The Origins of ‘New’ Security Constructions

Weapons Proliferation and the Preventive War Option

Authored by: Scott A. Silverstone

Handbook of Defence Politics

Print publication date:  December  2008
Online publication date:  March  2011

Print ISBN: 9781857434439
eBook ISBN: 9780203804278
Adobe ISBN:




It is fair to argue that since the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, no initiative in international security affairs has generated more controversy than the Bush Administration’s embrace of the preventive war option to blunt the development of mass destruction weapons by particular states. The strategic logic of preventive war, rooted in the temptation to attack a potential adversary in the early stages of its growing power or development of specific military capabilities, 1 was the dominant justification for the Iraq war of 2003. In the updated National Security Strategy of 2006 the Bush Administration reiterated its willingness to consider preventive war beyond the Iraq case, while a number of commentators have urged consideration of a preventive attack against Iran to arrest its suspected nuclear weapons ambitions. Put into a broader historical context, recent interest in preventive military attack represents a dramatic departure from the traditional American interpretation of the normative implications of this strategic option. From the end of World War II through the early 1980s, preventive war was classified as state aggression, and thus rejected overwhelmingly in the American political system. By the early 1990s, however, preventive attack was increasingly seen as a form of legitimate self-defence. The implications of this new interpretation of preventive war as legitimate self-defence rather than illegitimate aggression are profound, for American policy and its international effects alike. This chapter not only explains the origins of the characterization of preventive war as aggression and the process through which the legitimate self-defence interpretation emerged, it also explores how this conceptual shift has fundamentally altered the domestic political setting for considering preventive war as an option to deal with future power shifts.

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The Origins of ‘New’ Security Constructions

It is fair to argue that since the terror attacks of 11 September 2001, no initiative in international security affairs has generated more controversy than the Bush Administration’s embrace of the preventive war option to blunt the development of mass destruction weapons by particular states. The strategic logic of preventive war, rooted in the temptation to attack a potential adversary in the early stages of its growing power or development of specific military capabilities, 1 was the dominant justification for the Iraq war of 2003. In the updated National Security Strategy of 2006 the Bush Administration reiterated its willingness to consider preventive war beyond the Iraq case, while a number of commentators have urged consideration of a preventive attack against Iran to arrest its suspected nuclear weapons ambitions. Put into a broader historical context, recent interest in preventive military attack represents a dramatic departure from the traditional American interpretation of the normative implications of this strategic option. From the end of World War II through the early 1980s, preventive war was classified as state aggression, and thus rejected overwhelmingly in the American political system. By the early 1990s, however, preventive attack was increasingly seen as a form of legitimate self-defence. The implications of this new interpretation of preventive war as legitimate self-defence rather than illegitimate aggression are profound, for American policy and its international effects alike. This chapter not only explains the origins of the characterization of preventive war as aggression and the process through which the legitimate self-defence interpretation emerged, it also explores how this conceptual shift has fundamentally altered the domestic political setting for considering preventive war as an option to deal with future power shifts.

The preventive motive for war is certainly not a new security phenomenon. Thucydides explains how the Peloponnesian War among the Greek city states in the 5th century BC had its roots in Sparta’s fear of Athens’ rising power. Preventive power shifts became a common motive for great power war during much of the history of the modern state system. More recently, the Bush administration’s enthusiasm for preventive war after 9/11 was not the first time American leaders faced the preventive war temptation. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a number of government officials—as well as opinion leaders in academia and the press— argued that the inevitable development of an atomic arsenal by the Soviet Union, and the truly existential threat this would pose for the first time in America’s history, was simply intolerable. Preventive war against the USSR was seen by many as a necessary strategic move to prevent this horrible threat from materializing. At the height of the Formosa Strait crisis in 1955, top military leaders urged President Eisenhower to authorize a preventive attack against a build-up of Communist Chinese forces in southern China that could be used at some point in the future to attack the Nationalist Chinese government on Taiwan. During the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, a core group of advisors pressed President Kennedy to order a preventive attack on Soviet nuclear missile sites discovered under construction there. Over the next few years, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson studied the feasibility of preventive attack to destroy China’s nascent nuclear weapons infrastructure. In 1981, Israel’s audacious preventive air attack on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor became a test of the American government’s attitudes on preventive war; the Reagan administration had to decide whether the US would tolerate this unprovoked strike by a close ally. And nearly a decade before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Clinton Administration carefully deliberated over the preventive attack option to destroy North Korea’s nuclear programme.

In each of these cases, the preventive war temptation emerged from fears generated by shifting military power. American leaders could have evaluated the wisdom of the preventive war option in each case from a purely strategic military perspective. Could the US actually execute an attack that would successfully blunt the rising threat at an acceptable cost? Would the expected near-term costs of preventive war be lower than the costs of a future conflict fought after the adversary had time to grow its own military capabilities? For some observers in each case, this kind of purely military evaluation was considered sufficient to determine whether it was a viable policy option. Yet the actual history of this concept in American policymaking shows that preventive war has never been treated as a purely military problem. Preventive war, like using military force under almost any circumstances, carries normative meaning that can shape the domestic and international politics of security policy in decisive ways. In fact, an examination of the domestic politics of preventive war from the late 1940s to the present reveals that prevention as a motive for using military force is intimately linked with the normatively laden concepts of aggression and self-defence. Moreover, preventive war is ambiguous enough as a concept such that it has always been open to competitive interpretations. Because preventive war by definition only makes sense when described as a way to avoid future harm at the hands of a growing potential adversary, it can be cast as ‘anticipatory self-defence’. Yet because this option is launched to prevent a shift in the balance of power, and not to stop an actual impending attack, it can also be seen as an act of unprovoked aggression. 2 The policy debate, therefore, has not simply been determined by the question of whether it is smart or foolish militarily. As a policy issue, preventive war has always included the question: is it right or wrong?

Given the ambiguous character of preventive war, two observations can be made about its history as an idea shaping American policy from the early Cold War through the early 21st century. First, at each of the defining moments of the past 60 years introduced above, there have been critics and advocates of preventive war arguing from rival perspectives over whether it is a form of unprovoked aggression, and therefore unacceptable, or self-defence, and therefore a just exercise of an inherent right. As a result, the normative meaning given to preventive war when the US faced a specific policy problem—attack the USSR? crush the Chinese airfields opposite Taiwan? tolerate Israel’s air-strike on Iraq? destroy North Korean nuclear facilities?— was subject to a competitive policy process.

The second observation that can be derived from this history is most important for this chapter: there has been a stark shift in American thinking about preventive war over time. Earlier generations firmly believed that preventive war was a form of aggression, and therefore an illegitimate policy option for the US, regardless of the strategic pressures that produced the preventive war temptation in the first place. Truman Administration officials condemned preventive war as undemocratic and contrary to America’s character, as morally corrosive, a weapon of dictators that was simply unacceptable to the US. In the Formosa Strait crisis, President Eisenhower declared unambiguously that the US must accept the military liabilities of allowing China to strengthen its military capabilities, rather than assume the moral and political liabilities of initiating ‘aggressive’ action against this adversary. President Johnson ruled out preventive attack against China in 1964, afraid of the political black mark this act would carry, both at home and abroad. In the wake of Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear facility, the Reagan Administration went so far as to co-sponsor with Iraq a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning its ally for violating international norms against aggression and for further destabilizing a dangerous region. 3 Despite this long-standing tradition of rejecting the preventive war option as unacceptable aggression, by the early 1990s preventive war came to be seen in the US primarily as a legitimate form of self-defence. In the spring of 1994, at the height of the first North Korean nuclear crisis, the Clinton Administration ultimately rejected preventive war because of its military risks. Yet in a dramatic departure from previous cases, the preventive war option was evaluated without a hint of the normative stigma of aggression that it carried for Truman and Eisenhower. Building on this emerging acceptance of preventive war from the early 1990s, the Bush Administration formally articulated a new argument that preventive war must be considered a legitimate measure of collective self-defence, and put this conception of preventive war to work against Iraq in 2003.

While the preventive motive for war is not a new security concept for the US, the contemporary embrace of preventive war as a legitimate policy option is. The main objective here is to explain this dramatic shift in US conceptions of preventive war over time. What was it that led most Americans at mid-century, despite the fears of atomic annihilation by the Soviets, to equate preventive war with raw aggression, to refuse to treat preventive war as justifiable self-defence against this mortal threat? More specifically, why was the ‘preventive war is aggression’ interpretation dominant in American policy of this period over the ‘preventive war is self-defence’ view? And as important, why was this conceptual link between preventive war and aggression severed in the policy process by the early 1990s, at least a decade before George W. Bush became president and America suffered the terrorist blow of 9/11?

As Peter Gourevitch argues, an answer to these questions will not be found at the domestic level alone. 4 Consistent with the analytical framework developed in this book, the argument in this chapter highlights international level effects, or external events, that have shaped the domestic politics of preventive war in decisive ways. Specifically, the chapter will focus on two external events, separated by 50 years, which were decisive in giving normative meaning in American domestic politics to the ambiguous normative status of preventive war. The first defining external event was the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the cataclysm of the Second World War. From this conflict emerged the indelible symbols of aggressive war, Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes trials which explicitly criminalized preventive war as raw aggression and contrary to the very meaning of civilized behaviour. The moral stigma that encrusted preventive war at mid-century weighed heavily on American leaders, opinion-makers and citizens as they grappled with how to respond to the atomic power shift underway in the early years of the Cold War.

The second defining event was the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. Iraq came to symbolize both the emerging ‘rogue state’ concept and the ability of such determined regimes to circumvent traditional nuclear nonproliferation tools established in the 1967 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Perhaps most important, the Gulf War produced a surge of American confidence in the effectiveness of military force to meet the global nuclear non-proliferation goals that had been defined over two decades earlier as in the inherent self-defence interests of all states. And this surge of confidence in military force was accompanied by what appeared to be negligible relative costs. In turn, the normative and strategic glow of the Gulf War provided a powerful model for those political actors pushing preventive attack as a legitimate measure of self-defence (not only America’s, it was claimed, but collective defence interests too) in the domestic political struggle to shape US policy towards North Korea a few years later, and toward Iraq once again after 9/11.

To explain this shift from proclaiming preventive war to be aggression to proclaiming it as a self-defence measure, it is necessary to first trace the origins of the global norm distinguishing aggression from self-defence. Specifically, scholars must appreciate the powerful paradigm-shattering, and paradigm-forming, external shock delivered by World War I. This tragic collective experience altered ideas about war and generated consensus, certainly within the US, behind the claim that while state aggression was criminal, the sanctity of using force for self-defence must be preserved. As this chapter will illustrate, beliefs about aggression emerging from World War I did not definitively establish how it could be objectively distinguished from self-defence, thus creating an opening for future domestic struggles over how to characterize preventive war.

World War I and the Criminalization of Aggressive War

Rival claims about the legitimacy of preventive war are closely tied to a century-long debate over the conditions that justify the use of military force. Before the 20th century, in both international law and diplomatic practice, the resort to war was typically treated as an inherent sovereign right of any state. While St Thomas Aquinas had defined conditions for ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ wars many centuries earlier, most statesmen before World War I spent little time worrying about setting limits on what justified the use of force. Carl von Clausewitz’s famous dictum from the early 19th century, that ‘war is a mere continuation of policy by other means’, 5 not only reminded strategists that war was simply one tool among many to meet policy goals. It also captured the spirit of the age, in which war was considered a perfectly acceptable tool as national leaders faced their responsibilities to serve the state’s interests. Only the sovereign state itself was in a position to judge whether war was an appropriate means to pursue a specific set of policy goals under a specific set of circumstances. 6

World War I, and the horrible toll it exacted in blood, economic ruin and political upheaval, was a profound external shock to beliefs about war so blithely accepted for generations. Over nine million soldiers and five million civilians were dead, while 21 million soldiers suffered combat wounds. Four empires were destroyed. The victors suffered economic disaster along with the vanquished. Given the unprecedented and unexpected magnitude of these costs, it is unsurprising that a dramatic shift in attitudes about war would sweep Europe and the US. 7 War was no longer accepted as a ‘mere continuation of policy by other means’, as Clausewitz had counselled. The lesson most drew from this war, a lesson which settled deeply in the popular mind and which was reflected in diplomatic initiatives, was that war itself had become too dangerous to tolerate as a normal tool of statecraft. The highpoint of the postwar effort to move beyond Clausewitz was the Kellogg–Briand Pact of 1928, which declared audaciously that its many signatories ‘condemn[ed] recourse to war for the solution to international controversies, and renounc[ed] it as an instrument of national policy in their relations with one another’. 8

The first clear indication of a formal shift in attitudes was the war guilt clause in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. By branding Germany as the ‘aggressor’, the Treaty of Versailles reflected what the Commission on Responsibilities called the moral condemnation of the ‘public conscience’ for Germany’s initiation of aggressive war. 9 This specific decision, pushed by Great Britain and France (although initially resisted by President Woodrow Wilson), set an enduring precedent for the subsequent criminalization of ‘wars of aggression’, a precedent that not only infused the diplomacy of the inter-war years, but that also served as the basis for judging the actions of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and World War II. In Europe, the link between aggression and criminality was reinforced by two key agreements within the League of Nations, the 1924 Protocol for the Pacific Settlement of International Disputes, and a 1927 League Assembly resolution. Each agreement declared acts of aggression, broadly defined to include any use of force to settle an international dispute, to be an ‘international crime’. 10 The Locarno Treaty of 1925, perhaps the most important diplomatic initiative for European security in the 1920s, 11 was crafted in this same spirit. Initiated by Germany, this ‘Treaty of Mutual Guarantee’ was meant to serve as a ‘reciprocal treaty of nonaggression’ for Germany, France and Belgium, as a confidence building measure for Rhine river security. 12

The most important American contribution to postwar initiatives to denounce and criminalize war as an instrument of statecraft, as well as the most significant indicator of American anti-war beliefs at the popular and leadership levels, is the Kellogg–Briand Pact of 1928. Interestingly, this particular treaty does not specify ‘wars of aggression’ as its target for denunciation. Instead, at the insistence of US Secretary of State Frank Kellogg, it more broadly attacks war ‘as an instrument of national policy’, which its signatories ‘renounce’ in ‘their relations with one another’. In turn, parties to the treaty pledge that ‘all disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin’ shall be settled by ‘pacific means’. 13 The initiative for the pact came from French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand, who, picking up on a concept developed by peace advocates in the US, called publicly for the ‘outlawry of war’ between France and America. 14 The interesting thing about this proposal is that neither Briand, on behalf of France, nor the administration of President Calvin Coolidge and Secretary Kellogg had much enthusiasm at first for the purely normative motives at the heart of the idea. While Briand’s proposal was bathed in the glow of the anti-war norm percolating in European politics at the time, his primary motive was more traditional power politics. A by-product of the ‘spirit of Locarno’ was ongoing talks between Germany, France and Great Britain over an early military withdrawal from the Rhineland, which French, British and Belgian forces continued to occupy under the Treaty of Versailles. Faced with the inevitable loss of the Rhine occupation as a potent buffer against renewed German aggression, Briand sought alternative means to balance against any future resurgence of a militant Germany. America had made it perfectly clear that it would not accept a defensive alliance with France. An imperfect though valuable substitute, Briand reasoned, would be a bilateral pledge between France and America to outlaw war with each other. This would at least keep the US from using force against France in any Franco-German conflict. 15

In the US, Secretary Kellogg was more annoyed that Briand had announced his proposal publicly (instead of through formal diplomatic channels) than actually interested in its possible role in the deepening of great power peace. But by the autumn of 1927, Briand’s idea was reverberating so powerfully in American domestic politics that the Coolidge Administration could not ignore it. Tens of thousands of letters, hundreds of thousands of petition signatures, thousands of churches and civic groups, and repeated newspaper editorials across the country, demanded administration support for the renunciation of war. 16 Senator William Borah, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, championed the ‘outlawry’ cause in Congress, and introduced a resolution declaring that ‘the overwhelming moral sentiment of civilized people everywhere is against the cruel and destructive institution of war’, and that ‘war between nations should be outlawed’. 17 Senator Borah’s leadership on this issue served as the final political push that convinced Secretary Kellogg of the potent American rally then underway behind this movement. The final treaty negotiated with France and signed by numerous states in August 1928 was formally endorsed that autumn in the Democratic and Republican party platforms for the 1928 presidential elections, and was ratified in the Senate by a vote of 85 to 1 the following January. 18

The Ambiguities of Aggression versus Self-Defence

Despite the great enthusiasm for the renunciation of war demanded by the Kellogg–Briand Pact, which captured a genuine shift in attitudes about armed conflict produced by the external shock of the First World War, one central issue proved too problematic to clarify in the treaty. This issue, whether the treaty should specify by definition the distinctions between ‘aggressive war’ and the use of force in ‘self-defence’, is a tremendous indicator of the difficulties that remained in applying the treaty’s provisions to concrete problems. Interestingly, the ambiguities that made clear distinctions between aggression and self-defence problematic in the 1920s are the same ambiguities that create great debates over the legitimacy of preventive military force today. As illustrated in this chapter, the Kellogg–Briand Pact, drawing from beliefs created by World War I, was not enough by itself to clearly resolve the coming debate on whether a preventive war against the USSR or China could be classified as self-defence, and therefore normatively acceptable, or whether it should be considered an act of aggression, and thus brand America with the same kind of criminality affixed to Germany in 1919.

By the late 1920s it was clear that in abstract terms a new international norm had emerged from the horrors of World War I: while states retained the right to use force in self-defence, all other uses of force were outlawed as aggression. This was a belief embraced across American and European societies alike. But in practical terms, wasn’t it necessary to establish within the treaty just what was prohibited as aggression, and what conditions could be justified objectively as self-defence? For Secretary Kellogg, the answer was no. He refused to allow a clear definition of aggression and self-defence to be included in the treaty. In his mind, the moral weight of the treaty rested on the ‘purity and simplicity’ of the war renunciation pledge. 19 International opinion would support any state’s use of force in self-defence ‘if it has a good case’, but ultimately individual states ‘alone [are] competent to decide whether circumstances require recourse to war in self-defence’. 20 Kellogg recognized that opening definitions to negotiation would simply invite endless bickering as different states sought to have exceptions included in the treaty that would allow them to actually use military force to deal with their own particular interests. Moreover, Kellogg would argue, even if the treaty precisely defined what conditions constitute self-defence, ‘it is far too easy for the unscrupulous to mold events to accord with an agreed definition’. 21

But the absence of a definition does not solve this problem either. As many contemporary critics pointed out, the implicit and undefined exception allowed for self-defence simply gave states an incentive to characterize any use of force, for whatever actual purpose, as necessary to defend in some way the state’s territory, its people or its broader interests. James Shotwell, a leader of the American peace movement, pointed out in 1929, ‘there have been few wars of modern times … which have not been wars of defence in the eyes of those who waged them or have not been so camouflaged as to be presented to the world under the color of defence’. 22 In effect, the vague self-defence exception creates a pliable blanket in which to wrap and sanctify almost any violent act. After all, even Nazi Germany was ready to stage a phoney Czech ‘provocation’ that could be used as a self-defence pretext for an invasion of Czechoslovakia if its government refused to cede the Sudetenland. And on 1 September 1939, the Germans executed ‘Operation Himmler’, a series of staged anti-German attacks blamed on Poland. Hitler referred specifically to these aggressive ‘Polish’ acts in a Reichstag speech to justify as defensive the blitzkrieg attack that crushed Germany’s eastern neighbour and began World War II.

Preventive War as Self-Defence

Ten years later, with the US on the threshold of the most dangerous threat it had ever faced, the ambiguities that inherently muddy efforts to cleanly distinguish between aggression and self-defence were played out in the domestic policy debate over the legitimacy of preventive war against the Soviet Union. As one critic of preventive war worried at the time, if morality threatens to block bold military action then the ‘aggression can be made to appear as a righteous reaction to intolerable provocation and a liberating crusade’. 23 This approach defined the pro-preventive war position in the policy debate of the late 1940s and early 1950s. The normative consensus created by the external shock of World War I set the terms of the debate. Aggression was unacceptable, self-defence was a right to be exercised. But was preventive war aggression or self-defence? While the magnitude of the anticipated atomic power shift provided the strategic motive for an American preventive war, to be acceptable domestically it had to be cast as a necessary measure of self-defence.

By the late 1940s American leaders conceded the certainty that the Soviet Union would eventually develop its own arsenal of atomic weapons and the ability to deliver an atomic attack on America itself. Simply put, for the very first time in its history the US was quickly becoming ever more vulnerable to a crushing military blow. In early 1950 the prevailing assessment of the strategic problem was articulated in NSC 68, perhaps the most comprehensive and influential analysis of the Soviet threat produced in the early Cold War. There is no nuance or caveat in NSC 68’s characterization of the implacably hostile Soviet regime and the ‘mortal’ interests at stake in the developing great power rivalry. It declares, ‘The Soviet Union, unlike previous aspirants to hegemony, is animated by a new fanatic faith … and seeks to impose its absolute authority over the rest of the world.’ The US, as ‘the bulwark of opposition to Soviet expansionism, is the principal enemy whose integrity and vitality must be subverted or destroyed by one means or another if the Kremlin is to achieve its fundamental design.’ Raising the stakes even higher, NSC 68 asserts that the threat involved the ‘destruction not only of this Republic but of civilization itself’. 24 By 1954, which NSC 68 calls a ‘critical date for the United States’, it was estimated that the Soviet air force could deliver at least 100 bombs against American targets. The implications: ‘within the next four years, the USSR will attain the capability of seriously damaging vital centers of the USA, provided it strikes a surprise blow … The possibility of a decisive initial attack cannot be excluded.’ 25

There was also widespread concern that as the size of the adversary’s arsenal grew, so would the likelihood that the USSR would be tempted to launch an attack on the US. According to NSC 68,

when it calculates that it has a sufficient atomic capability to make a surprise attack on us, nullifying our atomic superiority and creating a military situation decisively in its favor, the Kremlin might be tempted to strike swiftly and with stealth. The existence of two large atomic capabilities in such a relationship might well act, therefore, not as a deterrent, but as an incitement to war. 26

Adding to American fears produced by these projected technological trends was an historic analogy that held great meaning for many Americans, at the leadership level and among the public. As Michael Sherry notes, ‘all postwar planners worked in the shadow of Pearl Harbor’. 27 The Japanese strike of 1941 had vividly demonstrated the value of surprise attack for an aggressor state. A Soviet nuclear arsenal simply meant that the US would, in the near future, face the daily prospects of an atomic Pearl Harbor on a vast and perhaps decisive scale. Given the awful prospects of a Soviet nuclear attack on the US, a number of military officers, political leaders and commentators found the logic of preventive war irresistible in the critical years before the USSR could retaliate in force directly against the US. Marc Trachtenberg emphasizes correctly that the advocates of preventive war were ‘by no means limited to a lunatic fringe’. It was a ‘surprisingly widespread’ view supported by ‘serious Americans’. 28

Interestingly, most advocates of preventive war did not simply justify this option in raw strategic terms. Instead, the most common argument marshalled to justify preventive war was a normative claim that America could consider it a legitimate act of self-defence against an enemy dedicated to America’s destruction. Military analyst George Fielding Eliot vividly captured this alternative moral position. On one side of the scale, ‘thoughtful Americans would be reluctant to begin a war, doubly reluctant to begin one under the most favorable conditions … that is, by a surprise air attack with atomic weapons’. But, Eliot contended, ‘We are compelled to set in the opposite scale to the dictates of that conscience the stark necessity of self-preservation.’ When we do, ‘considerations of national security … assume a moral quality’ that make us ‘guiltless’. 29 Samuel Huntington went beyond the moral freedom to launch preventive war that Eliot described to advocate a positive moral obligation on the part of a national government faced with such a great threat. ‘The government which did not engage in preventive action’ to arrest a ‘serious reduction in relative military strength’ vis-à-vis a ‘clearly hostile’ state ‘would be morally guilty of gross dereliction of duty to its citizens’. 30 President Dwight Eisenhower, in a moment of frustration over the seemingly endless arms race with the USSR, seemed sympathetic to this claim. Eisenhower worried that the cost of such a race would ‘either drive us to war—or into some form of dictatorial government’. If this were the case, the President argued, ‘we would be forced to consider whether or not our duty to future generations did not require us to initiate war at the most propitious moment that we could designate.’ 31 General Orvil Anderson, who had publicly argued in favour of preventive war when commandant of the Air War College, put the moral issue this way:

Which is the greater immorality—preventive war as a means to keep the USSR from becoming a nuclear power; or, to allow a totalitarian dictatorial system to develop a means whereby the free world could be intimidated, blackmailed, and possibly destroyed?

for Anderson, ‘the greater immorality lay in our decision to permit the development of a militant system of power capable of destroying the Free World’. 32

This self-defence claim was most concrete in the so-called ultimatum option, which combined America’s early efforts to negotiate a system of international control of atomic weapons with the coercive benefits of preventive military action. In essence, this ‘ultimatum option’ would begin with an American demand that the USSR negotiate in good faith on a scheme to control these weapons, follow through on an agreement to abandon the quest for an atomic arsenal, then permit international inspections to verify compliance. At the start of this process Soviet leaders would be warned that if they refused to co-operate the US would initiate an atomic attack of its own to prevent the USSR from becoming a nuclear power. In the autumn of 1948 the New York Times science writer William Laurence created a stir with a widely discussed article on this issue in the Saturday Evening Post. Laurence argued that the US should promote and uphold a new international principle that would label any state that refused to give up the right to atomic weapons as an aggressor, an aggressor that was then subject to punishment under the UN Charter. According to Laurence, ‘such action … should include the right to prevent the aggressor from continuing production of atomic bombs and dangerous materials’. The US ‘would be saying to the Kremlin in effect that we would be compelled to “destroy your atomic plants before they are ready to operate”’, and ‘if that means war, it will be a war you will force on us by your insistence on an atomic-armament race which must inevitably lead to war anyway’. 33 In theory, the ultimatum approach gave the Soviet Union an opportunity to comply peacefully and of its own volition with the legitimate global interest in controlling atomic weapons—a goal that both the US and the USSR allegedly shared. If the Soviets refused to comply with the ultimatum, Americans could rest assured that the USSR itself was at fault for any subsequent US attack. In 1949, prominent Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts argued strongly in favour of an ultimatum plan during a meeting with members of the US delegation to the United Nations. Senator Lodge argued that America’s position should be that ‘it was internationally wrong not to accept the principles of international control’; this would have the effect of ‘making it a crime for a country not to come into the international control scheme’. Pushing this point repeatedly in the discussion, Senator Lodge further characterized the failure to join the international control plan and submit to international inspections as ‘an act of aggression’. According to the meeting minutes,

Senator Lodge thought there were two choices: we could either drift along as we were doing, or we could decide to bring the matter up at the time which would be best for us, perhaps by giving an ultimatum that by failing to join a control scheme, the Soviets would be aggressors. 34

Preventive war truly exploded as a public issue following a widely publicized speech by Secretary of the Navy Francis Matthews on 25 August 1950. Speaking to a crowd of over

100,000 gathered at the Boston naval shipyard, Secretary Matthews used blunt language to declare that the time had come to confront the USSR in a decisive showdown to prevent the further erosion of power to this mortal enemy. The answer to this erosion of American power, Matthews announced, wrapping his proposal in the comforting normative language of America’s simple quest for international co-operation and stability, is to force a war with the USSR and thus become the world’s ‘first aggressors for peace’. 35 Matthews explained,

It is a role which, in my opinion, we cannot escape … we should first get ready to ward off any possible attack … and we should boldly proclaim our undeniable objective to be a world at peace. To have peace we should be willing to pay, and declare our intentions to pay, any price—even the price of instituting a war to compel cooperation for peace. 36

Just days after Secretary Matthews’ speech, General Anderson at the Air War College created a firestorm by advocating preventive war during an interview with journalists from an Alabama newspaper. In comments that were picked up by newspapers across the country, General Anderson was even more direct than Secretary Matthews:

To assume that the Russians won’t use their A-bombs if we sit by and watch them build them is a dangerous assumption. Joe Stalin is a realist. We’ve got to wake up and be realists, too. I advocate saying to Stalin: ‘Joe, you’re not kidding anybody. You say you’re going to destroy us?’ And if he says yes, we must conclude that civilization demands that we act.

The solution, he believed, was obvious. ‘Give me the orders to do it and I can break up Russia’s five A-bomb nests in a week.’ For General Anderson, this was self-defence that even God would endorse. ‘And when I went up to Christ I think I could explain to him why I wanted to do it—now—before it’s too late. I think I could explain to him that I had saved civilization.’ 37 General Nathan Twining, who was about to become Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force at the time, defended Anderson’s views a number of years later by pointing out that they were based on the ultimatum option. According to Twining, Anderson’s opening claim was that ‘it is clear that the Soviet Union intends to destroy our system of government and our way of life’. To push back against this expansionist pressure, the US should ‘issue an ultimatum … The ultimatum will, of course, be rejected by the USSR. At this point we will have established the basic morality of our position and will be free, in fact obliged, to act.’ 38

Preventive War as Aggression

In the American domestic debate on the preventive war question, there is no doubt that the definition of self-defence expanded broadly enough to include preventive war was soundly rejected. Instead, the belief that preventive war was aggression, and therefore an intolerable crime that the US would not commit, became an explicit part of the American security zeitgeist of the early Cold War. The anti-preventive war norm was so widespread, deeply engrained and accepted as a dominant self-evident American attitude that most simply wrote off the preventive war option as politically impossible. 39 In great contrast to the view that would emerge in the early 1990s and become further entrenched after 9/11, this normative perspective served as a decisive constraint on American power and the range of policy options considered viable for several decades. A few key examples will illustrate this dominant perspective.

Prominent scholars of the period were virtually unanimous in asserting that the normative link between preventive war and aggression would indeed keep the US from pursuing this option. Hans Morgenthau, widely considered the father of American realism, breezily dismissed preventive war in his landmark study Politics Among Nations as politically impossible because it is ‘abhorrent to democratic public opinion’. 40 Arnold Wolfers, whom McGeorge Bundy called the ‘dean’ of American students of international relations, asserted that ‘the idea of a preventive war is so abhorrent to American feeling that no government in this country, to judge from the state of public opinion today, could hope to gain popular support for such an adventure’. Even if preventive war were initiated at the urging of ‘high-minded and idealistic internationalists’ to save ‘mankind … from the greatest of all catastrophes’, ‘the American people could never be persuaded to such a course’ because they would ‘rule it out as being too immoral for serious consideration’. 41

Within the Truman Administration, Secretary of State Dean Acheson took the lead in beating back any suggestion that America should consider preventive war, calling it ‘unthinkable for us. It would violate every moral principle of our people.’ 42 In early 1950 he vowed to resign before acquiescing to such a move. 43 Without doubt, the most important and definitive policy statement on preventive war in this period is NSC 68. It states in forceful language that ‘The USA cannot … engage in war except as a reaction to aggression of so clear and compelling a nature as to bring the overwhelming majority of our people to accept the use of military force.’ 44 As a result,

It goes without saying that the idea of ‘preventive’ war—in the sense of a military attack not provoked by a military attack upon us or our allies—is generally unacceptable to Americans … [A] surprise attack upon the Soviet Union, despite the provocations of recent Soviet behavior, would be repugnant to many Americans. Although the American people would probably rally in support of the war effort, the shock of responsibility for a surprise attack would be morally corrosive. Many would doubt that it was a ‘just war’ and that all reasonable possibilities for a peaceful settlement had been explored in good faith. 45

Simply put, it is not in the American ‘character to wage aggressive or preventive war’. 46

Just days after Navy Secretary Matthew’s pro-preventive war speech, President Truman announced in a television address, ‘We do not believe in aggressive or preventive war.’ Why? ‘Such war is the weapon of dictators, not of free countries like the United States. We are arming only for the defence against aggression.’ 47 In his farewell address Truman returned to this theme. ‘Now, once in a while,’ he noted,

I get a letter from some impatient person asking, Why don’t we get it over with? Why don’t we issue an ultimatum—make all-out war, drop the atomic bomb? For most Americans, the answer is quite simple: We are not made that way. We are a moral people. Peace is our goal, with justice and freedom. We cannot, of our own free will, violate the very principles that we are striving to defend. 48

Beyond the Truman Administration there was a lack of organized political opposition to the President on the preventive war question. In fact, most major figures in the Republican Party went on record in opposition to preventive war because they linked it to the moral stigma of aggression. Senator Robert Taft of Ohio declared that ‘the theory of a preventive war is contrary to every American principle and every moral principle’. 49 Former President Herbert Hoover made it widely known that he ‘abhor[ed] the thought of’ preventive war’, while New York governor and two-time Republican nominee for president Thomas Dewey bluntly accepted that ‘America will never wage a preventive war.’ 50 In his first major address on foreign policy as a candidate for the presidency, Dwight Eisenhower staked his position on American principles and preventive war, reiterating points he had made in the past, both as a five-star general and as president of Columbia University.

We must make sure that every nation—ourselves, our friends, and the Iron Curtain countries—understands the sincerity of our devotion to peace. We reject all talk and proposals of preventive war—there is no such thing. Live men and happy families … are the symbols of our purpose. 51

It is clear that during the most dangerous years of the early Cold War, the idea of preventive war was linked to aggression, and thus considered an impossible option for the US. But the question still remains: why did the ‘preventive war as aggression’ concept win out in the policy process? Why was the ‘preventive war as self-defence’ claim fully marginalized? While this consensus view rejecting preventive war certainly meshed well with long-standing domestic conceptions of the American character, which eschewed militarism and violent power politics, it was not a policy decision grounded in purely abstract domestic identities and traditions. After all, self-defence is a long-standing American tradition as well. Explaining this policy outcome requires an analysis of international level events that shaped the domestic politics of this problem in decisive ways.

Pearl Harbor, Nuremberg and the Criminalization of Preventive War

In one sense, it might appear that those advocating preventive attack were repudiating the pledge to renounce war as an instrument of national policy so forcefully articulated in the Kellogg–Briand Pact of 1928. Perhaps the external shock of World War II turned the lessons of World War I upside down. Viewed in retrospect, the burst of enthusiasm for renouncing war in the 1920s and early 1930s was widely condemned as ‘utopianism’, a naïve and dangerous blindness to the realities of world politics that seemed to dictate the inevitability of power politics and armed conflict. After all, critics noted correctly, the earnest popular quest for great power peace, and the subsequent multilateral agreements condemning war as criminal behaviour, did nothing to stop Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan from unleashing the violent fury of war once again. 52 Many concluded that this apparently desperate desire for peace actually encouraged the aggressors of World War II. 53 In the US, the realist school of international relations was ascendant, and statesmen were advised to move beyond earlier dreams of renouncing war. In this intellectual climate, one might expect that the arguments casting preventive war as legitimate self-defence would provide enough normative cover to ease whatever moral qualms this policy might stir up within the American political system. If the prohibition on aggressive war from the inter-war period were still taken seriously, then a radically expanded definition of self-defence might be the solution.

Despite the shattered hopes of the inter-war period, World War II did not lead American leaders and its citizens to fall back on fatalistic pre-World War I concepts of war as not only a necessary, but a normatively unproblematic, tool of statecraft, a ‘mere’ continuation of policy by other means. Even though those ‘scraps of paper’ like Kellogg–Briand did not restrain the militarism of the 1930s and early 1940s, the consequences of German and Japanese aggression actually reinforced and magnified the lessons first learned through World War I. While the inherent right to use military force in self-defence remained sacrosanct, war once again proved to be an institution that brought immense misery. And in the Second World War it meant a combined death toll of between 50 million and 70 million, a death toll four to five times higher than in the Great War of 1914–18. Among these deaths, spread over a far greater geographic area, over twice as many civilians died as military personnel, from direct violence, disease or famine.

One of the most influential American leaders in this period, former Secretary of War and Secretary of State Henry Stimson, articulated how the external shock of two world wars had affected both beliefs and action by mid-century. Stimson’s public service at the highest levels of government spanned a 34-year period that bracketed the outbreak of the First World War in Europe and the Allied victory in the Second World War. This particular time period was crucial for shaping Stimson’s attitudes on war and makes him a useful proxy for understanding why the anti-preventive war position was dominant in the early Cold War. As Stimson described it in a 1947 Foreign Affairs article, World War I alone forged the belief that ‘the man who makes aggressive war at all makes war against mankind. That is an exact, not a rhetorical description of the crime of aggressive war.’ By the time Hitler initiated his own wars of aggression, Stimson insists the ‘moral judgment’ against this crime dated ‘back a generation … Aggression is an offense, and we all know it; we have know it for a generation. It is an offense so deep and heinous that we cannot endure its repetition.’ 54 While Stimson’s argument here was in defence of holding political and military leaders of the Nazi regime accountable at Nuremberg, some months later he used the same moral position on aggression to pass judgement on the idea of an American-initiated preventive war against the emerging Soviet threat. Not only was preventive war wrong when judged against absolute moral standards, it was particularly repulsive for America. ‘I cannot believe,’ Stimson asserted,

that this view [in support of preventive war] is widely held. For it is worse than nonsense; it results from a … cynical incomprehension of what the people of the world will tolerate from any nation. Worst of all, this theory indicates a totally wrong assessment of the basic attitudes and motives of the American people. 55

Another prominent voice, John Foster Dulles, who would become Eisenhower’s Secretary of State in 1953, shared Stimson’s view that the tragically repetitive history of the early 20th century had forged normative shifts in attitudes towards war and its initiation. According to Dulles, ‘we belong to a generation that has already subjected countless human beings to incredible horror’, the result of which is an emotional response—a ‘fear of war as never before’. From this emotional reaction comes a normative commitment to a ‘moral condemnation of war [that] has become so well-nigh universal and so intense that it has to be reckoned with as never before … We are moved as never before to reject war as a means for achieving good ends.’ As Dulles saw it,

In the United States there is a public sentiment which, if maintained, will be a fierce obstacle against any temptation to launch a so-called ‘preventive war’ or deliberately to prod or trick potential enemies into acts which could plausibly be made a pretext for war … [P]ublic opinion exercises a powerful and, we can believe, a conclusive restraint against any who might feel that the choices are all so bad that war may be relatively tolerable. 56

It is impossible, outside the immediate experience of World War II, to understand why most Americans after the war saw the preventive attack option as aggression. But the rejection of preventive war was more than just a response to the abstract anti-war principles that emerged from World War I. It was more than just a reaction to the terrible aggregate costs of World War II. It took the concrete examples offered by Imperial Japan, more precisely the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the prosecution of Nazi officials for ‘crimes against peace’ at Nuremberg, to provide ready symbols of criminal aggression that were linked explicitly to preventive war. These external symbols of what America was not, and that defined what America would not do, made preventive war taboo as a policy option.

From a strategic perspective, the surprise Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor was part of a broader military push to rapidly seize territory throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The objective was to arrest what Japanese leaders saw as the inevitable decline of Japanese power relative to the US, an admittedly desperate move to secure Japan’s place among the great powers. A preventive knockout blow against the American Pacific fleet might set back American power long enough to keep it from intervening against Japanese conquests. In defeat less than four years later, Prime Minister Tojo argued that the strike on Pearl Harbor and other territories was legitimate self-defence, justified as a response ‘to an Allied policy that intended to slowly strangle the island nation with economic and military blockades’. 57 During the Tokyo war crimes trials, the Japanese defence argued that because the Kellogg–Briand treaty implicitly authorized the use of force in self-defence, Japanese leaders were not guilty of any international custom or law against aggressive war.

In the American mind, however, the attack on Pearl Harbor was immediately branded as raw aggression. It is almost impossible to overstate how powerfully symbolic Pearl Harbor was for Americans during and after the war. The language in President Roosevelt’s address to Congress the very next day set the tone for the standard American interpretation of this act for years to come. It was an act of ‘treachery’, of ‘infamy’, an ‘unprovoked and dastardly attack’. As Emily Rosenberg points out, American perceptions of this attack were not limited to a particular characterization of the act alone. Most important, Japan’s preventive attack shaped in full America’s core beliefs about Japan’s very character as a nation, and allowed Americans to draw stark contrasts with the American character. The preventive attack proved to Americans that Japan was deceitful, militaristic, even savage, while the US was inherently peace-loving, morally superior and civilized. 58 For President Truman at the end of the war, the ‘unwarranted attack by Japan on Pearl Harbor’ justified his decision to use the terrible power of the atomic bomb on Japanese cities. According to Truman, ‘When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast.’ 59 For his central role in leading Japan’s preventive war, despite his insistence that it was justifiable self-defence, Prime Minister Tojo was hanged.

While Japan’s preventive attack was responsible for drawing America into World War II, the Nuremberg war crimes trials after its ultimate victory in Europe cemented the link between preventive war and criminal aggression as a centrepiece of international law. The moral and legal case for this link was made most explicitly by US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, who was tapped by President Truman to lead the American prosecution team trying Nazi leaders. Jackson understood how important the shared experience of the recent war was for fully defining and criminalizing international aggression, and for building on the impulses that emerged from World War I to hold the Nazis accountable for the crimes of World War II. As he wrote to President Truman,

Now we stand at one of those rare moments when the thought and institutions and habits of the world have been shaken by the impact of world war on the lives of countless millions. Such occasions rarely come and quickly pass. We are put under a heavy responsibility to see that our behavior during this period will direct the world’s thought toward a firmer enforcement of laws of international conduct, so as to make war less attractive to those who have governments and the destinies of peoples in their power. 60

Drawing on principles agreed to by the Allies in August 1945, the charter of the International Military Tribunal established ‘crimes against peace’ as the first charge levelled against the Nazi leaders. In rather vague terms, this was described as ‘planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression’. 61 It was left to Justice Jackson to lay out in more precise terms just what this meant. He began his opening statement with a dramatic normative claim about the stakes raised in this moment in history. ‘The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated.’ 62 His most important contribution to ideas about war, however, was a highly circumscribed definition of legitimate self-defence. According to Jackson, an ‘honestly defensive war’ must involve ‘resistance’ to either a ‘declaration of war’ by another state, an ‘invasion by its armed forces … of the territory of another state’, or an ‘attack by its land, naval, or air forces … on the territory, vessels, or aircraft of another state’. Using force under any other conditions must be considered a ‘crime against peace’. 63

Of particular relevance to the future strategic dilemma faced by the US is Jackson’s absolute condemnation of using force to alter the political status quo in the international system. Like many Americans before the war, Jackson conceded that the European status quo in the 1920s and 1930s created ‘desperate problems’ for Germany that ‘warranted the boldest measures short of war’ to correct. Nonetheless, Jackson expressed the dominant American sentiment at Nuremberg that no matter how objectionable any country might find the international status quo, ‘aggressive warfare is an illegal means for settling those grievances or for altering those conditions … All other methods—persuasion, propaganda, economic competition, diplomacy—were open to an aggrieved country, but aggressive warfare was outlawed.’ 64 President Truman shared Justice Jackson’s enthusiasm for boldly establishing these normative and legal principles. In fact, he asserted that ‘one of the greatest things to come out of this war … [is] the proposition that aggressive war is criminal and will be so treated’. 65 In broader political terms, the moral and legal grounds for prosecuting members of the Nazi government were embraced by the American public, most members of Congress, and newspaper and magazine commentary across the country. 66

A mere four years after the conclusion of the Nuremberg trials, just nine years after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, came 1950, the year of maximum policy agitation over the preventive war option, the year in which the anti-preventive war norm was the most explicitly articulated idea that came to dominate the policy debate. Despite the tremendous strategic pressure created by the projected threat of Soviet atomic weapons, American leaders could not betray the principles that had emerged from the tragic experience imposed on them by their recently defeated enemies. Most important, the vast majority of Americans at all levels of the political system refused to cast themselves into the moral pit defined by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan by succumbing to the preventive war temptation.

The Shifting Politics of Preventive War

In part, the passage of time alone helps explain why the ‘preventive war is aggression’ interpretation was weakening by the early 1990s. Most Americans after the Cold War had no personal experience of the horrors of world war from the early 20th century. Two generations had passed since Americans had personally confronted the aggression of Germany and Japan, an external shock that vividly linked preventive war with immorality and criminality in the minds of most Americans. But this new post-Cold War receptiveness to ‘preventive war as legitimate self-defence’ was not simply the product of an historical vacuum created by the passage of time. Specific international level events in the intervening years provided the components of a new conceptual framework that was nurtured by advocates of preventive war, and this new framework gave these advocates leverage in the political system they never had at mid-century.

The roots of a new normative claim justifying preventive military force—specifically, to arrest the pursuit of nuclear weapons by particular states—can be traced back to the early 1960s. In the midst of the broader Cold War turmoil of the 1960s, one issue—nuclear weapons proliferation—generated near universal global consensus. The potential for general proliferation beyond the existing nuclear powers—the US, the USSR, Great Britain, and France—was made tangible by strong indications that Communist China was rapidly closing in on a nuclear test of its own. 67 For President Kennedy, a Chinese test was ‘likely to be historically the most significant and worst event of the 1960s’. In early 1963, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy noted that the President believed China’s nuclear weapons ‘would so upset the world political scene [that] it would be intolerable’. 68 On one level, American leaders saw a Chinese bomb as frightening in itself. Kennedy worried that China would exhibit a new assertiveness—backed up by an atomic capability—throughout Asia, jeopardizing America’s power position in the region. 69 On a second level, the nuclear weapons test by Communist China, conducted on 16 October 1964, had a much longer-term and more important impact on American policy and global norms on nuclear proliferation. For both President Kennedy and President Johnson, this development would not simply add one more nuclear power to this small club: it would have a broad ripple effect throughout the international system as other states, as diverse as Japan, India, Israel, Brazil, the United Arab Republic, Germany and Turkey, moved decisively to emulate China’s quest for the bomb. In 1963 Kennedy characterized this future proliferation scenario as a true global problem:

I ask you to stop and think what it would mean to have weapons in so many hands, in the hands of countries large and small, stable and unstable, responsible and irresponsible, scattered throughout the world. There would be no rest for anyone then, no stability, no real security, and no chance for effective disarmament. 70

This claim attracted strong support internationally, and by June 1968 the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) was ready for a vote in the United Nations General Assembly. At its core, the NPT’s description of preventing nuclear proliferation as in the inherent security interests of all states was formally endorsed by a General Assembly vote of 95 to 4, including both superpowers and the bulk of the non-aligned states.

It is important to note that while nonproliferation was emerging as a new normative commitment within the international system, the NPT does not establish any sanctions that can be imposed against states that violate its principles, other than the withholding of support for peaceful atomic research and energy programmes. The NPT does not include any mechanisms for coercing noncompliant states to participate in the nonproliferation regime. It is a system that depends on voluntary co-operation with a programme of inspections to ensure both nuclear weapons and non-weapons states alike are following the system’s provisions. While the Johnson Administration had no direct intent to craft an NPT for the mobilization of international support for preventive military action as an anti-proliferation tool, the NPT had established a new normative commitment for future American leaders to draw from to attempt the legitimization, at least domestically, of preventive war.

An important test of international attitudes on coercive anti-proliferation was the 1981 Israeli air-strike against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor. On 7 June 1981, an Israeli flight of American-built F-15s and F-16s conducted a surprise attack on the Iraqi facility, which Israel suspected was intended for the production of atomic weapons material. In defence of Israel’s audacious move, Prime Minister Menachem Begin portrayed it as a

morally supreme act of national self-defence. Israel has nothing to apologize for. Ours is a just cause … There won’t be another Holocaust in history … We shall defend our people with all the means at our disposal. We shall not allow any enemy to develop weapons of mass destruction against us. 71

In a broader sense, the raid opens a window to expose rival normative views on military attacks as an anti-proliferation option. Israel was not completely isolated in its argument that preventive attack in this case should be normatively legitimate as a measure of self-defence. Prominent members of Congress, including Senator Alan Cranston (D-CA), Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-NY) and Senator Alfonse D’Amato (R-NY), were on the leading edge of a new perspective on the proliferation problem, that the mere suspicion that particular states, such as Iraq, are developing a nuclear weapons programme is good enough to conclude that these states will have nuclear weapons some day, and that the anti-proliferation principle creates a right to use force to stop that nuclear programme in its early stages. This claim was clearly an early precursor to a position that would become widespread a decade later. Those who accepted this position believed that international safeguards against violations of the NPT were hollow as a means to ensure compliance. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was unable to detect diversion of nuclear material from a peaceful programme to a weapons programme. If anti-proliferation is a normative imperative, so goes the argument, then the use of preventive force is a legitimate means to achieve the same goal. 72

Despite this effort to revive the self-defence basis for preventive military attack, the official American, and global, position was that this preventive military air-strike was not justified by the prevailing nonproliferation norm and violated deep-rooted norms on the use of military force. Most important, the US actually teamed up with Iraq in the United Nations to craft a Security Council resolution that ‘strongly condemns the military attack by Israel in clear violation of the United Nations Charter and the norms of international conduct’. 73 On 19 June, the resolution was approved unanimously by the Security Council. In her Security Council speech before the vote, US Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick declared that the US remained committed to dealing with ‘the dangers of nuclear proliferation’. ‘Nevertheless,’ she asserted, ‘we believe the means Israel chose to quiet its fears about the purposes of Iraq’s nuclear program have hurt, and not helped, the peace and security of the area.’ 74

Ten years later, Iraq was again at the centre of a defining moment in the changing politics of preventive war. Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the events that followed served as critical external events that tipped the domestic debate in the US towards greater acceptance of preventive force. It allowed preventive war enthusiasts to craft a new conceptual framework that specifically linked preventive war with self-defence. This new framework was built on three specific effects of the Gulf War. First, as Michael Klare has described it, Iraq put a ‘face’ on the notion of ‘rogue’ or ‘outlaw’ states—a concept that emerged in the waning years of the Cold War—states that flouted the standards of the civilized world. As an American defensive force rushed to Saudi Arabia in the weeks after the Iraqi invasion, President George H. W. Bush asserted that ‘Iraq’s invasion was more than a military attack on tiny Kuwait. It was a ruthless assault on the very essence of international order and civilized ideals.’ 75 If such states place themselves outside the civilized world through their behaviour, character or putative intentions, then, many began to argue, the civilized world had the right to use extraordinary means to punish them or neutralize them as threats. 76 Second, the Gulf War not only succeeded in driving Iraq out of Kuwait, it led to the discovery of an advanced nuclear weapons programme that admittedly came as a ‘shock’ to policymakers, proliferation experts and the IAEA. Most important, this discovery was a vivid display of the porous nature of NPT safeguards meant to prevent the development of nuclear weapons by NPT members. As a consequence, many lost confidence in the traditional nonproliferation tools offered by the IAEA. 77 But as Richard Betts has noted, even though the NPT might be a poor mechanism for actually preventing a determined state from developing nuclear weapons, the treaty can serve as a ‘rallying point’ to mobilize domestic and international support for punishing violators. 78 The third effect of the Gulf War was that it led many to the belief that only war produced the conditions making disarmament of Iraq possible. Some observers worried aloud: what if Iraq had not attacked Kuwait before it had a fully developed nuclear capability to back up its aggressive designs? In an odd way, this question implies that the US was lucky Saddam Hussein blundered into war with a powerful coalition that discovered his nuclear programme in the course of a war meant simply to turn back Iraqi aggression. 79 Moreover, coalition forces were able to achieve their goals rapidly and with minimal friendly casualties, spiking confidence in the military option even further.

Together, these three Gulf War effects offered a new normative position that was increasingly articulated over the next several years: if nuclear proliferation constitutes the pre-eminent threat in the post-Cold War period, and traditional co-operative nonproliferation mechanisms are incapable of stopping the determined rogue state from becoming a nuclear power, why should America and the international community be normatively restrained from using relatively low-cost military force to stop this dangerous trend? As a direct consequence of the Iraq war, in January 1992 the UN Security Council, during the first ever gathering of heads of state, unanimously approved a presidential statement reaffirming that the proliferation of all weapons of mass destruction constitutes a threat to international peace and security. All member states, it asserted, had an ‘obligation’ to prevent proliferation, and the ‘members of the Council will take appropriate measures in the case of any violations notified to them by the IAEA’. 80 While international opinion certainly had not moved so strongly against proliferation that ‘appropriate measures’ now included the preventive use of military force, labelling proliferation as a threat to international peace and security helped create what can be called an ‘anti-proliferation imperative’, an imperative that, in theory, could lead to Security Council endorsement of military force under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter to prevent the development of nuclear weapons by particular states. 81

At the height of the North Korean crisis, President Clinton’s National Security Advisor Anthony Lake brought all three elements of the Gulf War effect together by arguing in a Foreign Affairs article that ‘outlaw states’, like Iraq and North Korea, ‘not only choose to remain outside the family of nations’. They ‘also assault its basic values’. America, he contended, ‘has a special responsibility … to neutralize’ these threats. A North Korean nuclear capability would not only pose a grave security risk, it would threaten ‘the integrity of the global non-proliferation regime’. 82 According to the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counterproliferation policy in the Clinton Administration, while military options to forcibly prevent proliferation come with ‘significant downsides and risk … each also could prove the least bad alternative in certain situations’. Ultimately, ‘the threat of preventive military action could possibly prove a useful adjunct to other proliferation prevention initiatives’. 83 With this new conceptual framework firmly in place after the Gulf War, it was available as a policy tool for those agitating for military strikes against North Korea in 1994, as well as Iraq in 2003.


What are the implications of this analysis for the future of preventive war in American defence politics? Like World War I and World War II, and like the Gulf War of 1991, the Iraq war of 2003 and its aftermath will undoubtedly serve as a powerful international-level event that will shape the domestic politics of preventive war in important ways. At the international level, the rancorous split between the US and much of the international community over going to war demonstrated that the shift towards conceiving of preventive war as a form of legitimate self-defence is largely confined to the US; it is not an international phenomenon, despite America’s claim that it is serving global defence interests through coercive nuclear nonproliferation. The outcome of the Iraq conflict is not self-evident at this point in time. But as an external event it will undoubtedly undercut American preventive war enthusiasts and bolster the political strength of the sceptics.

This does not mean, however, that the Iraq war will produce a swing back towards the belief that preventive war is criminal aggression. There is no evidence from the evolving politics of Iraq within the US that a critical mass of American leaders or opinion makers see it in these terms. There is no evidence to suggest that Americans are questioning the moral or legal bases of preventive war against rogue states in the service of the ‘anti-proliferation imperative’. Instead, the debate is over whether the war was necessary or smart from a strategic military perspective. Critics charge that the Bush Administration exaggerated the threat, that it failed to appreciate the kinds of political and social forces war would unleash within Iraq that the US could not control, that it mismanaged the occupation after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Americans still support the self-defence claims at the heart of global nonproliferation objectives. Americans still accept the concept of ‘rogue states’ that do not deserve the same sovereign protections from external interference that most states deserve. But as a powerful external event shaping American domestic politics, the Iraq war will most likely rattle the high level of confidence so many Americans placed in the military option from the early 1990s through to the early 2000s. For the indefinite future, preventive war enthusiasts will perpetually have to struggle against Iraq as a symbol of overconfidence in intelligence collection and the dangers of unintended and unmanageable consequences that accompany the use of military force. In a contested political struggle to shape policy, preventive war sceptics will always have Iraq as a symbol of what can go terribly wrong, even if preventive war is not challenged politically as illegitimate and criminally aggressive.


Jack Levy, ‘Declining Power and the Preventive Motivation for War’, World Politics 40 (October 1987), pp. 88–9.

For a useful discussion of these issues see Karl P. Mueller et al., Striking First: Preemptive and Preventive Attack in US National Security Policy (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 2006), Chapter 3.

For the most detailed discussion of the idea of preventive war in American policymaking from the 1940s to the present, see Scott A. Silverstone, Preventive War and American Democracy (New York: Routledge, 2007).

Peter Gourevitch, ‘The Second Image Reversed: The International Sources of Domestic Politics’, International Organization 32, no. 4 (Autumn 1978), pp. 881–912.

Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans. J. J. Graham (London: N. Trubner, 1873 [1832]), Chapter 1.

Yoram Dinstein, War, Aggression and Self-Defence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 70, 72–3;

James T. Shotwell, War as an Instrument of National Policy (New York: Garland Publishing, 1974), pp. 14–15.

John Mueller, Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War (New York: Basic Books, 1989).

Printed in Robert H. Ferrell, Peace in their Time: The Origins of the Kellogg–Briand Pact (New York: Archon Books, 1968), p. 268.

Peter Maguire, Law and War: An American Story (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), pp. 79, 83; Telford Taylor, Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy (Chicago, IL: Quadrangle Books, 1970), pp. 66–7.

Sheldon Glueck, The Nuremberg Trial and Aggressive War (New York: Kraus Reprint Group, 1966), pp. 29–31. Similar initiatives in the western hemisphere followed the example set in Europe. By unanimous resolution in 1928, North and South American states at the Sixth Pan-American Conference agreed that ‘war of aggression constitutes an international crime against the human species’. The US ratified the 1933 Anti-War Treaty of Non-Aggression and Conciliation, which ‘condemn[ed] wars of aggression … making them impossible and establishing their invalidity’. Ibid., 31–2.

A. J. P. Taylor calls the Locarno Treaty the true peace settlement of World War I. A. J. P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (New York: Atheneum, 1961), p. 57.

Jon Jacobson, Locarno Diplomacy: Germany and the West 1925–1929 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 3.

Ferrell, Peace in their Time, p. 268. The specific phrasing used in the treaty, ‘war as an instrument of policy’, was drawn explicitly from a reading of Clausewitz’s text by Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler. In a June 1926 conversation with French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand in Paris, Dr Butler suggested that it was time for ‘civilized governments of the world formally to renounce war as a instrument of policy’. Ibid., p. 66.

Shotwell, War as an Instrument of National Policy, p. 103.

Ferrell, Peace in their Time, p. 73.

Ibid., pp. 99, 104, 129, 238, 243; Shotwell, War as an Instrument of National Policy, pp. 83–4; John Chalmers Vinson, William E. Borah and the Outlawry of War (Athens, GA: University of George Press, 1957), pp. 1, 38, 75, 96, 135, 156, 174; Stephen J. Kneeshaw, In Pursuit of Peace: The American Reaction to the Kellogg–Briand Pact, 1928–1929 (New York: Garland Publishing, 1991), p. 23.

Shotwell, War as an Instrument of National Policy, pp. 108–9.

Ferrell, Peace in their Time, p. 150 fn. 17, pp. 164, 226–7.

Ibid., p. 163; Kneeshaw, In Pursuit of Peace, pp. 24–5; Denys P. Myers, Origin and Conclusion of the Paris Pact (New York: Garland Publishing, 1972 [1929]), pp. 44, 46–7. The State Department was also wary that any pledge on aggressive war would tie the US too closely to the League of Nations as the only organization assigned to stand against acts of aggression. Kneeshaw, In Pursuit of Peace, pp. 50–1.

Myers, Origin and Conclusion of the Paris Pact, p. 46; Ferrell, Peace in their Time, p. 174.

Myers, Origin and Conclusion of the Paris Pact, p. 4; Kneeshaw, In Pursuit of Peace, pp. 52–3.

Shotwell, War as an Instrument of National Policy, pp. 57, 59, 132, 138, 139, 209–10.

Cord Meyer, Peace or Anarchy (Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1948), pp. 90–1.

NSC 68: United States Objectives and Programs for National Security, 7 April 1950, Foreign Relations of the United States 1950 [hereafter FRUS], Vol. I (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1977), p. 228.

Ibid., p. 251.

Ibid., p. 266.

Michael S. Sherry, Preparing for the Next War: American Plans for Postwar Defense, 1941–45 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1977), pp. 27, 209.

Marc Trachtenberg, ‘A “Wasting Asset”: American Strategy and the Shifting Nuclear Balance, 1949–54’, International Security 13 (Winter 1988–89), pp. 5, 7. See also Russell D. Buhite and William Christopher Hamel, ‘War for Peace: The Question of an American Preventive War Against the Soviet Union, 1945–55’, Diplomatic History 14 (Summer 1990), p. 367.

George Fielding Eliot, If Russia Strikes (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1949), pp. 23–4.

Samuel P. Huntington, ‘To Choose Peace or War: Is there a Place for Preventive War in American Policy?’ United States Naval Institute Proceedings 83 (April 1957), p. 362.

Trachtenberg, ‘A “Wasting Asset”’, p. 39.

Nathan Twining, Neither Liberty nor Safety: A Hard Look at US Military Policy and Strategy (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966), p. 19.

‘Laurence Urged New Doctrine’, New York Times (14 November 1948), p. 5, emphasis added. See also Eliot, If Russia Strikes, pp. 21–2, 252. British philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was best known for his passionate agitation on behalf of banning the bomb once the Soviets had their own arsenal, was actually a strong proponent of the ultimatum option. He believed international control was the most morally defensible outcome to the problem of atomic proliferation, so even if the threat of attack failed and America had to follow through with its preventive war, this outcome was morally superior to the tragedy of a future war between two nuclear capable states; Ronald W. Clark, The Life of Bertrand Russell (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976), pp. 523–9.

Minutes of the 22nd Meeting of the United States Delegation to the Fourth Regular Session of the General Assembly, 26 October 1949, FRUS 1949, pp. 199–202.

‘Aggression for Peace’, Chicago Daily Tribune (28 August 1950), p. 24.

‘Instituting a War’, Time (4 September 1950), p. 12.

‘Curb General Who Offered to Bomb Russia’, Chicago Daily Tribune (2 September 1950), p. 1; John G. Norris, ‘Air College Head Suspended for “Preventive War” Remarks’, Washington Post (2 September 1950), p. 1.

Twining, Neither Liberty nor Safety, p. 49.

See Silverstone, Preventive War and American Democracy, Chapters 36. In earlier studies the dominant explanation of America’s rejection of preventive war rests on strategic factors, namely the limits of America’s military capabilities in this period and the costs of Soviet counterattack. See Trachtenberg, ‘A “Wasting Asset”’ and Buhite and Hamel, ‘War for Peace’. For a critique of this argument see Silverstone, Preventive War and American Democracy, pp. 42–9.

Hans J. Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1948), pp. 229–30, 256.

Arnold Wolfers, ‘The Atomic Bomb in Soviet–American Relations’, in Bernard Brodie (ed.), The Absolute Weapon: Atomic Power and World Order (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1946), pp. 117, 114, 138. See also Arnold Wolfers, ‘“National Security” as an Ambiguous Symbol’, Political Science Quarterly 67 (December 1952), pp. 500, 498.

Address before the Civic Federation of Dallas and the Community Course of Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, 13 June 1950, Department of State Bulletin 22 (26 June 1950), p. 1038. Emphasis added.

Memorandum by the Assistant Secretary of State for Congressional Relations to the Under Secretary of State, 26 January 1950, FRUS 1950, pp. 140–1.

NSC 68, pp. 267, 243.

NSC 68, p. 281. Emphasis added. Also see p. 264.

Annex No. 7 to NSC 68, reprinted in SAIS Review 19 (Winter/Spring 1999), p. 21.

Radio and Television Report to the American People on the Situation in Korea, 1 September 1950, Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Harry S. Truman 1950 (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1965), p. 613.

President Truman’s Farewell Address, 19 January 1953, in Louis W. Koenig, The Truman Administration: Its Principles and Practice (New York: New York University Press, 1956), pp. 287–8. Emphasis added.

Senator Robert Taft, 5 January 1951, Vital Speeches 17 (15 January 1951), p. 199.

‘Hoover Urges Self-Defense for Europe’, Los Angeles Times (20 October 1950), p. 1; Thomas E. Dewey, Speech before the New York County Lawyers Association, 14 December 1950, Vital Speeches 17 (1 January 1951), pp. 167, 170.

‘Text of Address by Eisenhower’, Los Angeles Times (24 June 1952), p. 8.

For some classic examples see E. H. Carr, The Twenty Years Crisis, 1919–1939 (London: Macmillan, 1940); Morgenthau, Politics Among Nations.

Winston Churchill, The Gathering Storm (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1948).

Henry L. Stimson, ‘The Nuremberg Trial: Landmark in Law’, Foreign Affairs 25 (January 1947), pp. 184–5. See also David C. DeBoe, ‘Secretary Stimson and the Kellogg–Briand Pact,’ in David C. DeBoe, Van Mitchell Smith, Elliott West and Norman A. Graebner (eds), Essays on American Foreign Policy (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1974), pp. 31–44.

Henry L. Stimson, ‘The Challenge to Americans’, Foreign Affairs 26 (October 1947), p. 9.

John Foster Dulles, War or Peace (New York: Macmillan, 1950), pp. 234–5, 262–4.

Maguire, Law and War, 133–4.

Emily S. Rosenberg, A Date Which Will Live (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003), pp. 12, 14, 22–3.

Ibid., 54–5, emphasis added.

Report to the President of the United States by Robert H. Jackson, Chief of Counsel for the United States, 7 June 1945, in Robert H. Jackson, The Nurnberg Case (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947), p. 16.

Charter of the International Military Tribunal, in ibid., p. 22.

Opening Statement for the United States of America by Robert H. Jackson, 21 November 1945, in ibid., pp. 30–1.

Ibid., pp. 84, 86–7.

Ibid., pp. 87–8.

Harry S. Truman, ‘Prosecution of Major Nazi War Criminals’, Department of State Bulletin 15 (27 October 1946), p. 954.

William J. Bosch, Judgment on Nuremberg: American Attitudes Toward the Major German War-Crime Trials (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1970).

John Wilson Lewis and Xue Litai, China Builds the Bomb (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1988).

Quoted in William Burr and Jeffrey T. Richelson, ‘Whether to “Strangle the Baby in the Cradle”: The United States and the Chinese Nuclear Program, 1960–64’, International Security 25 (Winter 2000–01), pp. 61, 67.

Gordon Chang, Friends and Enemies: The United States, China, and the Soviet Union, 1948–1972 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), pp. 232, 236–7; Francis J. Gavin, ‘Blasts from the Past: Proliferation Lessons from the 1960s’, International Security 29 (Winter 2004–05), pp. 100–1; Lyle J. Goldstein, ‘When China was a “Rogue State”: The Impact of China’s Nuclear Weapons Program on US–China Relations During the 1960s’, Journal of Contemporary China 12 (November 2003), pp. 739–64.

Quoted in Glenn T. Seaborg, Stemming the Tide: Arms Control in the Johnson Years (Lexington, MA: Lexington Books, 1987), p. 57.

David K. Shipler, ‘Begin Defends Raid, Pledges to Thwart a New “Holocaust”’, New York Times (10 June 1981), pp. 1, 12; ‘Israeli and Iraqi Statements on Raid on Nuclear Plant’, New York Times (9 June 1981), p. 8; Shlomo Nakdiman, First Strike: The Exclusive Story of How Israel Foiled Iraqs Attempts to Get the Bomb (New York: Summit Books, 1987).

For example, see Alan Cranston, ‘Condemn Israel? Didn’t We Plan to Hit Cuba?’ New York Times (10 June 1981), p. A31; William Safire, ‘Hail to the Nuclear Entebbe’, New York Times (11 June 1981), p. A23; Bernard Gwertzman, ‘US, Citing Possible Violations of Arms Agreement, Suspends Shipment of 4 Jets to Israel’, New York Times (11 June 1981), p. A1; A. O. Sulzberger, Jr, ‘Senators’ Open Hearing to Examine Whether Iraq Raid Broke US Law’, New York Times (19 June 1981), p. A8; Josh Barbarel, ‘Kennedy Call US Vote on Israeli Raid “Disastrous”’, New York Times (23 June 1981), p. A12.

Text of the UN Draft Resolution, New York Times (19 June 1981), p. A10. For background on the joint US–Iraqi endeavour to develop the resolution, see Bernard D. Nossiter, ‘US Consults Iraqis on Israeli Raid’, New York Times (18 June 1981), p. A1; Bernard D. Nossiter, ‘US and Iraq Agree on UN Resolution to “Condemn” Raid’, New York Times (18 June 1981), p. A1.

Mrs Kirkpatrick’s Speech before the Security Council Vote, New York Times (20 June 1981), p. 5.

Michael Klare, Rogue States and Nuclear Outlaws (New York: Hill and Wang, 1995), pp. 37, 39.

William C. Martel and William T. Pendley, ‘Rethinking US Proliferation Policy for the Future’, in Stuart E. Johnson and William H. Lewis (eds), Weapons of Mass Destruction: New Perspectives on Counterproliferation (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1995), pp. 210, 214, 227; Paul Doty and Steven Flank, ‘Arms Control and New Nuclear Nations,’ in Robert D. Blackwill and Albert Carnesale (eds), New Nuclear Nations: Consequences for US Policy (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 1993), pp. 53, 71–2; Joseph S. Nye, Jr, ‘Diplomatic Measures’, in ibid., pp. 80, 91; Michele A. Flournoy, ‘Implications for US Military Strategy’, in ibid., pp. 136–7; Richard K. Betts, ‘Universal Deterrence or Conceptual Collapse? Liberal Pessimism and Utopian Realism’, in Victor A. Utgoff (ed.), The Coming Crisis: Nuclear Proliferation, US Interests, and World Order (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000), p. 62; Stephen M. Walt, ‘Containing Rogues and Renegades: Coalition Strategies and Counterproliferation’, in ibid., ch. 7.

Martel and Pendley, ‘Rethinking US Proliferation Policy for the Future’, pp. 209, 211–12; Gary Samore, ‘Iraq’, in Mitchell Reiss and Robert S. Litwak (eds), Nuclear Proliferation after the Cold War (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1994), pp. 15–16, 18–19, 24, 30; Shahram Chubin, ‘The Middle East’, in ibid., pp. 33–4; Joseph F. Pilat, ‘Responding to Proliferation: A Role for Nonlethal Defense?’ in ibid., pp. 275, 281–8; Lewis A. Dunn, ‘New Nuclear Threats to US Security’, in New Nuclear Nations, pp. 20, 38; Doty and Flank, ‘Arms Control and New Nuclear Nations’, pp. 54–5; Flournoy, ‘Implications for US Military Strategy’, p. 141; Robert S. Litwak, ‘The New Calculus of Pre-emption’, Survival 44, no. 4 (November 2002), p. 54; Jason D. Ellis, ‘The Best Defense: Counterproliferation and US National Security’, Washington Quarterly (Spring 2003), p. 115; David J. Karl, ‘Proliferation Pessimism and Emerging Nuclear Powers’, International Security 21, no. 3 (Winter 1996–7), pp. 87–119.

Betts, ‘Universal Deterrence or Conceptual Collapse’, p. 70.

Blackwill and Carnesale, ‘Introduction: Understanding the Problem,’ in New Nuclear Nations, p. 1; Barry R. Posen, ‘US Security Policy in a Nuclear-Armed World, or What if Iraq Had Had Nuclear Weapons?’ in The Coming Crisis, ch. 6.

Note by the President of the United Nations Security Council, S/23500, 31 January 1992.

John M. Deutch, ‘The New Nuclear Threat,’ Foreign Affairs 71 (1992), p. 133.

Anthony Lake, ‘Confronting Backlash States,’ Foreign Affairs (March/April 1994), pp. 45–7.

Mitchel B. Wallerstein, ‘Concepts to Capabilities: The First Year of Counterproliferation’, in Weapons of Mass Destruction, pp. 17, 36–7. Emphasis in original.

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