Sambaluk on Weisbord, 'Crime of Aggression: The Quest for Justice in an Age of Drones, Cyberattacks, Insurgents, and Autocrats'

Noah Weisbord
Nicholas Sambaluk

Noah Weisbord. Crime of Aggression: The Quest for Justice in an Age of Drones, Cyberattacks, Insurgents, and Autocrats. Human Rights and Crimes against Humanity Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. 272 pp. $35.00 (e-book), ISBN 978-0-691-19135-5; $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-691-16987-3.

Reviewed by Nicholas Sambaluk (Air University) Published on H-War (December, 2020) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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The book’s central message is that “if human society doesn’t choose law over war, we’ll be condemned to business as usual,” with grizzly implications (p. 177). Noah Weisbord’s thesis is that establishing and executing a widespread definition of the crime of aggression mark key steps in opting for law rather than war, and for Weisbord the imperative is that this crime be applied to culpable individuals rather than be comparatively amorphously applied to states. Such a dynamic would presumably help corral and deter egregious and aggressive actions by policymakers. 

The book acknowledges that “cynics” and other types of opponents will likely dismiss the advocated steps as being doomed to frustration or counterproductive compromise, although the author seems only episodically willing to concede the validity of this point and instead frequently exhibits a suspicion that outright opponents try to mimic cynics. It should be noted that the book advocates bold and idealistic policies; bold idealism is by its nature bound to encounter difficulties that can lead to frustration. Unfortunately, that frustration constitutes the most notable shortcoming of this book. The author’s passion for the subject frequently bleeds into frustration and occasionally into a barely contained rage. Benjamin Ferencz, a Nuremberg prosecutor and longtime advocate of criminalizing aggression, is a friend of the author, and his story and perspective repeatedly enter the book’s pages to provide Weisbord with an avenue for voicing outrage at states showing haphazard and even hypocritical positions in relation to this goal. The quest to combat the blood-soaked immorality of military-political aggression understandably fuels passion for the subject. High stakes bring the author to decry the aggressive monsters of history, such as Hermann Goering, and likewise to despise cynical and sanguinary practitioners of realpolitik, like former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Weisbord opens and closes the book with hard critiques of Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump; while expressing distaste for Obama’s “negotiating the law,” the author reserves much more powerful venom for the criticisms of Obama’s predecessor and successor presidents in connection with the book’s subject (p. 11)

In both opening and closing the book with this perspective simultaneously advertises the author’s political perspective while also emphasizing the recent past (and implicitly the near future). This is in keeping with the spirit of a book that must be considered essentially a call to arms—an accurate if paradoxical term—on behalf of ending aggression. The middle of the book can be considered a basically chronological path through the twentieth century. After noting the failure of the League of Nations, the author presents the Nuremberg trials as a shining example of the promise of international law. The Cold War represents for the author a dark period marked by hypocrisy, and the first post-Cold War years reflect a resurgence of the ideals of Nuremberg and a time in which halting and incrementally negotiated conferences could bring the international community lurching in a direction more in keeping with the criminalization of aggression that the author advocates. 

Historians will notice that Weisbord selects examples more than he traces events; thus, on page 11, counterterrorism through the first five years of Obama’s presidency are erased in a single sentence that fast-forwards from the close of the Bush presidency in 2008 to the ISIS advance through Syria and Iraq 2014. The study of the Cold War hangs in the air, and a critique of the UN General Assembly’s definition of aggression in 1974 and a two-page summary of the illicit atomic proliferator A. Q. Khan is left to fill the void of the last fifteen years of the Cold War. On multilateral foreign involvement in African wars (for example, Angola), the complex issues of Cold War South America, and other events that might seem relevant to a survey of Cold War-era aggression and criminality, the book is surprisingly silent.

It might be said that the book manages to make as forceful a point as possible, given that the subject matter inspires passion and that passion runs in the face of events and precipitates frustration. Criminalizing aggression, and the prospect of holding leaders personally responsible for aggressive acts, is fraught with difficulty but nonetheless beckons those anticipating meaningful and lasting human progress.

Citation: Nicholas Sambaluk. Review of Weisbord, Noah, Crime of Aggression: The Quest for Justice in an Age of Drones, Cyberattacks, Insurgents, and Autocrats. H-War, H-Net Reviews. December, 2020. URL:

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