Republics and the war-making power

Republics and the war-making power

In view of the militry carrying out Trump’s order to kill an Iranian general, I thought I would weigh in on the issue of the war-making power historically by republics.

I don’t have much to add to the substance of the immediate debate. Killing an Iranian general was certainly an act of war. It was also a big escalation on the US side. At the same time, the US’s economic blockade of Iran, which it has been attempting to enforce against third parties as well, has been if not an act of war itself, at least tiptoeing up to the very line. Similarly, Iran’s conducting of low-grade hostilities by proxies against the US has also really been an act of war. So I’m not sure that the line-crossing is as bright as it may appear at first blush.

That being said, it seems obvious that the consequences of the strike were not well-thought out, and there almost certainly is no strategic follow-up plan.

Additionally – and what I want to focus on here – is that also almost certainly, there was no imminent emergency requiring immediate action by the President rather than consultation with an approval by the Congress, as mandated by, you know, the Constitution. This event has been at least equal to the most blatant usurpation of Congress’s power in decades (Reagan’s reprisals against Libya and George HW Bush’s capture of Noriega in Panama were probably in the same league).

This got me to thinking: how historically have republics vested their war making power? Since recently I’ve read two books on the Roman Republic, histories of medieval Venice and Genoa, and am now reading about the Dutch Republic, that’s something I can contribute — because their systems had a common theme.


Simply put, none of the four allowed the Executive, even when that Executive commanded armies as well, to go to war of their own accord.

In the Roman Republic, it was the Senate that decided whether or not to go to war. Only once that decision was made did the Senate assign a consul (or a praetor) a theatre of action to command.

In Venice, it was the Arengo or Great Council that decided whether or not to go to war. Only then would the Doge or other citizens or mercenaries be assigned command.

In Genoa, it was the Commune that decided whether or not to go to war. Only then would the consul, doge, or podesta (the executive at various stages of the Republic) be authorized to command himself, or assign command to others, to make war.

In the Netherlands, it was the States General that decided whether or not to go to war. Only then would the Stadthouder(s) be authorized to take action.

Why? It helps to think of young republics in particular as merchant, profit-making enterprises (if you are an aficionado of Star Trek, the Ferengi would be precisely on point).  Unless there are compensating gains in territory and/or booty, wars are a strain on a society’s resources. Whereas monarchs would make war for personal aggrandizement, with only secondary thought about their realm’s resources, for republics the economic loss and benefit calculations were very much in their forefront of thought (here I have to make the important exception of the crusades, which Venice and Genoa participated in primarily for religious reasons, although when the crusades were successful, trading opportunities certainly did open up).

So republics generally have been careful to ensure that wars of aggression were only undertaken where there was a clear benefit to the State. Recall that we also seen that when that broke down – when the executive functioned as commander of their own private army in the late Roman Republic – the republic did not last that much longer. Similarly, in the Dutch Republic the Stadthouders of the House of Orange, in their quest to become monarchs (briefly successful before the line died out) engaged in a protracted struggle for war-making power against the States General.

The last example is especially noteworthy because supposedly it was the Dutch Stadthouder that was the model for the US Presidency as envisioned by the founders. And just as in the Netherlands, the Executive has engaged in a protracted struggle with the Congress to arrogate the power to itself.

An Executive which can make war on its own accord is going to think much more of their personal glory and benefit than the economic gain or loss to the State. And that is exactly what we have seen in the past week. Needless to say, such an Executive is a danger to the republic.

If I were re-founding the republic, I think I might vest the emergency commander-in-chief powers to go to war, rather than with the President, with the Senate majority leader, who would have proven themselves as a shrewd political calculator, and would be thinking about their status within the Senate. In the meantime, to restore its authority it will require that the Congress successfully impeach and remove at least one President for arrogation of the war-making power.

Now wouldn’t be a bad time to start.

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