Preventive War, A Useful Tool

Ivo H. Daalder and James B. Steinberg

It would be unfortunate if President Bush’s doctrine of preemption were a casualty of the Iraq war. We should avoid waging unilateral preventive wars of regime change. But circumstances will probably arise in which the option of using force preventively should be available—whether to kill terrorists, prevent weapons proliferation, halt genocidal killing or stop the spread of deadly disease. The task is to make the idea a more limited and more legitimate tool for dealing with new security threats.

The Bush doctrine was a major departure from internationally agreed rules that limited the use of force to self-defense in case of an armed attack or military actions authorized by the U.N. Security Council. Following 9/11, the Bush administration expanded the right of self-defense to include the right to use force against terrorist and rogue-state threats before they “fully formed”—before terrorists struck, rogues used nuclear weapons or dangerous technologies fell into the wrong hands.

A high-level panel appointed by the United Nations secretary-general in response to the Bush doctrine concluded that states have a right to defend themselves not just against actual threats but against imminent ones. It also recognized that force might be appropriate to deal with latent threats (such as terrorism and weapons proliferation), but only the Security Council could authorize its use. The panel contended that Bush’s idea of preemption was a recipe for international anarchy.

Welcome as this evolution in international thinking was, it failed to resolve the fundamental difference between today’s security threats and those at the time of the U.N.’s founding in 1945. Then, states worried about aggression across borders and external interference in their affairs. Now the main worry is about what states do within their borders—how they treat their citizens, whether they harbor terrorists or if they are developing weapons of mass destruction.

The U.N. system was not set up to deal with these types of threats, which helps explain why there is no international consensus on what constitutes the new threats and how best to respond to them. Yet the U.S. shouldn’t therefore ignore the rules and go it alone. Rather, it should work toward adapting the rules to a world in which sovereignty increasingly depends on how states behave internally.

Conditional sovereignty is central to a new norm of state responsibility. In September, U.N. members embraced the idea that states have a responsibility to protect their citizens from genocide and other gross violations of human rights. That logic also suggests that states have a responsibility to head off internal developments—acquiring weapons of mass destruction and harboring terrorists, to name two—that pose a threat to the security of others.

When states fail to meet their responsibilities, the international community will need to step in. Diplomacy and economic pressure are frequently sufficient to do the job. But there will be times when limited military action will be the only effective way to obviate an imminent threat—before, say, a state produces enough fissile material to make nuclear weapons or before terrorists are fully able to hatch their plots. One problem with the Bush doctrine, then, is not that it is overly reliant on preventive force but that it too narrowly conceives of its use, primarily to deal with terrorism and to remove threatening regimes.

The Bush doctrine’s other problem is that it insists that individual states, or at least the United States, must have the right to decide when preventive force is justified, even though the threat affects the security of many. The decision to use force in these cases cannot be one state’s alone.

Who, then, should decide? The Security Council, at least in the first instance, because it has become the most legitimate forum for deciding these questions. Before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the council authorized the use of force beyond traditional peacekeeping operations on only two occasions (Korea and the Congo). Since then, it has authorized force 17 times. Even in the case of the Iraq war, the Bush administration has maintained that force was authorized by previous Security Council resolutions.

Yet states have not always been able to count on the council to make timely decisions. It acted late in the case of the former Yugoslavia, ineffectively in response to Darfur and not at all during the genocide in Rwanda. It has refused to take up North Korea’s noncompliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and it wants no part in deciding Iran’s compliance. None of the proposed reforms are likely to improve this record soon.

One alternative to the Security Council is to turn to regional organizations to authorize preventive interventions. The model here is Kosovo, where the North Atlantic Treaty Organization intervened to prevent a worse humanitarian calamity even though the Security Council failed to authorize the action. Regional organizations are an appealing venue because there is likely to be convergence between those who bear the costs and those who reap the benefits of the action. When all countries in a region agree to the necessity and efficacy of a preventive action, there is a greater chance that the precipitating facts will be valid.

Regional organizations are no panacea, however. Global threats are beyond the purview of any one regional organization to handle. In other cases, there may be no meaningful regional organization to authorize force. Which leaves the alternative of creating a coalition of like-minded states. One such coalition could be composed of democracies, because democracies should have an interest in upholding the norm of state responsibility. Because these governments are elected, their collective decision to use force would carry more legitimacy than a decision of any one of them. And if it proved impossible to convince any or most of the coalition’s democratic peers that a state had failed to meet its responsibilities and that intervention was therefore justified, that outcome in and of itself should give pause about proceeding. Iraq was a case in point. Finally, the existence of an alternative decision-making body may prompt the Security Council or a regional organization to act sooner.

Preventive military force has a role in managing today’s security challenges. Understanding that role is step one; establishing agreed standards for its use is step two; and implanting these standards in an effective institution is the third step. The Bush administration got the first step right, and the logic of its arguments builds toward the second. But it has gotten step three wrong. Unilateralism is not the only alternative to the Security Council. Regional organizations and a new coalition of democratic states offer ways to legitimize the use of force when the council fails to meet its responsibilities.



James B. Steinberg

University Professor, Social Science, International Affairs, and Law - Maxwell School, Syracuse University