Ethics & International Affairs Volume 19.3 (Fall 2005): Articles: What's Wrong With Preventive War? The Moral and Legal Basis for the Use of Preventive Force [Abstract]

Nov 11, 2005

The question of the legitimacy of preventive war has been at the center of the debate about the proper response to terrorism and the legitimacy of the Iraq War. One side has argued that preventive war is a legitimate and necessary tool for nations to use in defense against terrorists; the other side has claimed that war is permissible only in self-defense, and that therefore the preventive use of military force is unjustified both legally and morally.

In this essay, Kaufman attempts to clarify the terms of the debate by demonstrating that neither side is precisely correct. Both under Just War Doctrine and common sense morality, preventive war is indeed justifiable, so long as it satisfies the basic requirements for going to war such as necessity and proportionality. However, under the current international law regime governed by the United Nations Charter, the use of preventive international force is restricted to the Security Council alone. Individual nation states are permitted to use international force only in self-defense. The rise of international terrorism does not by itself change this situation; preventive force against terrorist organization is permissible and appropriate, but it must be authorized by the Security Council in order to be legitimate. Only if the Council proved wholly ineffective in exercising its authority would the right to preventive war revert to individual nations. For all the shortcomings of the United Nations, however, he argues we have not reached a state of total breakdown of international authority sufficient to justify a return to the legitimacy of unilateral preventive war.

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