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Debate: Preventive war

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Is the doctrine of preventive war acceptable or legal?

Background and context

It is important to distinguish from the very beginning the difference between ‘preemptive’ and ‘preventive war’ as these two terms can be often met in research and create confusions in future debates - preventive war and preemptive war differ in the certainty of an attack. A preventive war is a war in which one state attacks another under the proclamation of preventive self-defense. While a preemptive war concerns an imminent attack, preventive war takes place with no military provocation. ‘Rogue states’ is another term that may create confusions and wasted time in debates. Rogue nations are (i) politically unstable, (ii) economically stagnant, and (iii) regional non-hegemons.

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Argument #1

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Yes

  • When the UN charter was written, methods for attacking a state were totally different from today’s. The body of international law, as present conflicts and developments show, has to catch up with the new reality. Article 51 of the UN Charter therefore calls for an amendment. However, critics agree that if change is to be effected it must be carried out in a way that promotes international peace and security through multilateral action and the rule of law. Until then, states that have the ability to protect peace, have to do it the best way they can, even if it should be a preventive war.
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No

  • The new Bush doctrine of ‘preventive war’ which was published in the National Security Strategy in September 2002 contemplates attacking a state in the absence of specific evidence of a pending attack against the US. The US will thus act against “emerging threats before they are fully formed.” This doctrine marks a departure from the prohibition of the use of force under international law, starting from the Kellogg-Briand pact, the establishment of the Nuremberg Charter, the conclusion of the United Nations Charter and the establishment of the International Criminal Court, and marks a return to a readiness to use force in international relations. This fact creates a precedent in international law when states can act on their own without being punished. It also seriously threatens the integrity of the international legal order that has been in place since the end of the World War II.
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Argument #2

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Yes

  • History shows that UN has failed many times due to its decision-making mechanism. Diplomacy has shown to be likewise inefficient many times throughout history. Because diplomacy is often not backed up by a credible use of force, its power has diminished over time. When a state’s security is endangered, and diplomatic means have been exhausted, the state has to act by its own means even if it is not supported by the international community. The UN Charter in article 51 preserves the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defense if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.”
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No

  • ‘Preventive war’ against some rogue nations can be perceived to be avoided by acquiring nuclear weapons. This represents a powerful incentive for non-nuclear states to seek to acquire nuclear weapons to protect themselves against attack and would thus be a stimulus for nuclear proliferation rather than the rule of law. Some states, therefore, may defensively arm because they are afraid of the preemptive-preventive state while others may arm offensively because they resent the preventive war aggressor who may have killed innocent citizens in its quest for total security. Choosing the preventive war without the consent of UN, the Bush doctrine does not follow the purpose for which it was originally adopted.
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Argument #3

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Yes

  • The US has the military ability and economic strength not to allow its enemies to build up the strength they need to attack it. It is more rational to act when the threat is still small and manageable then to have to deal with its numerous consequences. Cutting the proliferation of WMD at its roots is much more efficient than waiting to combat the actual consequences of their deployment.
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No

  • Preventive war is perceived as a recipe for conflict. Preventive wars are imprudent because they bring about wars that might not happen otherwise and increase resentment worldwide. The United States doctrine of preemptive self defense contradicts the cardinal principle of the modern international legal order and the primary rationale for the founding of the UN after World War II - the prohibition of the unilateral use of force to settle disputes.
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Argument #4

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Yes

  • As a hegemon, the US is responsible for maintaining global stability. However, there are different methods to acquire global stability. Global stability may also be seen as a product of a unipolar world order preserved by the singular hegemonic control of all WMD, and regional stability as a product of regional balancing through conventional weapons. War is thus not necessary if diplomacy proves successful; however, war is an absolute necessity if diplomacy fails. The US has the resources and power of a hegemon, and it should act like one when global stability is at stake.
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No

  • The UN was established with the supreme purpose “to maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to peace.” Moreover, article 2(3) of the UN Charter requires that all members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace, security, and justice are not endangered. By initiating a preventive war without the UN’s consent, the US has a great potential to destabilize the global political situation and put in danger the peace, security, and justice that states have tried to preserve since the UN was established.
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Argument #5

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Yes

  • The US has the duty of protecting its own citizens when their security is at stake. The world order established by the United Nations in 1945 could not protect the US from becoming a victim of terrorist attacks in 2001. Terrorism goes beyond the international law where UN norms can not reach. As a responsibility to its citizens, the US has to prevent future attacks on its people.
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No

  • Critics claim that a preventive war initiated without UN consent would lack any moral justification as the US would be acting on probabilities rather than certainties such as imminent or open aggression. The Security Council allows for force to be used only in self-defense when a threat is imminent. Deviation from the international law would bring about various consequences such as the reaction of major states to American power, a rise of suspicion in international relations, instability in the Muslim world, a rise in terrorism, and other violations of important international norms based not on certainties but on probabilities.

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