Preventive war

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A preventive war is a war or military action initiated to prevent a belligerent or neutral party from acquiring a capability for attacking. The party being attacked has a latent threat capability or has shown by its posturing that it intends to attack in the future. Preventive war aims to forestall a shift in the balance of power[1] by strategically attacking before the balance of power has had a chance to shift in the favor of the targeted party. Preventive war is distinct from preemptive strike, which is the first strike when an attack is imminent.[1]

Most experts hold that a preventive war undertaken without the approval of the United Nations is illegal under the modern framework of international law.[2][3][4] Robert Delahunty and John Yoo from the George W. Bush administration maintained in their discussion of the Bush doctrine that those standards are unrealistic.[5]


Advocates of preventive war have ranged from Posadist Communists, who argued for war to destroy capitalism; to western neoconservatives such as George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, who argued that preventive war is necessary in the post-9/11 world.[6] Proponents claim it has been used throughout American history and is especially relevant in the present as it relates to unconventional war tactics and weapons of mass destruction. The National Security Strategy advocates a policy of proactive counterproliferation efforts and preventive measures.[7]


There is a consensus that preventive war "goes beyond what is acceptable in international law"[8] and lacks legal basis.[9] The UN High-level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change stopped short of rejecting the concept outright but suggested that there is no right to preventive war. If there are good grounds for initiating preventive war, the matter should be put to the UN Security Council, which can authorize such action.[10]


The Axis powers in World War II routinely invaded neutral countries on grounds of prevention and began the invasion of Poland in 1939 by claiming the Poles had attacked a border outpost first. In 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway and argued that Britain might have used them as launching points for an attack or prevented supply of strategic materials to Germany. In the summer of 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, inaugurating the bloody and brutal land war by claiming that a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy threatened the Reich. In late 1941, the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran was carried out to secure a supply corridor of petrol to the Soviet Union. Iranian Shah Rezā Shāh appealed to US President Franklin Roosevelt for help but was rebuffed on the grounds that "movements of conquest by Germany will continue and will extend beyond Europe to Asia, Africa, and even to the Americas, unless they are stopped by military force."[11]

Pearl Harbor[edit]

Perhaps the most famous example of preventive war is the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan on December 7, 1941.[12] Many in the US and Japan believed war to be inevitable. Coupled to the crippling US economic embargo that was rapidly degrading the Japanese military capability, that led the Japanese leadership to believe it was better to have the war as soon as possible.[12]

The sneak attack was partly motivated by a desire to cripple the US Pacific Fleet to allow Japan to advance with reduced opposition from the US when it secured Japanese oil supplies by fighting against the British Empire and the Dutch Empire for control over the rich East Indian (Dutch East Indies, Malay Peninsula) oil-fields.[13] In 1940, American policies and tension toward Japanese military actions and Japanese expansionism in the Far East increased. For example, in May 1940, the base of the US Pacific Fleet that was stationed on the West Coast was forwarded to an "advanced" position at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The move was opposed by some US Navy officials, including their commander, Admiral James Otto Richardson, who was relieved by Roosevelt.[citation needed] Even so, the Far East Fleet was not significantly reinforced. Another ineffective plan to reinforce the Pacific was a rather late relocation of fighter planes to bases located on the Pacific islands like Wake Island, Guam, and the Philippines. For a long time, Japanese leaders, especially leaders of the Imperial Japanese Navy, had known that the large US military strength and production capacity posed a long-term threat to Japan's imperialist desires, especially if hostilities broke out in the Pacific.[citation needed] War games on both sides had long reflected those expectations.

Iraq War (2003–2011)[edit]

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was claimed as a preemptive war by the George W. Bush administration. At the time, the US public and its allies were led to believe that Ba'athist Iraq might have restarted its nuclear weapons program or been "cheating" on its obligations to dispose of its large stockpile of chemical weapons dating from the Iran-Iraq War. Supporters of the war have argued it to be justified, as Iraq both harbored Islamic terrorist groups sharing a common hatred of Western countries and was suspected to be developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Iraq's history of noncompliance of international security matters and its history of both developing and using such weapons were factors in the public perception of Iraq's having weapons of mass destruction.

In support of an attack on Iraq, US President George W. Bush stated in an address to the UN General Assembly on September 12, 2002 that the Iraqi "regime is a grave and gathering danger."[14] However, despite extensive searches during the several years of occupation, the suspected weapons of mass destruction or weapons program infrastructure alleged by the Bush administration were not found to be functional or even known to most Iraqi leaders.[15] Coalition forces instead found dispersed and sometimes-buried and partially-dismantled stockpiles of abandoned and functionally-expired chemical weapons. Some of the caches had been dangerously stored and were leaking, and many were then disposed of hastily and in secret, leading to secondary exposure from improper handling. Allegations of mismanagement and information suppression followed.[16][17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Taming American Power, Stephen M. Walt, pp 224
  2. ^ Beinart, Peter (2017-04-21). "How America Shed the Taboo Against Preventive War". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2019-03-13.
  3. ^ Warren, Aiden; Bode, Ingvild (2014), Warren, Aiden; Bode, Ingvild (eds.), "Self-Defense in International Law: Preemptive/Preventive Requisites", Governing the Use-of-Force in International Relations: The Post 9/11 US Challenge on International Law, New Security Challenges Series, Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 23–45, doi:10.1057/9781137411440_3, ISBN 9781137411440
  4. ^ Suzanne Uniacke (2007), "The False Promise of Preventive War", in Henry Shue; David Rodin (eds.), Preemption: military action and moral justification, Oxford UP, p. 88, ISBN 9780199233137
  5. ^ The "Bush Doctrine": Can Preventive War be Justified, Robert J. Delahunty & John Yoo [1] Archived 2016-09-28 at the Wayback Machine
  6. ^ National Security Strategy of the United States of America - September 2002
  7. ^ "A new national security strategy in an age of terrorists, tyrants and weapons of mass destruction" (PDF).
  8. ^ Shaw, Malcolm (2008). International Law (6th edn). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 1140. ISBN 978-0-521-72814-0.
  9. ^ Brownlie, Ian (2008). Principles of Public International Law. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 734. ISBN 978-0-19-921176-0.
  10. ^$file/Report+of+the+High-level+Panel+on+Threats+Challenges+and+Change.pdf p.54
  11. ^ Sunrise at Abadan, Stewart Richard pp 94–108
  13. ^ Keith Crane, Imported oil and US national security, p. 26, Rand Environment, Energy, and Economic Development (Program), International Security and Defense Policy Center
  14. ^ President's Remarks at the United Nations General Assembly, September 12, 2002
  15. ^ "CIA's final report: No WMD found in Iraq". Retrieved 2009-05-24.
  16. ^ Ford, Dana (October 15, 2014). "Report: United States kept secret its chemical weapons finds in Iraq". CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. Retrieved 18 September 2019.
  17. ^ Chivers, CJ (14 October 2014). "The Secret Casualties of Iraq's Abandoned Chemical Weapons". New York Times. Retrieved 18 September 2019.

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