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Resolved: It is just for the United States to use military force to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by nations that pose a military threat

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This is a very wordy topic. The NFL's Wording Committee was obviously trying to abstract from the debates surrounding the invasion of Iraq, the confrontation with North Korea and the ongoing stand-off with Iran. Unfortunately, because this topic abstracts from the particulars of these specific situations, it is a far more difficult topic to debate. The core question, of course, is whether the prevention of an hostile nation acquiring is sufficient justification for the United States to use military force preemptively. Does preventing another state from acquiring nuclear weapons justify that attacking that country? And, if it does, to what level of force is the United States justified in using? The affirmative will likely need to be very precise in defining the circumstances when the use of military force would be justified. The negative will likely have to argue that preemptive use of military force can never be justified.

When the Cold War ended, there was widespread hope that the threat of nuclear war would lesson. Indeed, the symbolic ""Doomsday Clock" a maintained since 1947 by the Board of Directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, was wound back to seventeen minutes before midnight in 1991. Today, however, the clock is back down to five minutes to midnight. As the Board explained "The world stands at the brink of a second nuclear age. The United States and Russia remain ready to stage a nuclear attack within minutes, North Korea conducts a nuclear test, and many in the international community worry that Iran plans to acquire the Bomb."[1]. The chance that a "rogue state" will acquire nuclear weapons or that Iran will join its "[ Axis of Evil" cohort, North Korea, as a member of the "nuclear club" are undoubtedly great now than they were in the days when the cold war between the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Bush administration already used the threat of Iraq gaining weapons of mass destructions as a justification for invasion. Though no evidence was ever found that Iraq had an active program to develop or acquire nuclear weapons, the Bush administration continues to argue that the potential of Iraq acquiring those weapons was indeed sufficient to justify the invasion of Iraq. A good starting point for any discussion of this topic would be to consider whether the war in Iraq could be justified on these grounds. Is so, why? If not, why not?



There are those who would argue that the term a "just war" is an oxymoron and that, by definition, war can never be just. The pacifist believes so strongly in this principle that they condemn any use of military force and vow not to take up arms even in self defense. The pacifist would rather a die a violent death than use military force. The strong pacifist's position, though, will likely not convince many judges. Pacifism seems particularly difficult to justify when what's at stake is humanity itself. Calling a nuclear weapon a "weapon of mass destruction" is an understatement. A 500 pound ton bomb detonated in a crowded marketplace will have a devastating impact. The lives lost in such an attack would be inconsequential when compared with the devastation that a nuclear warhead would cause. Further, a nuclear weapon is a weapon that just keeps on killing. The radiation that even the most smallest nuclear weapons would release into the earth's atmosphere would kill for many years beyond in initial detonation, the land where the attack took place would become unlivable. It would be very difficult to justify a refusal to take military action in a situation where such action was needed to avoid a nuclear holocaust

There will, of course, be negative who will contend that that the use of military force to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons that pose a military threat to the United States is "necessary but not just." That is, like the pacifist, these negatives will argue that war can never be justified, but they will argue that this doesn't mean that one should never go to war. The negatives will concede the necessity of going to war, but argue that though it is necessity to use military force to prevent Armageddon that it is still not just. It will be important for the affirmative to be able to explain why this arguments, though intuitively appealing, ultimately makes no sense.

Consider the following example: suppose that the United States sees that a country hostile to it is building a nuclear facility that reliable sources tell it is designed to produce nuclear weapons for use against the United States. The facility is not yet operational, but will be in a number of months. Suppose the United States goes to the United Nations and after a much discussion and a few rounds of sanctions, the United Nations passes a resolution condoning the United States' use of military force against this country. The United States warns this country of the attack and even send a plane over the facility to drop leaflets letting the workers know that it's about the bomb it. The state, however, makes it clear to the United States that it will not evacuate the weapons factory and, instead, puts guards at the doors to insure that workers do not leave. Realizing that the facility was nearing completion and that if it did not act immediately this hostile nation would have the capacity to build nuclear weapons, the United States sends bombers to attack the facility. Using laser guided weapons, the United States destroys the factory, killing the approximately hundred people inside.

It is obviously true that an injustice has occurred: one hundred innocent people were killed. Those who would argue that the use of military force in this instance was "necessary but not just" would likely point to the lose of these hundred innocent lives. The problem, though, is that it is really not possible to argue both that an action is necessary and that it is unjust. That is particularly true in this case. Indeed, the pacifists discussed above would be quick to point out that the use of military force is never necessary. While we might question the morality of the person who refuses to act to defend innocent people, the pacifist is clearly right to say that the United States' chose to use military force, it was not an involuntary act. The choice to use military force may always be difficult, but end the end there always is a choice. Just as it would be wrong for the pacifist who accepts martyrdom rather than use violence in self defense to say that the martyrdom was necessary, it would be wrong for those who use force in self defense to claim that their action was necessary. Both the pacifist and those who would support the United States' action in the example above may feel compelled by their sense of right and wrong to make the choice the choice that they do, but to acting on account of a sense of moral obligation is not acting out of necessity.

Still, some might insist, how could it be "just" to kill one hundred innocent people? Isn't this, at best a "necessary evil?" It can't possibly be just for these one hundred innocent people to have been killed. While one might excuse the United States military for its actions, the fact that on hundred innocent people died, some might insist, precludes the action from being called just. By what definition of justice, they would argue, can it be just to kill one hundred innocent people? If one accepts the common claim that justice means giving "each his or her fair due," doesn't it seem obvious that these hundred people have not been given their due?

In fact, while it is clearly unjust that these one hundred people died, this does not make the military force used to destroy this weapons factory necessarily unjust. St. Thomas Aquinas, perhaps explained this best in his great work, the Summa Theologica, in the sections where he discusses just war. There Aquinas elucidates what has come to be known as the principle or doctrine of "double effect"].

Military force

The United States' military is by a wide margin the world's most powerful military force. The difficulties the United States has had in bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan and Iraq do not result from the United States having insufficient fire power at its disposal. It is the enormous scope of the United States' military might that could make it difficult for the negative in this debate.

Suppose, for instance, the United States discovered that North Korea has sold a crude nuclear weapon to Syria and that Syria, who intended to use that weapon against Israel. Reliable intelligence identifies that the device is being transported to Syria by ship and they are able to identify the ship, an unarmed freighter that the United States can easily and without significant loss of life or risk to the environment have its navy intercept. It would be hard to argue that the United States it would not be appropriate for the United States to dispatch its navy to try to prevent this weapon from reaching Syria.

A negative will no doubt have a hard time arguing that the United States ought not use its military in a case such as this. The negative could try to argue that the United States action would surely infuriate the North Koreans who might, in response to the hostile act taken by the Americans, launch a nuclear attack on Seoul, but this is not that likely to persuade. North Korea would be highly unlikely to launch a nuclear attack in response to the seizure of a single ship caught smuggling a nuclear weapon to Syria.

In September 2007, Israel attacked a Syrian military installation. Neither Israel nor Syria have indicated why Israel might have felt it necessary to attack this installation, but fear that North Korea might indeed have been supplying Syria with the means of developing nuclear weapons is considered one of the more likely explanations for the Israeli military action.

A nuclear weapon in the hands of a country still, technically, in a state of war against Israel would surely represent a grave threat to global security.

At the same time, one of the Bush administration's justifications for the invasion of Iraq was a desire to stop Iraq from acquiring nuclear weapons. When, after having invaded Iraq, it was discovered that Iraq was likely years away from developing its own weapon, the Bush administration continued to press it point arguing that while Iraq may not have been able to develop its own weapons that the Iraqi regimes desire to acquire a nuclear weapon was sufficient to justify the invasion. Tens of thousands of people have died in Iraq as a result of this invasion.

Regardless of how one feels about the war in Iraq, it is hard to argue that the United States' full scale invasion of Iraq stands on as firm moral ground as Israel's bombing of a Syrian military installation.

The negative might try to argue that taken to its logical conclusion, affirming the resolution would mean justify the United States using military force against any nation that could potentially pose a threat to it. With any nation potentially able to acquire nuclear weapons on the black market, any nation that is hostile the United States could theoretically be subject to attack by the United States. As it becomes increasingly difficult to prevent a country from acquiring nuclear weapons, if the the argument that the United States would have a right to use its military to remove hostile governments from power since these government could, at some point, try to acquire nuclear weapons.

The affirmative's response, of course, will be that it's not its burden to prove that any and all use of military force against hostile nations to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons would be just. The affirmative, instead, will insist that all it has to do is show that under certain conditions it would be just for the United States to use its military to prevent a nation hostile to it from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Acquisition of Nuclear Weapons

Nations that Pose a Military Threat

Values and Criterion

Affirmative Overview

The standard affirmative case will likely rely on the United States' right to self defense. If nations that already pose a military threat to the United States acquire nuclear weapons, the United States would find itself in too precarious a position. This, of course, was the argument used by John F. Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A case like this could be based on the notion that the United States government has, above all else, an obligation to protect the citizens of the United States and that to allow a hostile nation to acquire nuclear weapons would be a violation of the government's obligation to the people. Of course, the affirmative will need to be careful and clear. For instance, consider President Bush's comments in the press conference he gave after the release of the National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which described Iran as having suspended its attempt to develop nuclear weapons:

Affirmatives will need to be able to respond clearly to a negative who asks, given the information in the National Intelligence Assessment, whether the United States would justified, today, in using military force against Iran. Clearly, President Bush, the [ Commander-in-Chief of the United States military, still believes that Iran poses a military threat to the United States and, though it may have suspended it's covert program to develop a nuclear weapon, they do seem to have had such a program and are no capable of enriching their own weapons-grade uranium.

Another basis for the affirmative to ground the argument for the United States' use of military force is on the United States' unique place in the world as the world's only super-power. That is, rather than basing a case on the United States' right of self defense, an argument could base an argument on a broader he obligation the United States could be said to have not just to defend its own people but to preserve the broader peace. In reality, of course, Iran's possessing nuclear weapons is less of a threat to the United States as it is to Iran's neighbors, Israel in particular. While it is clearly in the United States' self interest to protect Israel, one could argue that the United States has a moral obligation to protect not just itself but to work collectively to protect the peace more broadly, even in cases where there is little direct threat to the United States.

I think one interesting line of argument that a more off beat affirmative might try is to rest a case on the inherent immorality of anyone possessing nuclear weapons. A case built on this ground would need to include a call on the United States to itself give up its large stockpile of nuclear weapons. An abolitionist case, like this one, would take away a lot the negative's strongest arguments in the the debate. The negative could not, for instance, argue that the United States is wrong to prevent others from possessing nuclear weapons when it continues to possess them. Since most negatives will likely take a dovish position in the debate, an affirmative that argued that the United States' own possession of nuclear weapons is immoral would be able to seize a moral high ground that the negative may have thought reserved for it. An affirmative that argued that the United States' should use its military to help rid the world nuclear weapons might run into some trouble with more hawkish minded judges, but given that the negative has a burden to argue against the use of military force, it might be difficult for the negative to criticize an abolitionist affirmative. Indeed, in the late 1970s and early 1980s there was a movement within the United States, admittedly not a very powerful one, that argued for unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Negative Overview

Cross Examination


Threat: Do nuclear weapons pose such a great threat that their proliferation must be halted?


Nuclear Weapons pose such a great threat to the United States and the rest of the world that stopping rogue states from gaining possession of them is a moral imperative.


The harms of possessing nuclear weapons pose are speculative at best; it is the actual use of nuclear armaments that is the problem. Indeed, no two countries both possessing nuclear weapons has ever gone to war with one another.

Are nuclear weapons inherently unjust?


Countries trying to obtain nuclear weapons is unjust because of the harm which nuclear weapons are capable of. The United States' nuclear weapons program has lead other countries, like Iran and North Korea to try develop their own nuclear weapons. Would North Korea and Iran be seeking nuclear weapons if no other countries had them? Having countries like Iran and North Korea develop nuclear weapons could have catastrophic results.

Since the use of a nuclear weapons cannot be justified, the possession of them should similarly be recognized as wrong. For this reason, the United States would be justified in using military force to prevent hostile states from acquiring nuclear weapons. The logical extension of this argument, it should be noted, is that the United States should itself abandon its nuclear arsenal. The United States would, moving forward, have to rely on its conventional weapons to deter attack from hostile nations.





See Also

Resolved: That the United States would be justified in Pursuing Military Options Against Iran

Further Reading

External links

  • NFL topic analysis. Includes a good bibliography and a lesson plan that focuses on two articles:
"Just War Theory, International Law, and the War in Iraq," by Ronald J. Rychlak.
"Nuclear Deterrence, Preventive War, and Counterproliferation," by Jeffrey Record

Wikipedia Entries

Feel free to import these entries into the Debatepedia and tailor them for use as debate resources:

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