I have seen in quite a few answers here, and in general on the internet about the theory of "proportionate response" - in context of activities that nations do against other nations.

I'd like to know more about this theory. Did some specific person on a foreign policy post coin this term or did it, just, originate on the internet by observations? Are there "quite a few" examples where there was a proportionate response from the defensive side? Is this a modern theory or has been around since a long time? Lastly, are there any studies on this that I could refer to?

  • See also the third episode of The West Wing, which involves discussions of this subject. Commented Sep 27, 2022 at 13:06
  • Do you mean in the use of force? Commented Sep 27, 2022 at 13:22
  • @Fizz The concept is new to me. I'd like to know - In the use of force, or in general - what all does "proportional response" encompass?
    – whoisit
    Commented Sep 27, 2022 at 16:22

1 Answer 1


The concept of proportionality has existed for a very long time the Code of Hammurabi is famous for "an eye for an eye" that establishes proportionality for punishment of a crime. Applying this concept to international relations is more recent, but less consistent, might makes right has essentially always been the primary international relation rule. The Lieber Code is essentially the precursor to the Geneva conventions that sets a lot a of wartime proportionality rules for the modern era.

The main focus of proportionate response is limiting damage to civilians. From this you can extrapolate a few things, like responding to a single jet violating airspace with a nuclear launch isn't acceptable. The rule is a rough ratio of how many civilians can be killed/injured in achieving a strategic objective, the more strategic value the more collateral is acceptable. Another big focus is protection of those who surrendered/prisoners of war, torturing or killing them is unacceptable. Prisoners should also be released at the end of a war, so if there isn't active conflict imprisoning another country's soldiers would be viewed poorly (likely considered kidnapping or extortion).

It's less documented, but another consideration in proportionality is that more powerful nations need to be more tolerant of less powerful nations. Examples here would be much of the Israel/Palestine conflict, with Israel frequently criticized for responses to near constant threats and attacks. Another example would be the US and North Korea with the Pueblo incident and axe murder incident.

  • 2
    This answer concentrates on use of force but the idea of proportionate response exists in other areas. For example if country A imposes tariffs on goods from country B then country B will sometimes impose retaliatory tariffs with an approximately equal value. This is considered a proportionate responses, as opposed to upping the ante.
    – Eric Nolan
    Commented Sep 28, 2022 at 9:10

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