The Consequences of Preemption

NCdt Ryan K. Stanley


Royal Military College of Canada



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 Britain and Germany. Britain attempted to overcome the need to out-build one another by having each side announce its intentions and set the number of ships to be built at a reasonable level. Germany declined this proposal and Britain increased the problem by failing to reassure Germany of its own building plans. To counter the potential negative effects of escalation, intentions of peace must be communicated so that each state does not perceive the others’ actions as aggressive. The impetus to avoid war is placed on each state to justify its own actions as defensive and not aggressive. It should not be expected for either state to interpret the others’ actions as peaceful; it is the responsibility of each state to clearly communicate it own intentions for peace.

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.[1] In the first Gulf War, had the United States communicated more clearly its intention to defend Kuwait if Iraq invaded, war may have been averted. Iraq would have better comprehended that invasion would bring serious consequences. An aggressive state views inaction to prepare for war as an aversion to go to war. This may lead an aggressive state to attack with the belief that there will be no serious consequences for their actions. The only time war is inevitable is when it is in the interest of both states to go to war due to the possible profits it may produce. In the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), both sides had something to gain in going to war. In this case, neither state has any interest in averting preemption. Attacking provides a strategic advantage while being attacked offers legitimacy in fighting for the defence of the state. Unless it is in the interest of the state to go to war, violence can be avoided by communicating its intentions for peace as well as a willingness to defend itself if attacked. Preempting a hostile state not only results in the unwanted outcome of war, but also effects foreign relations in the long-term.

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.[2] 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 Iraq to stop its acquisition of nuclear weapons ironically may have resulted in other countries attempting to solidify their sovereignty through nuclear deterrence. When the United States invaded Iraq, it did not appear to matter whether the war gained legitimacy through the UN or even if the action was viewed as necessary by other countries; the US was determined to attack. The preventive war in Iraq resulted in other states fearing that similar actions might be taken against them as well. This resulted in the positive outcome that Libya abandoned its nuclear program and allowed international weapons inspectors into the country. Conversely, Iran has continued to pursue its nuclear program while North Korea restarted its own.[3] Where Libya believes that cooperation with the international system will secure its ongoing sovereignty, North Korea has sought military assurances. North Korea has been able to deter aggression by the United States’ by providing consequences if attacked. By communicating North Korea’s willingness to fight, it has been able to deter any attacks on its sovereignty. Each state has done what it sees necessary to ensure its own security and avoid the future use of preemptive force by the United States. The important thing for states to realise is that an action that achieves short-term goals will have a huge impact on the long-term.

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, Israel preempted Iraq by attacking the Osirak nuclear reactor in an attempt to stop Iraq from gaining the capability to build nuclear weapons. In September 2004, Israel threatened to attack Iran’s nuclear program. To make Israel aware of the consequences for such actions, Iran announced six days later that the medium-range Shahab-3 missile was ready for use and capable of reaching Israeli targets.[4] By making the consequences for preemption absolutely clear, Iran hoped to deter an attack from occurring. A state that is attacked will learn from its past experience and try to gain an advantage in future interactions. Past preemption not only creates a new military strategic paradigm but also an unstable environment in which the use of diplomacy is less effective; what is the value of diplomacy when past encounters have resulted in the use of secret attack and deception?  

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.’[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.[8] 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, Israel reciprocates by re-occupying parts of Palestine and attacking the leadership of the terrorist groups. By punishing negative actions, cooperation becomes the most efficient strategy. Future consequences can work to police current interactions and make cooperative interaction the most rewarding. By using a strategy that deters preemption through the creation of reciprocal consequences, it forces states to consider cooperation a better choice than conflict, which is to the advantage of both states.

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.”[9] 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 Germany and Japan after WWII. It worked to prevent the conditions that might lead the world into another war by averting “the economic chaos, political instability, isolation, and paranoia that might have followed.”[10] By cooperating with a potential security threat rather than working against it, problems that could have lead to serious conflicts in the future were avoided. Increasing the importance of trade and cooperation allowed for mutual understanding to be achieved. Trade and good relations also enforce trust and mutual interests that help avoid Prisoners’ Dilemmas and make consequences of non-cooperation too costly. Rather than using violence to maintain security, a better way to secure the long-term interests of the state is through preventive defence to create bonds between states rather than breed mistrust and instability through isolation.

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.



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[1] Jervis, R. (1976). Perception and Misperception in International Politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p.94

[2] 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.

[3] Kerr, P., (March 2003). North Korea Restarts Reactor; IAEA Sends Resolution to UN. Arms Control Association. (online). Available:

[4]Boese, W., (September 2003). Iran Touts Missile Capability. Arms Control Association. (online). Available:

[5] Schelling, T. (1963). The Strategy of Conflict. New York: Columbia University Press. chap. 9.

[6] Axelrod, R. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. United States: BasicBooks. p.3

[7] Ridley, M. (1996). The Origins of Virtue. New York: Penguin Books. p.54

[8] Axelrod, R. (1984). The Evolution of Cooperation. United States: BasicBooks. p.20

[9] Carter, A. and W. Perry. (1999). Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. p.18

[10] Carter, A. and W. Perry. (1999). Preventive Defense: A New Security Strategy for America. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press. p.10