A Declaration of War is a formal declaration issued by a national government indicating that a state of war exists between that nation, and one or more others.

Table of contents
1 Declarations of war and international law
2 Recent History
3 Current declarations
4 Declarations of war in the United States
5 Declarations of War by Canada

Declarations of war and international law

In classical public international law a declaration of war entailed the recognition between countries of a state of hostilities between these countries and such declaration acted to regulate the conduct between the military engagements between the forces of the respective countries. In the twentieth century the concept of war has been gradually replaced with the authorized use of force as recognized under international norms. The League of Nations formed in 1919 in the wake of the First World War and the General Treaty for the Renunciation of War 1928 signed in Paris demonstrated that world powers were seriously seeking a means to prevent the carnage of the world war. However, these powers were unable to stop the Second World War and, thus, the United Nations System was put in place after that war in an attempt to prevent international aggression through a declaration of war. Due to these developments states that saw valid reasons for aggression against other states could undertake acts against aggressor states that may appear similar to the classical definition of war before the twentieth century; the justification of the use of state sponsored force could be found within the ambit of these developing international law norms. In many ways the 2003 Iraq War demonstrate the limits of such an approach in international law.

Recent History

Declarations of war have been acceptable means and diplomatic measures since the Renaissance, when the first formal declarations of war were issued. In most cases, however, declarations of war have been phased out as a diplomatic tool since the end of the Second World War, particularly in the case of the United States. Among other reasons, this is because the legal concept of a "state of war" brings with it many logistical complications involving the established laws of war and other complex political issues.

Current declarations

Currently, a few declarations of war remain in effect, although largely ignored and retained for only political purposes.

Declarations of war in the United States

Of the many conflicts waged by the United States, there have been six declared wars since the formal independence of the country.

There have been many conflicts fought by the United States without a declaration of war - but few have been long enough or formal enough to necessitate formal declarations. Among some of the major undeclared wars of the United States are the following ten conflicts.

Controversy regarding declarations of war in the United States

In nearly every case, particularly the ten listed above, public opposition has been shown to the prosecution of war without the formal approval of Congress. Particularly vehement objections were displayed during the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and The Second Gulf War. A small but vocal opposition even developed during the largely popular War Against Terrorism.

Those who oppose waging war without declaration point to Article I of the United States Constitution which reads, in part:

The Congress shall have the power... to declare war.

In the case of smaller conflicts not requiring large commitments of manpower and money, many Americans believe that precedents have already been set for acting without the need for declarations of war. In the case of major conflicts, however, debate is centered around the aforesaid words of the United States Constitution.

Those who believe that formal declarations of war are not necessary say that an absence of a formal declaration does not necessary mean that a military conflict will be chaotic and unlawful; in many cases the rules of war are now well enough accepted to make formal declarations unnecessary. There are also diplomatic reasons for a dislike of "declaring war" on a country, as it can often be perceived as holding an entire nation responsible for the actions of a few of its citizens. In the case of the most recent public opposition, those who support such actions have noted that, in the case of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, there was no 'target' for a legal declaration of war, rather political groups or individuals.

However, the historical record disagrees somewhat on this point. The Barbary Coast War was clearly waged against a political entity not regarded as the legitimate government of its nation of operation; the Border War, quietly declared as it was, was waged against a single person, Pancho Villa!

The U.S. War Powers Resolution

In 1973, following the withdrawal of most American troops from the Vietnam War, debate raged in the United States between those who supported declarations of war, and those who opposed them. A compromise was reached with the War Powers Resolution. This act clearly defined how many soldiers could be deployed, and for how long, by the president of the United States. It also required formal reports by the president to Congress regarding the status of such deployments, and limited the total amount of time that American forces could be employed without a formal declaration of war.

Although the constitutionality of the act has never been tested, for the most part it has been followed, most notably during the Grenada Conflict, the Panamanian Conflict, the Somalia Conflict, the First Gulf War, and the Second Gulf War. In each case, the President asserted the constitutional authority to commit troops without the necessity of Congressional approval, but in each case the President received Congressional authorization that satisfied the provisions of the War Powers Act.

Current status of the U.S. debate

Extremely heated debate developed in the United States beginning on or around September 11, 2001. A significant percentage of Americans were found by polls to favor formal declarations of war against the Taliban regime of Afghanistan and the Al Qaeda terror network; their requests were largely pushed aside as "uninformed" by the White House. They since began to argue that the recent Second Gulf War was unconstitutional, because it lacked a clear declaration of war, and was waged over the objection of a significantly sized minority in the United States.

Instead of formal war declarations, the United States Congress has begun issuing authorizations of force. Such authorizations have included the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that initated American participation in the Vietnam War, and the recent "Use-of-force" resolution that started the 2003 Gulf War. However, there is some question as to the legality of these authorization of force in some circles. Many who support declarations of war argue that such declarations keep administrations honest by forcing them to lay out their case to the American people, while at the same time honoring the constitutional role of the United States Congress.

Those who oppose this measure say that it only takes more time, and that more lives will be lost for the sake of a political formality. Americans should, they argue, support their presidents and question military actions only after the fact. Notably, those who oppose such activities without formal declaration include among them widows and veterans of most undeclared American wars. However, the courts have consistently refused to intervene in this matter, and in practice Presidents have the power to commit forces with Congressional approval but without a declaration of war.

Declarations of War by Canada