Does one nation have any obligation to help another?

I received the following questions via email:

Does one nation ever have any obligation to come to the defense of another? If so, how do we determine who the true aggressor is? How do we limit our involvement so that we are not totally stretched beyond our limits to help? What criteria do we use to determine when we have an obligation to help? Or do we ever have an obligation to help? If so, what sort of help do we provide. Are we ever called onto step into the fray?

Is it reasonable to ask the questions of nations?  Yes.  and no.  States often act like, and are discussed like individuals.  “The US joined the war with Britain against Nazi Germany” aka “Uncle Sam joined the fight with Bob against Grant”.  It is easy to discuss the fates of nations as if they were individuals.  These generalities are OK to use, but to be accurate it is best to say “The US Government joined the war against the Nazi Germany Government”.  Else we can fall into the trap and think that the term “The US” applies to all Americans.  It’s too specific, and not all Americans were pro-war or participated in supporting the war effort.  Same applies to the Germans.

Humans act.  It’s part of our nature.  State’s cannot act, and it isn’t part of their nature.  Humans can act within States, but it is human action none-the-less.  Despite the above generalities, there is no such thing as a State Action.  There are actions done by individuals.

If States cannot act, then the leaders have to act themselves to encourage or force individual actions.  The draft forces individuals to take up arms in response to a fear (say the nation was attacked: Pearl Harbor) or concern (help a country: Israel,Iraq,Somalia,…) that the leaders have.  Note that I say the ‘leaders’ and not ‘the State’ as State’s can’t fear or have concerns either.  However, one of the primary issues with the draft occurs when an individual doesn’t want to fight – he feels that he is either not in danger, is a pacifist, or doesn’t have the same level of concern.  If States can’t act then it comes back down to individual morals.  Is it moral then for one person – a leader – to then force another person to fight?

Or to be more general:  Can the obligation of “love thy neighbor” extend to Person A forcing Neighbor B to love neighbor C in a way that Person A approves of?

To me the answer is no, but I think I am in the minority in my answer.


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