The Ethics of Remote Warfare


The Fourth Chatham House-McDonald Centre Colloquium on Issues in International Affairs was held on 1 February 2013.

There is growing interest in the potential of cyber capabilities, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and ‘autonomous’ weapons to revolutionise the way we wage war. As parts of a military arsenal these capabilities can be deployed to deter, to make pre-emptive strikes, and to reduce the need for large armed forces. However, these remarkable developments in military technology raise novel and difficult ethical questions, for which traditional just war thinking lacks ready answers:

  • When does cyber-aggression constitute ‘war’? What kinds of retaliation are proportionate?
  • Does the mere presence of a terrorist change a peaceful territory into a war-zone and justify the aggressive use of UAVs across the borders of a sovereign state?
  • When may we use UAVs to carry out assassinations?
  • Is remote warfare ‘unchivalrous’?
  • Are military personnel safely removed from the battlefield more likely to take disproportionate risks?
  • What does it do to the moral characters of military personnel to conduct warfare in a manner virtually indistinguishable from playing a video-game?
  • How ‘autonomous’ are programmed weapons? Can they


    Who is responsible for their operation?

Under the Chatham House Rule, the identities of those present may not be revealed, but participants included scholars of international relations, politics, philosophy, and theology, as well as leaders in the intelligence community.

After Libya: A Responsibility to Protect?

Last week, in an ongoing collaboration between Chatham House and the McDonald Centre, top scholars and other experts investigated the ethics of humanitarian intervention in a one-day colloquium entitled, After Libya: The Ethics of Military Intervention Revisited.

Because the event was held under the Chatham House Rule, the full list of participants is confidential, but one of the observers posted this account of the day. Much of the the discussion concerned a newly-emerging, but also controversial, norm in international relations called Responsibility to Protect (usually abbreviated R2P). This concept was compared to other approaches to military intervention, such as just war and human rights, especially in light of the recent conflict in Libya.

The programme for the event is available here.

Biggar Debates Iraq War

Before a crowd of nearly 200 at Chatham House, Nigel Biggar debated the justice of the Iraq War with David Fisher of King’s College, London. Numerous Members of Parliament who had served during the lead-up to the war joined the discussion, as well as high-ranking civil servants who had themselves contributed to the decision to join the war. The debate was introduced by the military historian, Sir Michael Howard, and chaired by Paul Cornish of Chatham House. The debate was sponsored by the Council of Christian Approaches to Disarmament.

You can learn more about Biggar’s take on the war in a recent issue of International Affairs. An upcoming issue of that journal will include a revised version of the debate.

How May We Keep Ourselves Safe?

Are there ethics for spies? Are there limits to how we may keep ourselves safe? These were among the questions discussed at a recent private colloquium, hosted by the McDonald Centre, entitled, How May We Keep Ourselves Safe? The Ethics of Intelligence Gathering.

There is widespread public recognition of the importance of intelligence work in keeping us safe. The intelligence services enable the government to promote national security, now defined as the management of risk so as to sustain confidence that normal life can continue. But there is at the same time public concern that the work of the services brings with it ethical hazards and dilemmas, both in the methods used by those services and in the impact of their work on our privacy. The mistreatment of detainees by our US ally, and the standards of interrogation and detainment in many countries who may possess intelligence of value to our national safety at home, have raised difficult questions which threaten to compromise public trust in our intelligence services. At the same time the moral issues surrounding transparency and openness on the part of government receives little attention in the discussion of Wikileaks or of court actions concerning secret intelligence.

The colloquium brought together a stellar body of 35 senior members of the UK and US intelligence services, academic ethicists, and journalists to discuss these issues. The event was co-sponsored by Chatham House, the nation’s premier institute for international affairs, and made possible with the support of Digital Barriers.

Debate: Was Iraq an Unjust War?

bookshotOn Tuesday, 22 March, Nigel Biggar will debate Dr David Fisher on the question, Was Iraq an Unjust War? at Chatham House, London. Professor Sir Michael Howard will introduce the debate. The event is presented by Chatham House, the nation’s premier institute for international affairs, as well as Oxford University Press and the Council on Christian Approaches to Defense. A drinks reception will follow.

The event will also mark the launch of Dr Fisher’s book, Morality and War: Can War Be Just in the Twenty-First Century?, copies of which will be available at a discount.

For full details or to RSVP, visit the event page at Chatham House. To attend, please RSVP by 21 February.

Getting Our Way: The Ethics of National Interest

On 5 February, the McDonald Centre hosted a remarkable colloquiuim on national interest and foreign policy. Inspired by Sir Christopher Meyer’s book, Getting Our Way, the colloquiuim was co-sponsored with the Royal Institute for International Relations at Chatham House and the Oxford Institute for Ethics, Law, and Armed Conflict. Meyer, who was formerly HM’s Ambassador to the United States, is currently presenting on the topic in a new BBC series. If you missed the broadcast, you can watch the full series online via BBC iPlayer

The title of the book and TV programme—Getting Our Way—can be seen as one symptom of the current lurch away from liberal idealism back toward realism in foreign policy. The post-invasion woes of Iraq are widely held to have writ large the imprudent and hubristic folly of trying to ‘save the world’ for liberal democracy, and to counsel more modest and self-regarding ambitions in the future. Participants at the McDonald Centre colloquium discussed, in light of this, whether this means an end to an ethical foreign policy. Must the new realism be brutally selfish? Or are we forever fated to bounce back and forth between absolutist Kant and cynical Hobbes, or can national self-interest itself be morally obligatory?

In addition to Meyer, participants included professors from Oxford, Chatham House, the LSE, and St Andrew’s (Nigel Biggar, Paul Cornish, Gwyn Prins, and Nick Rengger), Major General Tim Cross (ret), and Jeremy Hill, former ambassador to Lithuania and Bulgaria, as well as others from the Foreign & Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defense. The day’s programme is available here.