Ethics & International Affairs Volume 17.1 (Spring 2003): Roundtable: Evaluating the Preemptive Use of Force: Evaluating the Preemptive Use of Force [Full Text]

Mar 2, 2003

In soliciting these articles, the editors of Ethics & International Affairs asked authors to respond to several questions. First, preemptive and preventive uses of force are often justified by claiming either that there is substantial risk of a future attack or that it is difficult to ascertain how dangerous the target is. Under what conditions does the existence of risk and uncertainty about possible threats license the use of military force? Second, what consultative procedures should be required in order to legitimate the preventive or preemptive use of force? There exist both domestic and international institutions that constrain the use of military force, but which, if any, should be granted authority to block or authorize military actions of these kinds? Third, if preemptive or preventive military action is taken, what jus in bello criteria apply? Are there different and perhaps more stringent jus in bello criteria if states act preemptively?

For over a year, the Bush administration has warned that Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction poses a serious threat to global security. Moreover, the administration has invoked this threat to justify a preemptive military strike against Iraq. Once confined to strategic and international legal debates, preemptive war and its cousin, preventive war, have subsequently figured prominently in the discussions about the war on terrorism and the proposed military action against Iraq.

The Bush administration has supported the idea of preemptive military action in its National Security Strategy and in various international and national forums. These justifications for preemptive military action have drawn heavily on often-conflated discourses of self-defense, terrorism, and humanitarianism. These discourses, however, have distinct heritages and rationales. And while combining different kinds of arguments is intended to make the case for preemptive use of force overwhelmingly persuasive, the wavering of support both nationally and internationally suggests that combining these distinct rationales may have led to confusion rather than illumination.

The issue of what constitutes preemption and prevention bears upon what is perhaps the most vital question facing those concerned with ethics in international relations: whether a country is defending itself or committing aggression. While this question turns out to be more complicated than it may at first appear, particularly when judgments must be made in the midst of tension and insecurity, the contributions to this Roundtable suggest that it may indeed be possible to draw a distinction between the two.

You may also like

OCT 11, 2022 Journal

Ethics & International Affairs Volume 36.3 (Fall 2022)

The editors of "Ethics & International Affairs" are pleased to present the Fall 2022 issue of the journal! The highlight of this issue is a book symposium ...

Hillary Clinton at the United Nations Fourth World Congress on Women. Beijing, China, September 1995. <br>CREDIT: <a href="https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hillary_Clinton_at_the_United_Nations_Conference_on_Women_in_Beijing,_China.jpg"> Sharon Farmer/White House Photograph Office</a>/<a href="https://creativecommons.org/share-your-work/public-domain/">Public Domain</a>

NOV 12, 2020 Podcast

The United Nations at 75: Looking Back to Look Forward, Episode 3, with Noeleen Heyzer

Noeleen Heyzer, former executive director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women, discuss the role of women in the UN over the years. Heyzer ...

United Nations Environment Programme headquarters, Nairobi, Kenya. CREDIT: Maria Ivanova.

OCT 22, 2020 Podcast

The United Nations at 75: Looking Back to Look Forward, Episode 2, with Maria Ivanova

University of Massachusetts Boston's Dr. Maria Ivanova speaks about the UN's efforts on climate change, focusing on the role of the United Nations Environment Programme (...