Preemptive War: The International Context and a Case for Peace
Daniel Ostermueller L-SAW 2006
The world in which we
live is defined largely by the interactions of sovereign states, which have
dominated the international arena for the past 350 years, as well as other
actors that are gaining influence, such as Non-Governmental Organizations
(NGOs) and transnational criminal networks. All such actors possess
relationships that are constantly evolving due to the desired roles pursued by each
and changes in the way in which information is communicated. Recently,
historical events and responses to those events have brought a particular
policy, which is neither new nor unique to these times, to the forefront of
ethical consideration worldwide: preemptive war. It poses a fairly obvious
dilemma to the international community: how can states come to an agreement with
regard to their desire to avoid falling victim of an attack by an aggressor
while still condemning aggression?
This paper seeks to address this dilemma by conditioning preemption in such a
way that will promote peace and increase the legitimacy of the international
By allowing a
specifically-worded provision for preemptive war, while adamantly rejecting the
practice of preventive war, the international community will be charged with
distinguishing between the two. States that pose potential threats would be
referred to the international community for consideration, rather than be
subjected to a preventive strike. This will alleviate the self-fulfilling
prophecy of potential threats evolving into actual threats due to their fear of
intervention. Further, the allowance of states to preempt a determined
attacker will allay the fear of many states that a display of complete restraint
will be perceived by rogue states as weakness and indifference to
transgression. Preemptive war is based on a combination of self-defense and
awareness of other states' actions. Its acceptance can create a compromise
between those who refuse to be left vulnerable and those who do not wish to
enable the international system to devolve into one in which those who strike
first possess all of the power. Later in this paper, the United States' "preemptive" war against Iraq will be discussed in this light. By refusing to commit
aggression without giving up military force as the last possible option, states
will be forced to work together and share information. In turn, a context will
develop in which they all possess the same rights and commit to the same
policies. This in turn will lead to a level of interconnectedness that makes
war even less likely and the achievement of total peace much more likely.
First and foremost, an
important distinction must be made between preemptive war and preventive war.
Preemptive war is an extension of a state's right to defend itself-an
unchallenged facet of international law-and if it possesses credible evidence
of an imminent threat, it should not be expected to wait for the transgression
to materialize. Preventive war, on the other hand, involves action against a
potential threat that has not shown a clear intent to wage an offensive attack.
Both require a judgment with regard to a rival state, but differ with regard to
the interpretation of timing. The question separating the two is whether a
state is in the process of planning an attack now, or if it might attack in the
future. And this discussion is focused on states' actions due to the fact that
the international system still treats states as the primary actors. Wide-spread
promotion of international cooperation is determinate on states' willingness to
concede most of their autonomous decision-making rights with regard to warfare.
One point of
clarification is necessary here. The largest arena that currently exists for
states to convene and discuss issues affecting the international community is
the United Nations. Therefore, most discussions centered around improving
global cooperation focus on the U.N. as a clear example of increased
interaction among states, as well as for its potential to be a much more
influential actor. Many look to the U.N. as a guide for international behavior
and a bastion of international law. While this paper's focus is on the
international system as a general conception and does not seek to promote the
U.N. specifically, its influence as a justificatory guide to states is
With this in mind,
a very peculiar trend has arisen in which supporters of preemptive war have
cited the U.N. charter's provision allowing states to defend themselves from
aggression as a justification for preemption.
While this point is logically sound, as per the definition of preemption above,
the U.N. charter specifically defines defense as a response to an attack:
"Nothing in the present charter shall impair the inherent right of individual
or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United
Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain
international peace and security."
Thus, while the U.N. specifically prohibits preventive war in the same chapter
as the above quote, the phrase, "if an armed attack," demonstrates that the
U.N. also does not authorize preemptive action.
Just War: Articulating
The case for preemption
is largely an extension of Just War Theory, particularly with regard to jus ad
bellum, or the determination whether to engage in war. According to James
Turner Johnson, jus ad bellum is based on seven points of moral criterion: possessing
a just cause, a competent authority, and a right intention, with a reasonable
hope of success, the use of overall proportionality of good over harm, using
war as a last resort, and operating with the goal of peace.
He further emphasizes the first three points, separating them, which dictate
when war is just, from the subsequent four points, determining how the war is
to be initiated. Just cause is the basis for mobilizing both ideological and
physical attributes in the context of an injustice that has occurred. Just War
Theory, in turn, is based upon the notion that states should always strive for
a system that promotes justice and punishes violations of accepted behavioral
standards, without using others' injustice as a justification for aggression as
a response. This is how right intention goes hand in hand with just cause. Of
course, these decisions cannot be made by themselves and therefore the
government, which is charged with representing the will of its citizenry, must
act prudently with its decisions regarding violations of justice and
Justice in the
international system is highlighted further by the frequently cited Michael
Walzer, whose name has become synonymous with the distinctions between just and
unjust reasons to mobilize for war. He has argued that there exists an
international society of states that is governed by the laws of territorial
integrity and political sovereignty. The use of force or imminent threat of
force constitutes aggression and a violation of the society's laws, thereby
justifying a war of self-defense by the victim and a war of law enforcement by
the rest of the society. Therefore, the only justification for war is
The implications from this argument are clear: whenever there is a war, it is
inherently unjust, because it had been instigated by one side whose own justification
can never be adequate. When confronted by an aggressor, a state is then
enabled to engage in violence, since conceptions of international justice have
been ignored and the integrity of the state's institutions and the lives of its
people are at stake.
these articulations of justice in the international system have not become
obsolete. Aggressive states have mobilized against others throughout history
and the current world order is not devoid of animosity, greed, nor paranoia
amplified by the apocalyptic destructiveness of modern weaponry. Just War
Theory's parameters are confining and it is virtually impossible to ever
determine the true motives of any state that goes to war, even if it publicly declares
that it is abiding by the outlined specifications. The importance of Just War
Theory lies in the fact that human beings have a right to live and states are
charged with allowing that right to exist. Despite the pleasant analogies
relating states to pieces on a chessboard moving back and forth, war is
gruesome and destructive-both of human lives and the environments in which
humans live. Without falling into a uselessly simple dichotomy of good versus
evil, Just War Theory simply reinforces the human right to live, while revoking
that same right from murderous attackers. In doing so, Just War Theory is
staking out a claim in between the realists, who believe war should not be
counted out from possible strategic considerations, and the pacifists, who
believe that war is wrong regardless of the terms in which it began or operates.
The international system embodies that distinction, favoring those who are
attacked rather than ignoring the transgressions of murders.
In this light,
preemptive war is a simple extension of the logic embodied in Just War Theory,
as described above. If another state is in the process of mobilizing its
military for the purpose of an attack, then that action is tantamount to a
declaration of war.
Though a preemptive strike against such an aggressor will result in the
victimized country physically firing the first bullet, that state is not the
one responsible for starting the war. Though absent from the current U.N.
charter, self-defense does not require a victim to be brutalized, but rather credibly
threatened. The doctrine of preemption is consistent with the morality behind
Just War Theory, in which the life of a victim is given greater weight than the
life of the one trying to take another's life away.
In order to be
effective, though, preemptive war must be defined clearly and with adequate
regard given to its moral implications. Being that the goal outlined in this
paper is peace achieved through increased international cooperation, we can
look at policy implications from a Kantian perspective, with his cosmopolitan
focus elevated from the level of the individual to the level of the state.
Therefore, preemptive war must be defined in such a way that all states can
accept its implications in practice as well as in theory. If there is not a
clear consensus, the result will not be a system based on equal understanding,
but rather a system defined by mistrust and malcontent. Preemptive war must
only be undertaken when there is direct knowledge of an attack within a narrow
enough timeframe that a referral to international scrutiny is impossible-days
and weeks, not years. Also, the intention must be on neutralizing the threat
and not attempting to categorically alter the structure of the aggressive
state. Attempting such action would drift back into preventive war territory,
which must be adamantly opposed by the international system. Instead, rogue
states should be dealt with from a diplomatic perspective first and foremost,
with a consensus opinion of the society of states determining its fate.
Perfect Information Problem
There are two
significant dilemmas that arise from the promotion of a doctrine of
preemption. The first is the problem of imperfect information: can a state
ever be completely sure of another state's actions? Even an attempt to ground
this issue from a theoretical perspective, this is not an easy task. Neta C.
Crawford articulates this well when she writes that
is a fine balance to be struck. The threshold of evidence and warning cannot
be too low, where simple apprehension that a potential adversary might be out
there somewhere and may be acquiring the means to do [a state] harm triggers
the offensive use of force...On the other hand, the threshold of evidence and
warning cannot be so high that those who might be about to do harm get so
advanced in their preparations that they cannot be stopped."
The issue of determining the true
motivations of an alleged "rouge state" is extremely difficult. Clearly, if a
state has malicious intentions, it is in its interest to mask those intentions
until the last possible instant before it wishes to wage an attack. No leader
wants to be held responsible for allowing his/her people to be attacked,
especially when preceded by steps towards armament. If there is an error to be
made, would it not be in a state's self-interest to err on preventing harm
rather than to allow its own victimization?
However, this line
of reasoning would serve to justify preventive war-if there is a potential
threat, the harm that could come to the victim's citizens supersedes any rights
possessed by the rogue state. This may seem convenient to one state as it
determines its own strategic objectives, but it sets a horrifying precedent
when applied across the board to every state. The international system is
still largely defined by tension, distrust, and animosity. Shooting first and
asking questions later cannot become the norm in international diplomacy.
Crawford writes that "the psychological reassurance promised by a preventive
offensive war doctrine is at best illusory, and at worst, preventive war is a recipe
for conflict. Preventive wares are imprudent because they bring wars that
might not happen and increase resentment."
Though it is tempting for a state to place its self-interest ahead of the rest
of the international system, doing so would create such a negative precedent
that it would have actually made itself less safe overall.
Response to Pacifism
The second dilemma that
arises is based not so much on the effectiveness of such a limited plan for
action, but instead it comes from a simple normative question that is quite
prevalent in many progressive societies: why allow for war at all? Especially
considering how confining preemption in the absence of prevention is for any
state to undertake, why not take this plea for international cooperation and
peace to the next level and argue against warfare all together? As preemption
has become a more conspicuous aspect of the popular discourse, a strong wave of
pacifist arguments has surfaced against preemptive war. A very simple
articulation of its argument is that war is inherently wrong, regardless of the
circumstances. Thus, starting a war by being the first to engage another state
could never be justified.
A sizable portion
of this argument stems from Christian traditions that advocate nonviolence-one
should "turn the other cheek" in the event of a transgression. Theologian John
Courtney Murray has stated that
justness of cause is irrelevant...no individual state may presume to take even
the cause of justice into its own hands. Whatever the grievance of the state
may be, and however objectionable it may find the status quo, warfare
undertaken on the sovereign decision of the national state is an immoral means
of settling the grievance and for altering existent conditions."
J. Daryl Charles makes a poignant
response to this line of thinking when he writes that pacifists have taken up
"a presumption against war and force in general rather than a presumption
Other writers have taken pacifistic stances not for specifically religious
reasons, but rather more general metaphysical considerations equating any sort
of violence with a loss of personhood and the prevention of the ultimate goal
in a person's life: self-actualization.
The pacifist position, while often galvanized by hawks eager to go to war, does
create an ambitious conception for a more positive and peaceful world order.
However, the advocacy
for preemption largely circumvents the pacifists' argument and achieves the
goal they have formulated without running the same level of risk. If violence
begets more violence, then the threat of violence can serve as the trigger to
bring about peace. By chastising preventive war, but allowing for preemptive
war, states are actively promoting the goal of peace by using diplomatic
channels without leaving themselves vulnerable. Clearly the world would be a
safer place if every state dismantled its entire military in an attempt to
cease the spread of violence, but which state wants to be the first down that
path? Considering that many states have, in fact, chosen to maintain active
and technologically advancing military forces, there is far too much
uncertainty in a world with such a violent history to take such drastic steps.
However, by putting the international system in a position to mediate conflict,
preemptive war can fall into the background as a defensive measure to be used
only in the event of an emergency. By giving states the peace of mind that
they would be able to defend themselves, preemptively if necessary, the entire
society of states could make significant progress in reducing the propensity
for individual states to go to war.
Preemption: Strengthening the
What has briefly been
cited as the main motivation for this argument so far will now be touched upon
more specifically at this point. From a conceptual basis, preventive war and
preemptive war are greatly different measures based on differing motivations
for both the aggressor and potential victim. However, as mentioned earlier,
the practice of actually discerning between the two will be extremely
difficult, especially considering the quickness of movement and the long-range
weapons capabilities that define modern warfare. The question again arises,
how should states respond? The manner that will have the most positive effect
for the most people will be international cooperation. Engaging in preventive
war may satisfy one state's immediate objectives, but doing so only makes other
states more apprehensive and the system less safe overall. By rejecting
preventive war, states are committing to diplomacy as the primary arbiter of
disputes, not trigger-happy violence.
In turn, not only
will states begin to be less fearful of each other, but the mechanisms of the
international system will become stronger. States will look to international
bodies, which can either be created from scratch for such a purpose, or
incorporated into existing bodies should the consensus deem them sufficient, to
monitor potential threats. Such a body will then give a strong mandate to the
determined recommendations and the society of states as a whole could
appropriate the provisions collectively. As Brown wrote, despite the
temptations of pursuing a policy directed at achieving absolute security for oneself,
"States should, as far as possible, try to act in such a way that they
encourage the transformation of the world into one in which the effective
institutions do exist, or at a minimum do not make such a transformation more
In light of non-state actors gaining notoriety, many states feel the urge to
protect themselves from any threat to their autonomy. However, considering the
fact that the world is globalizing, there will inevitably be interaction
between states and other states, as well as other actors. In this vein, the
choice comes down to whether a state should actively participate in this
evolution of the system, or resort to isolationism. It has been shown that the
former creates an order with a greater chance for peace, while the latter will
only continue the trend of violence.
One extremely important
consideration that has been left out thus far is the intervention in another
state for humanitarian purposes. While preemption here is defined as a
mechanism for protecting the lives of a population within a state from attack
by another state, many believe that the lives of populations within treacherous
states should be considered with equal regard. Thus, a murderous ruler's
transgressions against his/her own people are also grounds for preemption, but
in this context preemption exists as preclusion to the decimation of a foreign
population. This paper has not attempted to integrate humanitarian
intervention with defensive preemption, due to the fact that the policy
implications would be too great to grasp. Some feel that such a discourse is
inevitable, that "the weight of the ethical pressures to limit sovereignty for
the sake of the lives and rights of individual human beings is too great to be
Would it help more people to attack hard, military targets of a tyrannical
regime, or impose sanctions, which are more likely to reduce the quality of
life of commoners and not the elites?
On the other side, there are varying interpretations regarding when
humanitarian intervention is necessary, as there is no clear guideline for when
an intervention should occur.
This issue has been
purposefully left unresolved, because recommendations in this regard would
violate the key concern of this paper: the ability for the international system
to gain relevance and allow for collective decision-making. The capacity for
states to engage in preemption exists to protect states from an in-coming
attack that is so pressing, there simply is not time to convene the mechanisms
of the international system. An alleged humanitarian violation, while not
necessarily less concerning than a direct attack, it exactly the type of
situation that should be discussed in the international arena. As it currently
stands, many individual states act upon their whims based on arbitrary
justifications. If states took cooperative decision-making seriously and acted
together, a state that came under the scrutiny of such a sizable contingent
likely reconsider its motivations for acting as a rogue.
U.S. and Iraq: A Look at "Preemption"
One driving force
that has brought so much attention to the discussion of preemptive war was the
Bush Administration's National Security Strategy (NSS). Published in 2002, it
was a response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The administration believed that the most effective
method to deal with the growing threat of terrorism would be to target the
terrorists during their preparations and the states that harbored them.
Instead of waiting for the terrorists to strike and conducting an investigation
to seek out those involved, the U.S. would remove a terrorist threat before it
fully materialized. In its own language, the NSS states that
the United States will constantly strive to enlist the support of the
international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to
exercise our right of selfdefense (sic) by acting preemptively against such
terrorists, to prevent them from doing harm against our people and our country;
and denying further sponsorship, support, and sanctuary to terrorists by
convincing or compelling states to accept their sovereign responsibilities."
According to Alan Dowd, "The Bush
Doctrine's principle of preemption was tailor-made for Baathist Iraq-a country with growing ties to terror, an underground conventional weapons program, and the
means and motive to mete out revenge on the United States."
What must be
acknowledged first and foremost about that NSS is its lack of a distinction
between preventive and preemptive war. The above passage uses the terms
interchangeably, though their differences have clearly been shown. While
Saddam Hussein had proven himself to be a menace to his own people and a
nuisance to the international community, the fact remained that Iraq had been crippled by U.N. sanctions was left out of the equation in the preparation
for war. Reports have shown that Iraq had no Weapons of Mass Destruction
(WMDs), nor was it in the process of producing any.
This is further emphasized by the fact that many of the Administration's claims
had been repudiated by other sources prior to the war, such as the
International Atomic Energy Agency.
Also, there were blatant attempts to condition the intelligence circulated
through the government's various arms during the march toward war. Mid-level
Pentagon staffer Karen Kwiatkowski wrote that
August 2002, the Office of Special Plans established its own rhythm and cadence
separate from the non-politically minded professionals covering the rest of the
region. While often accused of creating intelligence, I saw only two apparent
products of this office: war planning guidance for Rumsfeld, presumably
impacting Central Command, and talking points on Iraq, WMD and terrorism. These
internal talking points seemed to be a mélange crafted from obvious past
observation and intelligence bits and pieces of dubious origin. They were
propagandistic in style, and all desk officers were ordered to use them verbatim
in the preparation of any material prepared for higher-ups and people outside
the Pentagon. The talking points included statements about Saddam Hussein's
proclivity for using chemical weapons against his own citizens and neighbors,
his existing relations with terrorists based on a member of al-Qaida reportedly
receiving medical care in Baghdad, his widely publicized aid to the
Palestinians, and general indications of an aggressive viability in Saddam
Hussein's nuclear weapons program and his ongoing efforts to use them against
his neighbors or give them to al-Qaida style groups."
Further, the Administration based
key intelligence estimates on data obtained from prisoners in foreign jails, over
which they had virtually no oversight.
Clearly, the Administration was not responding to an immediate threat, but
violating one of the key components of jus ad bellum: right intention. The
cause may have been just, which will be explored next, but the Administration
choose to emphatically over-assert itself, rather than explore the diplomatic
channels that could have mediated this conflict without mobilization to war.
Not Preemption if the War has
One contention that
many hawks have to criticisms against the Bush Administration's decision to go
to war is based on precedence: Saddam Hussein had proven himself to be a
murderous tyrant who refused to obey international law. Thomas Nichols wrote,
"What makes the Iraqi case different is that the regime in Baghdad has signaled
repeatedly to the international community that it is willing and able to launch
repeated high-risk acts of aggression and that it will under no circumstances
observe any nonviolent settlement of the demands made by fellow nations."
This argument is valid to an extent, but it lacks any weight due to the fact of
the context that was made. The push for war was made in the post-September 11,
2001 environment in which terror was on the forefront of Americans' minds. Iraq was considered to be a supporter of terror and it was argued that it posed a serious
threat due to its WMD programs.
The claims made by
Nichols and like-minded thinkers would fall under a combinations of humanitarian
intervention on behalf of the Iraqi people and Iraq's violation of
international law, as determined by the states that comprise the international
system. As outlined earlier, these grievances have a particular place in such
a system, as does preemption. However, the Administration used preemption as a
justification and put the humanitarian concerns on the backburner. It stressed
the strategic threat of Iraq, while diluting the importance of an "imminent
threat" being the primary determinant of preemptive war, blurring the line
between prevention and preemption.
One of the strongest
defenses to hawkish claims about Iraq does not rely on the retrospective
knowledge that is now apparent. Iraq was undisputedly further along in the
development of its weapons programs during the first Gulf War, prior to
receiving U.N. sanctions and international scrutiny, but did not attempt any
sort of biological or chemical attack against allied forces.
Nichols' assertion that Iraq would never abide by any international agreement
fails to take this fact into his description of Hussein as without regard or
reason. Many policy makers fear the possibility of another Hitler rising to
power, unchecked by his peers.
However, the two
often cited international instigators, North Korea's Kim Jung-Il and Hussein
prior to the U.S.-led invasion, had operated largely within the constraints
posed by the international system. A more appropriate analogy would be the
Cold War: despite the notion of Mutually Assured Destruction, World War III
never materialized. While many military-minded Americans favored wiping out
the Communist threat before it would be able to overpower the U.S. and its allies, a preventive war strategy, diplomacy won out. Stalin died, greatly
changing the face of Soviet politics, and Nixon transformed a potential enemy
into a potential ally.
It is too late for diplomacy to win out in Iraq, but it is not too late to give
up preventive war and attempt to bring the international community closer
The main distinction
made in this paper was the differentiation between preemptive and preventive
war. By allowing for the former and prohibiting the latter, states will force
themselves to interact and cooperate at higher levels of intensity than ever
before. Such a system of interconnectedness will surely lead to a more
peaceful environment, for states will agree that prohibitions against
unilateral strikes are much more agreeable than allowing states to create their
own rules. This paper has not attempted to specifically define how exactly a
strengthened international system would look or operate, because as it stands
states are still the primary actors in global politics and they must decide how
to shape the system to which they will subscribe.
This paper has also has
not focused upon terrorism, which is the main issue that has stirred up so many
viewpoints with regard to preemptive war. The reasoning behind this is
twofold. First, several terrorist groups have already gone on the offensive,
thus targeting these groups is not an example of preemption, but a legitimately
defensive response. The concern to take from this point is how the United States should distinguish between terrorists themselves and states that harbor,
support, and/or sponsor the terrorists.
This leads to the second reason that terrorism was not a prime focus of this paper,
which is the allowance of the international system to decide how to deal with
these issues, in the same manner that humanitarian issues were defined above.
The policy implications
of accepting preemption and refusing prevention are a direct response to the
policy of unilateralism that the Administration currently employs. Such
actions may seem logical in the short-run, in that potential threats to U.S. security are effectively removed, but what sort of precedent do they set? If all
states had the same preventive mindset, it would not be hard for a few
countries to behave in a similar manner with the same justification, causing
further destabilization of the international system. India and Pakistan are both nuclear powers and rising paranoia between those two should strike worry
into every being on Earth. Iran and North Korea feel like they are backed into
a corner as it stands, so what is stopping those states from going down
swinging? Acting solely on self-interest is simply not sustainable given the
age of WMDs and the U.S. can not expect its policy of, "Do as I say, not as I
do," to last much longer. Proactively committing to building the international
order, despite the small caveat of preemptive self-defense, will lead to the
advancement of peace and avoid the advancement of paranoia and violence.
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