its hands at the last minute”.

From this basis, it is apparent that the legality and the morality of a preemptive war is a hotly debated topic for both states and individuals. In some cases, nations will see a pre-emptive war as an aggression in its purest form, for example, one nation attacking another for political, social, or economic aggression, while others see it as a legitimate military action. The issue of what nations and the politicians, who lead them, must consider as an eminent threat before they pre-emptively attack others is also a moral, legal, and political issue that most leaders have to deal with. In this issue, one has to proceed with caution as there is a lack of international consensus, and thus, the international jurisprudence on the use of pre-empted force is not only limited but also very controversial.

Aggression, Morality, and Crime

A moral thing is something that is acceptable by the standards of a community or society. Crime, on the other hand, refers to the doing what is contrary to the laws of the state or the international community. Consequently, a moral crime refers to the act that both goes against the standards of the community and that is considered an illegal act. Since aggression in war mainly refers to the international players, or nation-states, the community, in this case, refers to the international community of nations.

Michael Walzer explains that cosmopolitans and communitarians are right in holding their universal standards rather than narrowing down to state self-interests to help in effectively addressing international aggression. This introduces the aspect of an international rather than a domestic legal and moral regime. From a critical and historical overview of the steps used in the definition and criminalization of aggression from the post-world wars and all the way through to the establishment of the Rome conference, it seems apparent that the war has to be justified in a way for it to be acceptable to the international community. For something to be justifiable there has to be a moral or ethical aspect to it. This assumption proceeds as on the premises that if something is lawful internationally, then it is moral, and thus, justified. The UN declares the unlawful the use of force by nations in Article 2 of its charter. However, Article 51 of the Charter also allows nations to involve themes in self-defense wars. While this seems to be relatively precise, these two articles have not provided a reprieve from the major conflicts between nation-states since the charter has come into force. One of the major reasons for this is that there is no international consensus on the whether the right to self-defense is a narrow one or whether it encompasses many other rights. This raises the moral question if nation-states are justified in attacking others when they reasonably believe that the said states are about to attack them or to interpret the right to self-defense more widely if they believe that those states are a national security threat to them. While the nations are allowed to use force to protect their national security, it does not define national security either.

The absence of a definitive description of what constitutes the defense of a nation-state, it becomes a moral enigma as it correlates with the use of force. The International Court of Justice has explained that the threat to use of force is unlawful, and thus, it is an aggression, where the factual the use of force itself would be unlawful. For instance, the plain ownership of a nuclear weapons does not constitute an unlawful use of force. However, this appears to be a contradiction in the international commentaries in some cases as the possession, or the potential possession, of nuclear weapons by some states appears to be a threat to other nations. An example is that the possession of nuclear weapons by Iran would seem to be a threat to the security of Israel when one considers the dynamics of the Middle East. However, the question whether it would be an eminent threat for is Israel and its allies to strike Iran legally is bound to be a moral question many would debate. Thus, such a strike would be interpreted as either aggression and thus, a moral crime, or a self-defense crime and justifiable.

From the time the First World War had ended to the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) throughout the Rome deliberations, the definition and criminalization of aggression has been a general concern in the international community. This was mainly due to the notion that the future acts of aggression between states could be effective if nations had defined what constituted and did not constitute aggression. According to cosmopolitan theory, human beings are affiliated with a distinct public that exercises unity or shares a general sense of morality. From the perspective of cosmopolitanisms, the belief is that the criminal act of aggression should be addressed through the establishment of an international criminal system, such as the ICC, that has the mandate to compel a conflicting state to identify the adequate peace enforcement measures in a bid to restore international order.

On the other hand, the theory of communitarianism provides a detailed emphasis on the general connection that exists between a person and society, to which they belong. According to communitarians, such aspects as territorial integrity and political independence are some of the key factors that actively advocate the supreme rights of individuals within international society as well as question the usefulness of the criminal definition of aggression in the light of the rights of individuals. In this case, individuals refer to the nation-states rather than human beings. In international law, the sovereign equality of nations is a moral rather than a factual aspect, and communitarians consider this as without the presumption of sovereign equality, there would be aspects of aggression that the dominant nation-states would justify extra-legally. Consequently, in hindsight, both these theories seem to deal with the aspect of aggression from a moral perspective. Cosmopolitans acknowledge and seek to punish the immorality of an unjustified war that leads to deaths and that has international security implications, while communitarians seek to enforce the sovereignty of the nation-states in the international community as a matter of principle.

The moral aspect of the crime of aggression is quite apparent in the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials. Wilson projects that the Nuremberg trials, despite their imperfection such as the inability to provide trial alternatives and the elementary nature of the international law enforcement, are well fit and appropriate in determining the case of criminal aggression as a concept that is inspired by political, legal, and moral activities. In nurturing this argument, Wilson mainly focuses on the end of the First World War, Woodrow Wilson’s cosmopolitan of a new collective security system, and the League of Nations. Throughout the First World War to the Second World War, it becomes evidently clear that some cosmopolitan theories have been predominantly used to try the individuals such as, the Nazi leaders, for their crimes in the court of law. As a result, this led to the establishment of an individual criminal responsibility for the crimes against peace at Nuremberg despite the ex-post-facto legislation and the ‘victor’s justice’ argument against it. From this perspective, one could say that the international community was concerned more about the moral aspects of the Nazi war rather than its legal aspects because legally, its ex-post facto basis would have raised some legal problems on retroactivity of law. From this aspect, it would seem apparent that the international community considered the crimes of aggression the Nazis had committed against neighboring states to be moral crimes. The Nazis were punished for aggression not because the laws criminalizing aggression had been in force before then but because the international community had considered their actions to be morally reprehensible, according to international law.

However, while it is clear that aggression is a moral crime in international law, it has also been hard to define. Thus, the international community has concentrated on terms such as ‘threat to the peace’ or ‘breach of peace’ to determine cases against humanity or international security. Therefore, the unwillingness of international institutions, such as the United National (UN), to come to a clear definition as to what constitutes aggression in international law is an affront to the moral right of the nations and peoples that have had to fight off wars of aggression. It is imperative to agree on a clear definition of aggression as an international crime in the promotion of the moral goals of international peace and security.


From the essay, it seems apparent that aggression is a moral crime. Aggression refers to a war that is legally not justifiable, according to the international legal standards, while morals refer to what is acceptable in the community or not. Crime, on the other hand, refers to the acts that are contrary to laws, be they domestic or national. From this, it is apparent that aggression is a moral crime as it is not only an international crime punishable through several international conventions and statutes but also a morally reprehensible act, according to international standards. This is also apparent in that both the cosmopolitans and the communitarians find aggression reprehensible because it leads to the tramping of the states’ interests in the international arena. Furthermore, the lack of a clear definition of what constitutes aggression has led to the questions about whether pre-emptive wars are in fact, a way of justifying aggression, while self-defense is an inherent right for the nations in international relations, but what exactly constitutes such is not clear.


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