The Consequences of Preemption
NCdt Ryan K. Stanley
I intend to show that the use of preemptive force is never strategically justified. Preemption is an inadequate long-term strategy because the cost of gaining an inconsistent strategic reputation through the use of preemptive force only increases the risk of attack and economic non-cooperation. An action is only strategically advantageous if the consequences of preemption result in a long-term profit for the attacking state. Preemption is the secret planning of attack prompted by either a perception of threat or a reaction to overt aggression intended to catch a competing actor by surprise. By using force when war is not inevitable, a preemptive state can gain a reputation for being reckless and unable to use non-violent means for conflict resolution. Attack not only guarantees immediate response but also potential negative consequences in the future. A state that has a history of using preemptive force as a strategy may be feared by others to use it in the future; other states may thus be tempted to use preemption as a way to counter future attacks. While preemption may be entirely justified, it only creates an unstable international system and a security anxiety that anyone might be secretly planning an attack. Preemptive force only increases the likelihood of aggression due to reciprocal fear of surprise attack. While the act of using preemptive force is justified in a narrow context against a state perceived to be determined for war, in a world of limited actors in multiple interactions and protracted long-term conflict, the use of preemptive force is neither strategically advantageous nor prudent; the consequences of preemption are greater than accepting the risk of being attacked first. A more effective long-term approach is to act through preventive defence and to encourage cooperation through open trade and constructive communication while employing a predictable and deterrent security policy.
Proper use of communication and deterrence can overt the need to
preempt a hostile state. Jervis (1976) points out that it is not inevitable
that the hostility between two states must escalate to war. He describes two
models were war between two states can be avoided if handled properly. First,
the spiral model demonstrates that two states may act in response to the
other’s militarization until the conflict escalates out of control. This
occurred in WWI, when there was an arms race for the Dreadnought between
The second model that Jervis highlights is the deterrence model in
which a state does not communicate strongly enough its readiness to go to war
if attacked by an aggressive state.
In the first Gulf War, had the
The use of preemption gives a state a bad strategic reputation which affects future interactions with other states. Not only does a state that is preemptively attacked fear the use of similar tactics in the future, but also all other states that might become a target for attacks in the future. Interactions are not limited exclusively between two states, but are known by everyone with an interest in understanding future strategic relationships. Instead of decreasing security threats, preemption can actually increase security problems. O’Hanlon, Rice, and Steinberg (2002) point out that the use of preemption can actually create increased security problems by warning potential rivals to conceal weapons that might be targeted in preemption as well as drive states to develop weapons to deter attack. States that do not accept part of the risk in negotiating peace and instead only attack in their own interest gain a reputation for aggressiveness, insecurity, and disinterest in attempting to solve conflict through non-violent means.
The result of the attack on
Once preemption is used, it is expected that the application of
similar tactics will be used in the future and action is taken to limit the
effects of attack and create consequences to deter preemption. In 1981,
For preemption to be avoided, deterrence has to be strong enough to overcome the incentive to attack, while communication must build enough trust to decrease the perception of threat. Axelrod characterizes the problem of preemption in terms of a Prisoners’ Dilemma. Although war is avoidable, no state wants to be attacked first even if it has nothing to gain from a war. Both sides have a fear of being attacked first and thus there is an urge to gain the advantage by attacking first. When two states come into conflict, there can be four outcomes. Both states could refrain from the use of preemption and equally gain in avoiding a needless war. Alternatively, either state could use preemptive force with the fear that they themselves will be preempted. Attacking in fear of attack results from what Thomas Schelling describes as ‘reciprocal fear of surprise attack.’ Each side fears that the other will attack first and gain a possible advantage over the outcome of a war. One of the main concerns in the Cold War was that a false alarm in one country could provoke an attack from the other in the belief they were the target of a preemptive offensive. If either state resorts to preemption, both states lose. But, at the same time, the side that strikes first may only face the cost of war and not the cost of losing a war. If there is enough trust and deterrence between two states, neither will attack, and both will win. But, since there is always the chance that one state is planning a secret attack to catch the other off guard, the least risky option of attacking first is the logical choice. Reciprocal fear of attack may force both sides to aggression despite the ability to avoid war. The solution to this dilemma is to focus on long-term interactions rather than short-term risks. In a single interaction, the logical action is to attack first, since whether the other side attacks or moves for peace, the attacking side is better off than being attacked. However, in protracted long-term interactions, if both sides only move to attack first, the gains that would have been made from long-term cooperation are lost. Thus, in order to avoid the temptation of preemption, the long-term outcome must be calculated. Preemption is a poor strategy as it fails to take in consideration the result it will have in the future. By using preemptive force, other states are less likely to trust a state in future interactions making the urge to preempt all the more difficult to avoid. While preemption is, in theory justified, the long-term outcome is that everyone is anticipating the use of preemption and as a result, preempts in self-defense. Instead of preemption increasing the security of a state, the long-term result is more incidents of preemption being used against the state because of an inability to escape a Prisoners’ Dilemma without the trust required.
To avoid a Prisoners’ Dilemma, a state must
demonstrate an ability to be trusted not to attack first, as well as a
readiness to revenge an attack. The use of deterrence and trust to avoid dilemmas
which might develop into an urge to preempt must be integrated into any
strategy. By increasing the meaning of time from short interactions to entire
sets of exchanges, it provides consequences for poor choices. Anatol Rapoport designed Tit for Tat as a strategy that takes time
into consideration and allows future consequences to police actions. Tit for
Tat works by cooperating with other actors until taken advantage of at which
point it reciprocates the wrong done unto it.
Once a competing actor interacts cooperatively, Tit for Tat does as well. Interactions
between states are not policed by any higher moral power and the only way to
self-govern is through reciprocation. Other actors know that any attack against
it will be done back in revenge. Tit for Tat not only has the ability to be
trusted as a predictable and stable strategy, it also has the ability to deter
unwanted attacks and punish those that happen. In the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, Tit for Tat is used to create consequences for suicide bombings.
Every time an attack occurs,
Rather than simply reacting to a highly volatile situation that
might escalate to the use of preemption, effort should be made to avoid
conflicts before they begin. Preventive defence works through trade and
economic aid to produce economic and political integration in the international
system. Such integration encourages cooperation rather than isolation with
potential competitors. When states are engaged in the international system and
have a free system of trade, the economic ties between states make war too
economically disastrous. Instead of each state reacting to the hostility of the
other and exacerbating the conflict, ties are made to encourage common bonds
and understanding. Carter and Perry (1999) promote preventive defence as “a
broad politico-military strategy… [which] draws on all the instruments of
foreign policy: political, economic, and military.”
Preventive defence seeks to engage countries cooperatively in the international
system by using political and economic change rather than competition. Carter and Perry (1999) point out the success
of the Marshall Plan which aimed to rebuild
While the use of preemptive force may be justified, it is not strategic. The use of preemption limits the credibility of a state and its future interests for peace. In order for states to secure the best strategic condition, they must maintain a reputation for consistency, trust, cooperation, and deterrence. In the long-run, by using preemption, a state suffers increased preemptive strikes as a result of destabilizing the international system and lacking the consistency required to avoid Prisoners’ Dilemmas. Without trust, not only are future Prisoners’ Dilemmas difficult to solve without violence, but also securing the cooperation of other states that may not be willing to risk interactions with an aggressive or unpredictable state. The use of preemptive force in a conflict is neither a good solution nor in the best interests of a state due to the long-term costs. A better resolution is to hold a reputation for predictability, deter the urge to attack, and endure the risk that the other state may preempt. Countries should abstain from using preemptive force and unjustified violence not only because it is virtuous, but because it is in their best interest in the long run.
(1984). The Evolution of Cooperation.
Betts, R.K. (2003). Striking First: A History of Thankfully Lost Opportunities. Ethics and International Affairs, 17(1). (online). Available: CIAO Net.
Brown, C. (2003). Self-Defense in an Imperfect World. Ethics and International Affairs, 17(1). (online). Available: CIAO Net.
Carter, A. and W.
Perry. (1999). Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for
Chatterjee, D.K., Scheid, D.E. (2003). Ethics and Foreign Intervention.
Christopher, P. (1994). The Ethics of War and Peace: An Introduction to
Legal and Moral Issues.
Guoliang, Gu. Redefine
Cooperative Security, Not Preemption. The
Jervis, R. (1976). Perception and Misperception in
Lang, A.F. (2003). Evaluation the Preemptive Use of Force. Ethics and International Affairs, (online). Available: CIAO Net.
Nichols, T.M. (2003). Just War, Not Prevention. Ethics and International Affairs, (online). Available: CIAO Net.
Reichberg, G. (2002). Just War or Perpetual Peace?. Journal of Military Ethics, 1(1) 16-35. (online). Available: Klewer Online.
Rengger, N. (2002). On the just war tradition in the twenty-first century. International Affairs,78(2) 353-363. (online). Available: Klewer Online.
Ridley, M. (1996).
The Origins of Virtue.
(1963). The Strategy of Conflict.
Schroeder, P.W. Iraq: The Case Against Preemptive War.
Welsh, S.C. (2003). Preemptive War and International Law. CIAO Working Papers, (online). Available: CIAO Net.
 Jervis, R. (1976). Perception and Misperception in International
 O’Hanlon, M.E., Rice, S.E., & Steinberg, J.B. (2002). The New National Security Strategy and Preemption. The Brookings Institution, PB #113. (Online). Available: Brookings.Edu.
 Kerr, P., (March 2003).
Boese, W., (September 2003).
 Schelling, T. (1963). The Strategy of Conflict.
 Axelrod, R. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation.
 Ridley, M. (1996). The Origins of Virtue.
 Axelrod, R. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation.
 Carter, A. and W. Perry. (1999). Preventive Defense: A New Security
 Carter, A. and W. Perry. (1999). Preventive Defense: A New Security