Ethics & International Affairs Volume 24.2 (Summer 2010): Book Reviews: "Preemption: Military Action and Moral Justification" Edited by Henry Shue and David Rodin [Full Text]

Jun 14, 2010

Preemption: Military Action and Moral Justification, Henry Shue and David Rodin, eds. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 288 pp., $90 cloth, $35 paper.

Martin Cook (Reviewer)

In modern international law and just war theory there has always been a narrowly drawn category of legitimate preemptive attack or, as the lawyers prefer to phrase it, ''anticipatory self-defense.'' Fear that such a category would be interpreted permissively has caused it to be very narrowly construed—especially in the famous Caroline case criteria, as articulated by then U.S. secretary of state Daniel Webster, which stated that the threat must be extremely imminent and clear. Much of the recent discussion of preemption has taken as its point of departure the formulations of Michael Walzer in Just and Unjust Wars. Walzer stresses the importance of strictly limiting claims of legitimate preemption to the very narrow category of imminence so as to prevent opening permission to preventive wars and indefinite quests for an illusory balance of power. The 2001 attacks on the United States, however, prompted calls to redefine and expand permission to deal with the kinds of covert threats of massive attacks such as those planned by al-Qaeda—most notably and explicitly in the Bush administration's 2002 National Security Strategy. This shift, many have argued, although phrased in terms of an expanded sense of preemption, actually called for a policy of preventive war.

This volume, first published in 2007 and newly available in a paper edition, provides invaluable interdisciplinary perspectives on a range of issues in recent just war thinking, including three key areas: the confusion in terminology arising from the differing usages of terms in the various disciplines; a historical perspective on the change in the concepts through time, especially as they developed in deterrence theory throughout the cold war; and a review of preventive war thinking over the entire span of US history, particularly during the perilous phase of the cold war when the United States possessed massive nuclear superiority over the Soviet Union—a moment of special significance, given that preventing the Soviet Union from achieving nuclear parity might have seemed especially justified in order to avoid an existential threat to the United States.

Important theoretical questions are also explored, particularly in the chapters by Mark Trachtenberg, Suzanne Uniacke, Neta Crawford, and Allen Buchanan. For example, if realists are to be believed, it would be irrational for any power currently in a dominant position to allow any other power to rise, if it could be prevented. Yet this has not in fact been the pattern in international relations, as demonstrated in the chapters by David Rodin, David Luban, and Walter Sinnott-Armstrong. This points to important and interesting questions about the nature of self-interest in international affairs, and the limits of predictive certainty and decision-making in the face of uncertainty.

At the level of philosophical theory, the volume usefully explores still deeper questions regarding consequentialism versus deontological rights-based thinking and the application of each approach to practical issues. Even if rights-based arguments against preemption are entirely persuasive in a philosophical context, can leaders really avoid consequentialist thinking when they believe immediate action can prevent a future catastrophe? Another set of questions concerns how we should think about al-Qaeda and similar nonstate actors. Are they best thought of as analogous to criminal conspirators in civil society?

The challenges posed by these new nonstate threats also force an examination of the existing normative model of interstate relations in which self-defense is the only just cause for war, and several of the essays (Buchanan and Uniacke, in particular) in this volume address this issue. Perhaps a broader construal of legitimate use of military force is required to meet such threats—for example, to prevent the catastrophic use of a weapon of mass destruction. If so, what is the role and status of such international institutions as the Security Council in providing legitimate authority for such actions? The editors and Crawford also raise the important question of how the claims of ''emerging norms,'' such as the Responsibility to Protect, might bear on such questions. These claims, too, of course, purport to create not only permissions but even obligations to use force in causes other than national self-defense, and they shine a glaring spotlight on the inadequacy of international institutions to act in anything remotely resembling a timely and consistent manner.

In true dialectical fashion, the central issue of the debate is manifested in the disagreement between the volume's two editors. David Rodin argues on rights grounds that all forms of preemptive use of force are illegitimate; Henry Shue concludes his essay arguing otherwise, albeit with many constraining considerations to limit abuse of the permission. In a case where preemptive action is the last chance to eliminate a certain and massive threat, Shue believes it may remain the only option.

In summary, this volume provides essential interdisciplinary consideration of the whole range of questions raised by the novel threats and challenges posed to the international system by nonstate actors bent on mass attacks and/or threatening strikes of weapons of mass destruction. Its combination of historical perspective and philosophical theory, and its examination of the international system and of various policy options, makes it a deeply informed contribution to a very important contemporary debate.

—Martin Cook

The author is the Admiral James Bond Stockdale Professor of Professional Military Ethics at the United States Naval War College. Dr. Cook serves as an editor of the Journal of Military Ethics, and as a member of the editorial board of Parameters, the scholarly journal of the US Army War College.

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