The Paradox of Power: The Changing Norms of the Modern Battlefield

44 Pages Posted: 28 May 2019

Date Written: May 10, 2019


We live in a paradox of power: our capabilities of inflicting destruction through military means are unparalleled in human history; yet, for liberal democracies, contemporary military practices are the most restrained they have ever been, at least as far as effects of military operations on civilians go.

This article describes the ways in which laws, norms, and technology have come together to produce the paradox of power. It begins with the observation that the international laws that govern resort to force by states (the jus ad bellum) have had only limited effect on states’ initiation or continuation of war, including by liberal democracies. Yet, the international laws that govern the conduct of war (the jus in bello), in combination with prevailing norms and advanced technology, have had substantial effects on how liberal democracies fight their wars. The combination of ongoing, open-ended wars that are harder to fight while complying with contemporary norms of warfare produce a set of unique challenges for liberal democracies.

The article consider possible trends that might change the paradox of power, as well as the longer-term implications of the current state of affairs. Ultimately, the article reiterates the importance of asking questions about why we go to war, of restoring jus ad bellum question, even if we have been able to make significant progress on the jus in bello.

Keywords: jus ad bellum, jus in bello, international humanitarian law, distinction, proportionality, technology, weapons, victory

Suggested Citation

Blum, Gabriella, The Paradox of Power: The Changing Norms of the Modern Battlefield (May 10, 2019). Houston Law Review, Vol. 56, 2019. Available at SSRN:

Gabriella Blum (Contact Author)

Harvard Law School ( email )

1575 Massachusetts
Hauser 406
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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