The Rules on Preventive Force

The Washington Post

The recent publication of the second quadrennial administration statement on national strategy passed without the controversy that marked its predecessor in 2002. This is all the more remarkable because the statement reiterates the U.S. commitment to a strategy of preemption in exactly the same words contained in the 2002 version.

When the doctrine of preemption was first put forward, it was attacked as being contrary to generally accepted principles of the international system – principles that had evolved over three centuries and were enshrined in the United Nations Charter in 1945. Though the Charter provisions were ambiguous – Article 2 prohibits all use of force “against the territorial integrity or political independence” of another state, and Article 51 recognizes a universal right of national self-defense – the legal framework worked well enough. Weapons of mass destruction spread relatively slowly, and the possibility of their being acquired by groups other than governments was yet beyond imagination. Hence the extension of the right of self-defense was widely rejected, because the rest of the international community did not accept a definition put forward by one country that reserved to itself the right to implement it.

This year’s report was received with less hostility, partly because other countries have more experience with the emerging threats and partly because a more conciliatory U.S. diplomacy has left new scope for consultation. It is being reluctantly recognized that preemption may be so built into modern technology and international practice that some reconsideration of existing rules is overdue, and a high-level group has reported to that effect to the U.N. secretary general.

Preemptive strategy is based on assumptions that cannot be proved when they are made. When the scope for action is greatest, knowledge is at a minimum. When knowledge has been acquired, the scope for preemption has often disappeared. Had Churchill’s early warning been heeded, the Nazi plague could have been destroyed at relatively little cost. A decade later, tens of millions had paid with their lives for the quest for certainty of statesmen of the 1930s.

American policy needs to navigate this element of uncertainty. The key question becomes: How is the threat to be defined, and through what institutions can resistance to it be implemented? If each nation claims the right to define its preemptive rights for itself, the absence of any rules would spell international chaos, not order. Some universal, generally accepted principles need to be matched with the machinery of their operation. Any other approach would create additional incentives for spreading weapons of mass destruction.

Of course, the United States, like any other sovereign nation, will in the end defend its vital national interests – if necessary, alone. But it also has a national interest in making the definition of national interest of other nations as much parallel to its own as possible. Any course that relies for international order primarily on unilateral superior force defines a trajectory toward doomed overextension.

A first step is to recognize that the American Strategic Doctrine does not really talk about what is commonly defined as preemptive action. Preemption applies to an adversary possessing a capacity to do great, potentially irreversible damage, coupled with the demonstrated will to do so imminently. The right to use force unilaterally in such circumstances has been more or less accepted. In that sense the most obvious targets for preemptive strategy are terrorist organizations operating from the territory of sovereign states and capable of generating threats that were heretofore an attribute of the nation state. These organizations cannot be deterred because they have nothing tangible to lose and because they have shadowy means to obscure the origin of their attack. Nor can they be dealt with by diplomacy, because their objective generally is not compromise but the destruction of their adversary.

The deeper issue raised by the administration’s Strategic Doctrine concerns what is generally defined as the preventive use of force: measures to forestall the emergence of a threat not yet imminent but capable, at some point in the future, of being potentially overwhelming.

It follows that preventive force is not an issue applicable to relations with an established major nuclear adversary. First-strike threats against established nuclear powers might, if such powers felt their weapons were very vulnerable, tempt them to make a preemptive strike of their own. If the United States did not act against the emerging Soviet nuclear power at the height of the Cold War or against that of China during the period of deep hostility, it is not likely to use force against an established nuclear power unless that power engages or is on the verge of engaging in actual aggression – conduct justifying preemption.

The issue of preventive force symbolizes the upheaval in the international system. The Westphalian system sought security based on the sanctity of international borders. In our time, the power, range and speed of modern weapons have made this definition too narrow.

Thus the issue of proliferation to states that until now have not had nuclear weapons emerges as one of the key tasks of preventive diplomacy. The United States has an obvious incentive to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, especially of nuclear weapons, into the wrong hands. For aspiring great powers, the incentive is precisely the opposite: to acquire nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible and, if thwarted, to develop chemical or biological weapons – either for their own security or as a safety net for assertive or revolutionary policies. Any diplomatic outcome to the proliferation issue, therefore, depends in part on whether diplomacy is able to generate security assurances for the country asked to forgo nuclear weapons. The test of preventive policy will come if such efforts fail.

How should that balance be struck? One school of thought holds the view that mortal danger is inherent in the process of proliferation. It points out that, until the outbreak of World War II, a country could legitimately go to war if it was attacked or if an aggressor brought about a change in the global balance of power of a magnitude to threaten international security. But in the contemporary world, the coin of power is technology, not territory. Modern weapons of mass destruction, by their very existence, bring about an increase in a country’s power vastly exceeding what could be achieved by any conceivable territorial acquisition. The very existence of these weapons, according to this school of thought, produces a preemptive incentive; the balance of terror that was precariously maintained in a two-power nuclear world weakens with each new entrant into the ranks of states possessing weapons of mass destruction. Deterrence becomes impossibly complicated when many balances have to be considered by many different actors simultaneously. Hence, in this view, the emergence of nuclear weapons power must be prevented as a last resort by force.

Another approach makes a distinction between friendly and threatening countries. The United States has acquiesced in the development of nuclear weapons technology in India, Pakistan and Israel because the purpose of these states was believed compatible with long-range American objectives. The United States has strongly opposed the spread of weapons of mass destruction to Iran and North Korea because they are governed by hostile, autocratic regimes and have records of ruthless international conduct. Indeed, a not insignificant school of thought holds that the best anti-proliferation policy – at least in these cases – is to overthrow the North Korean and Iranian regimes. That implies America’s anti-proliferation policy is concerned not so much with the fact of proliferation as with the nature of the regime that acquires these weapons. Does this mean that America would acquiesce in the acquisition of nuclear weapons by elected governments? A realistic policy will bring a resolution to this debate and emphasize that a wise strategy will recognize the threat inherent in the very fact of proliferation, which can be mitigated but not ended by the existence of benevolent government.

A special case is humanitarian intervention, which applies to circumstances that threaten American security only indirectly. In these cases, the preventive use of force can be justified only on the ground that it resists offenses to values considered essential by American society or by the international community rather than to one’s security.

Strangely, the impulse towards preventive intervention has proved most difficult to apply to genocidal events like the massacres in Rwanda and Darfur. The fact that no country felt directly threatened prevented both unilateral and multilateral action – not to the credit of the international system or its principal exponents.

These earlier applications of preventive force suggest the following conclusions:

The analysis underlying the Strategic Doctrine document is correct in emphasizing the changes in the international environment and the propensity (or perhaps even necessity) they create toward some forms of preventive strategy. But stating the theory is only a first step. The concept must be applied to specific, concrete contingencies; courses of action need to be analyzed in terms not only of threats but of outcomes and consequences. Conclusions must go beyond position papers to plans of action capable of being carried out on the working level and include enough congressional participation to bring about sustainable public support. Finally, a policy that allows for preventive force can sustain the international system only if solitary American enterprises are the rare exception, not the basic rule of U.S. strategy.

The other major nations have a similar responsibility to take the new challenges seriously and to treat them as something beyond the sole responsibility of America. A common approach, however contrary to historical experience, may be possible because what used to be called the “great powers” have nothing to gain by military conflict with each other. They are all more or less dependent on the global economic system. They are all threatened if ideology and weapons run out of control. They should know that, after the use of weapons of mass destruction or universal carnage due to a clash of civilizations, their publics will demand some form of preventive diplomacy. The challenge is to build a viable international order without the impetus of having barely survived catastrophe.

© 2006 Tribune Media Services Inc.