Borderlands e-journal logo All issues all issues Guidelines rollover Guidelines for contributors
Debates rollover About rollover About borderlands e-journal
Reviews Reviews rollover Editorial team rollover Editorial team
out of evil Arrow vol 4 no 3 contents
About borderlands Volume 4 Number 3, 2005



Locating Evil

Stephen Chan, Out of Evil: New International Politics and Old Doctrines of War, 
London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2005.

Jacinta O'Hagan
Australian National University


1. Upon what quest did the US and the West so speedily embark in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001, asks Stephen Chan in this short, complex but thought provoking essay (2005: viii). In his answer he compounds the War on Terror with the concept of the Axis of Evil to answer that they embarked upon a War on Evil. This book is about many things, but at its heart it is a book about demonisation: about the theological premises that underpin demonisation; about the strategic and political implications of demonisation; and about the dangerous reductionism and reification that demonisation facilitates. Chan poses many questions to us in this book, commencing with what sort of war is the war on evil and how is it being fought? Secondly how is evil being defined and what are the implications of defining the enemy as evil?   Related to this is a third set of questions of how do we define what is good?

2. The central argument of the book is that while the international situation has undergone rapid change in recent decades, the US' way of war has not:   it is still based on the projection of massive technological power over a territorial enemy. Chan argues that the drive to develop war as a scientific endeavour underpinned US strategic thinking in the Cold War era making this the only form of strategic thinking available to the US post 9/11. This meant it had no clear strategy to confront a deterritorialised enemy until it was able to 'locate' this intangible enemy in particular places and persons - in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and in the Axis of Evil - against which the US and its allies could then apply or threaten its full weight of scientific and technological might.

3. At another level however, Chan suggests there is something distinctly different about the US way of war in so far as there has been a shift in the way in which the enemy is perceived and understood. Chan argues that during the Cold War, while the Soviet Union may have been described as 'the evil empire' the concept of evil never eclipsed the arms race or strategic planning based on assumptions of rationality, 'it was never enough to say the enemy is a devil, the enemy is evil' (2005: 12) In today's war, the enemy is now perceived as the embodiment of evil manifest in certain leaders and states that are perceived as intrinsically evil. There are of course many precedents for the demonisation of the enemy, not only during the Crusades or the Wars of Religion in Europe, but also during the Second World War where the genocide of the Nazi regime in Germany has been understood as a manifestation of evil (Arendt, 1963). In this respect it is interesting to note the frequent analogies drawn between the totalitarian regimes of the Second World War and today's representation of evil, be they Al Quaeda, Saddam Hussein or the current regime in North Korea. In fact, the casting of the enemy as tyrannical, totalitarian and opposed to freedom and democracy is becoming increasingly pronounced in this rhetoric (see for instance Blair 2006; Bush 2006a; 2006b).

4. In conclusion, Chan calls for an awareness of complexity and plurality in world politics. He calls for understanding of the complex traditions and historical experiences that shape the polities of the 'Axis of Evil' states, and of the complex ideas and emotions from which both the War on Terror and the resistance to it draw. He seeks to demonstrate, for instance, that radical Islamism draws on both interpretations of Islamic thought but also on Third Worldism in its conception of bi-furcated world order of oppressors and oppressed. Similarly in a somewhat enigmatic passage he links the practice of suicide bombings with radical interpretations of martyrdom as a form of revolutionary warfare.

5. Two of the most interesting aspects of this book are Chan's efforts to trace the emergence of the Manichean tradition in both Judeo-Christian and Islamic thinking that provide the foundations for conceptions of dualistic world order divided between good and evil, one that pits the self against an irredeemable other. Chan argues the US has linked this perception of the other as innately evil with conventional strategic thinking to produce a strategy of 'full spectrum warfare' to confront and roll back evil, a 'cosmic war'. As Mark Juergensmeyer notes, viewing a conflict as a cosmic war facilitates 'strong claims of moral justification and an enduring absolutism that transforms worldly struggles into sacred battles'. But once enemies have become 'satanized', 'one cannot negotiate with them or easily compromise' (Juergensmeyer, 2002: 2). To reify others as irredeemably evil therefore reduces the potential for dialogue and ratchets up the risks of confrontation. As Chan suggests this strategy of demonisation is therefore particularly dangerous in exacerbating the risks of major confrontation with, for instance, a nuclear North Korea that has in the past shown a capacity and willingness to directly engage the US.

6, A second important issue raised by Chan concerns the nature and the ethics of the War on Evil: is this a just war? Here Chan focuses in particular on the ethics of the first and second wars fought between the US and its allies and Iraq. When analyzed through classic just war parameters, this entail asking: were/are these wars just in terms of being fought for a just cause? Were they fought in a just manner? And did they lead to a just peace settlement? Chan answers that the first conflict fought in response to the invasion of Kuwait, endorsed by the UN and a wide range of states, and which was constrained in its objectives, fits more easily within the parameters of a just war. In contrast the 'justness' of the current Iraq war, both in terms of just cause and just outcome, is deeply contested.

7. As intriguing, perhaps, is Chan's further question: even if this war is not a 'just' war, is it a moral war? Here he engages again with the issue of the degree to which the perception of the other as evil rewrites the rules of engagement.   As he notes, 'the second war was premised on an ethical argument: better to contain evil now than to face it after it has gained strength in the future'. (2005: 77). This raises several questions: when is it moral and just to act to contain or eliminate evil? Should we act to prevent the recurrence of evil or the worsening of its effects? To what extent does seeing the other as evil mitigate the norms of sovereignty and non-interference that in other circumstance govern international relations and underpin international law? And how may we act in pursuit of the containment or eradication of evil? These are not easy questions to answer. What criteria do we use to judge the ethics of intervention in Kosovo in response to the 'evil' of ethnic cleansing in comparison to the ethical arguments forwarded to justify the invasion of Iraq on the grounds of the 'evil' of Saddam Hussein regime? (Both were undertaken without UN sanction.)

8. Michael Ignatieff has also reflected on this issue in his recent works on political ethics of responses to terrorism: 'What lesser evils may a society commit when it believes it faces the greater evil of its own destruction?' he asks (Ignatieff, 2004: 1). He responds that whilst it presents its own 'moral hazards' the choice of the 'lesser evil', such as some measure of coercion or constraints upon liberty may be justified as a last resort in the face of a 'greater evil'. This adds a slightly different twist to Chan's discussion. Ignatieff remands us that not only do we face the issue of confronting the evil of others, but also a choice of doing evil ourselves in the face of such threats. As Chan ruminates, 'how do much good outweighs how much bad?' (2005: 128). Are the other 'Axis of Evil' states judged sufficiently evil as to warrant waging war along with the consequences of pain death that war entails?

9. Chan suggests the 'moral hazards' have to some extent been obfuscated in a discourse of US foreign policy, articulated by scholars such as Robert Kagan, that identifies US power as a force for the good. That which is accomplished with US power, therefore, is good: thus 'power justifies the good because it is only power that allows the vocation of good to be exercised. [...] Good that is not spread abroad as an international vocation is itself powerless' (2005: 129). We have seen this argument reiterated in recent statements by President Bush and Prime Minster Blair justifying the ongoing involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan as a strategy of responsible engagement as opposed to pursing the 'false comfort of isolationism' (Bush, 2006a). They continue to argue that failing to act to counter the evil and extremism will allow evil and chaos to flourish (Bush 2006a; 2006b; Blair 2006).

10. The strength of this book is that it ranges widely. Chan notes in his preface that it is not an academic text, but more a 'cook's tour' of some of the central complexities of contemporary world politics, complexities that interweave multiple discourses of theology strategy, philosophy and politics. He presumes little or no knowledge of international relations or of strategic thinking. Thus he provides us with quick studies and potted histories of Afghanistan, Iraq, the Iranian revolution, of strategic thinking in the Cold War, and the complexities of radical Islamic thought, as well as synopses of the End of History and the Clash of Civilizations debates, and of Kagan on the transatlantic rift. This is in addition to an analysis of the likely outcome of the pursuit of the War on Terror against the 'Axis of Evil' states. Seeking to fuse this range of information with the complex debates outlined above is an ambitious task.

11. The weakness of this book is also that it ranges widely and covers a great deal of ground in a very short space. The links between different aspects of the book become attenuated at times, the shifts in focus a little hard to follow. Whilst the preface is excellent in sketching out the book's principal concerns, Chan then leaves the reader to do quite a lot of work sorting through the brief but wide ranging background material and linking it to the analysis and argument. The book is therefore a little uneven, sometimes giving us too much to digest too quickly. It would have benefited from more lucid unpacking of the argument throughout its narrative development.

12. At the same time, what Chan has put before us here is an immensely important argument regarding the appropriate and ethical use of force. He asks us to consider in depth the implications of casting the current tensions and conflicts in world politics as a war on evil and challenges to consider the ethical, political and military implications of this move. I am not sure that Chan provides us with a solution for the ethical dilemmas we face in dealing with issues such as terrorism, but he certainly prompts us to pause and reflect in depth.


Jacinta O’Hagan is a Fellow in the Department of International Relations at the Australian National University, and Academic Co-ordinator for the Peace and Conflict Specialization in the Graduate Studies in International Affairs Program. She is author of Conceptions of the West in International Relations Thought: From Oswald Spengler to Edward Said (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2002). She also co-edited with Greg Fry, Contending Images of World Politics (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000).


Arendt, Hannah ( 1963)   Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on The Banality of Evil London: Faber & Faber.

Blair, Tony (2006) 'Tony Blair's Speech to the Foreign Policy Centre, March 21, 2006' Guardian Unlimited,,,329439513-111381,00.html. Accessed 22 March, 2006.

Bush, George W. (2006a) President Bush Delivers State of the Union Address United States Capitol, Washington, D.C. . Accessed 27 March, 2006.

Bush, George W. (2006b) President Discusses War on Terror and Operation Iraqi Freedom Renaissance Cleveland Hotel Cleveland, Ohio, . Accessed 24 March, 2006.

Ignatieff, Michael (2004) The Lesser Evil: Political Ethics in an Age of Terror Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Juergensmeyer, Mark ( 2002) 'Religious Terror and Global War' Paper 2, 2002, Global   & International Studies Program, University of California, Santa Barbara.

© borderlands ejournal 2005



To top of page to top of page spacer
ISSN 1447-0810