Logo

The Enduring False Promise of Preventive War, with Scott A. Silverstone

February 21, 2019

Detail from book cover.

JAMES KETTERER: Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. I'm Jim Ketterer, and I'm the dean of international studies at Bard College and the academic director of the Bard Globalization International Affairs program, and this is an event that that program, BGIA, is doing in coordination with the Carnegie Council.

We're happy to be back here, and we're thankful to Joel and all of the staff here for having us back. We do one of these lectures together every semester, and we do several other lectures throughout the semester. You can find us on all the various social media, our website, etc.

The lectures are named after James Chace, who was the founder of BGIA, was a leading scholar and writer in international affairs, the editor of World Policy Journal, and also the editor of Foreign Affairs magazine, which is a co-sponsor of all of our lectures, and we're happy to have their support.

This is an event that I think James would very much like to have been in attendance at, a very important topic, and I'm happy to introduce our two presenters, Scott Silverstone from the U.S. Military Academy, where he is a professor of international relations and also a fellow at New America, and Malia Du Mont, who is chief of staff at Bard College and is an Army officer in the Reserves, and worked in the office of the secretary of defense on policy issues.

They are going to talk for about a half an hour, maybe more and they'll open it up to Q&A.

With that, I turn it over to our presenters.

MALIA DU MONT: Thanks for being here.

This is the book we're here to discuss, Scott's new book, very timely, great intellectual content: From Hitler's Germany to Saddam's Iraq: The Enduring False Promise of Preventive War.

I want to start off by asking you to just share with us what led you toward this topic, and why now?

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: Thanks for the opening question.

Before I get into this, I have one disclaimer and a couple of thanks-yous. The disclaimer is that I do work for the United States Army, which means everything that I say here tonight, these are my own opinions, this is the result of my own analysis. I am not speaking on behalf of the United States government, the U.S. Army, and the U.S. Military Academy.

Now that I've made the lawyers happy, I can thank Joel Rosenthal and the Carnegie Council. Even though this project wasn't a Carnegie Council-supported project, the idea of working on preventive war actually had its birth back in 2003 when I had a fellowship with the Carnegie Council. So thanks for the support back then, and to you, Joel, for hosting this event. This is fantastic.

I'm part of the BGIA family. I've been teaching for BGIA for the last 11 years, and I have a lot of friends in the office who are part of this larger community, so it's really neat to have this chance to come back and do full circle, connect Carnegie Council and BGIA as these two great communities that I've been a part of.

This topic and the core question that I'm taking on in this book is really a result of an obsession I've had with the idea of preventive war since the run-up to the war in Iraq, in 2002-2003, during the debate over whether or not we should go into Iraq. I have been studying the ethical and the strategic elements of preventive war since then, and as I was working through the literature—and there is a very deep literature on preventive war, and we can define that term in a bit for everybody—I came across this iconic claim. This iconic claim was coming to me in parallel with a critique of preventive war as a strategy. I became very concerned that there was too much of a casual, lackadaisical approach toward this question of going to war under the logic of preventive war.

The iconic claim at the core of the book is that back in the 1930s the British and the French missed a golden opportunity to stop World War II if they had only conducted a preventive attack against Hitler before 1939. It has been a politicized claim, and given the fact that I was developing a critique of preventive war I became obsessed by actually picking this case apart and leaving something behind on the history but about the strategy as well.

MALIA DU MONT: Great. One of the topics that you really delve into in the book that is sort of at the center of it is what you call the "preventive war paradox." Can you explain what that is and why it's important?

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: Let me go back to the ground definitions just to make sure everybody's tracking on.

What are we talking about in terms of "preventive war"? Those of you who followed the debate about the invasion of Iraq, should we use military force against Iran's nuclear infrastructure, the debate about military force against North Korea and its nuclear program, the word we hear most often is "preemption." You see this word used by political leaders, you see it used in the press to characterize the conditions under which you are using military force. But what we're really talking about in these cases is "preventive war." These two terms have been conflated in a very dangerous way in my mind. The word "preemption" is about striking first, taking the first military move when you actually have indicators that an attack is coming in your direction.

Under international law, under just war theory, and under smart strategy, if you know an adversary is about to attack you, is in the final stages of preparing an attack, you have no obligation to absorb that first hit. You can take the first strike and declare this legitimate self-defense. That's preemption.

But in each one of these modern cases, whether it's Iraq and the argument about weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein was allegedly developing and may use against American-friendly targets or may give to terrorists, whether we're talking about the Iranian nuclear program, whether we're talking about North Korea, this is not about an imminent attack. This is not about self-defense, hitting before we are hit.

Preventive war is simply about fear of the future. You watch a rival state that is growing in power, and you worry about what's going to happen two years from now, five years from now if you get into a conflict. If you get into a conflict five years from now, it will come at a higher cost than if you pull the trigger today. That's the simple logic of preventive war.

But if you really think about the distinction between preemption and preventive war and what it means to actually take on the risks, the moral liabilities, and the legal liabilities of hitting first when you do not know what the future holds—nobody has a crystal ball—it's really just to avoid whatever dark visions of the future you are hoping to prevent simply by delivering a punch against the military capabilities that a potential rival is developing.

So the core of my argument is, when you think about this logic—even though the German case is at the core of this book, I'm looking at 2,500 years of history. I literally go back to the Peloponnesian War between ancient Athens and Sparta, and I look at a number of cases in the modern state system right up to the present time.

What I have noticed is that in the vast majority of these cases, instead of actually neutralizing a future threat by delivering a hit against its army, its weapon systems, or whatever that is causing you this fear, it generates this paradoxical outcome in which you can actually achieve operational success—you can deliver missiles against targets and destroy them, you can fight the adversary in the field and win militarily—but the question is: What have you put in motion from a strategic perspective? In the vast majority of cases historically, what we see is the country that thought it was saving itself from a greater danger in the future actually creates this greater danger because you generate a level of hostility, a deepening rivalry, and a desire for revenge that comes back to haunt them.

The argument could be—again, this is all thinking about possible futures—you're actually facing a much worse situation, paradoxically, even if you win a battle for victory in the near term. This is really at the core of the argument that I'm trying to get out there.

MALIA DU MONT: I should have mentioned as well that anything I say is not a reflection or not meant to represent the Army Reserves, so the same kind of caveat you said.

As an intelligence officer in the Army Reserves I'm really interested about strategic futures and foresight. You mentioned that a lot of the intellectual groundwork underlying this idea of preventive war is it's about fear of the future and trying to prevent some kind of really terrible outcome.

There have been a lot of advances in intelligence, a lot more technology. Our ability to know what's happening is much greater now than it used to be. With advances in intelligence is there a decrease in the possibility of preventive war going into the future?

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: I don't necessarily think so because the real hard nut to crack—and you know this better than I do—is intentions. We can focus on capabilities, and our ability to develop intelligence on capabilities is very well-refined, collecting through technical means, through human means, what is it that states are actually creating in terms of the tools they may use in the future.

What is really hard—and I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on this—is figuring out what the leaders of that country will actually do with these tools and probing their internal decision-making processes, understanding their long-term objectives, understanding how risk-prone or risk-averse they are. This is delving into a level of psychology and decision making and internal political processes that is incredibly difficult to unpack.

If you decide that you're going to take the risks of preventive war, launching war because you believe there is a greater likelihood than not that this leader developing these new tools would use them in a dangerous way against you, you're really taking a shot in the dark. I think we have to appreciate this fact that there's only so much we can glean through intelligence in terms of what the future actually holds.

MALIA DU MONT: I completely agree with you. I wanted to hear your thoughts on that first.

I think there's a real danger in believing that the increase in technology associated with intelligence actually gives us more certainty about what the future holds. My background is as a China specialist, and I spent many years studying the People's Liberation Army (PLA), and intent is really the hardest nut to crack. We know more about the Chinese military budget now. We have a much better sense of what their reserve capabilities are. But it's really understanding doctrine, and I think that's something that strategists today need to focus on, understanding how doctrine is used and how it's developed among our adversaries, and that gives you a better sense of what the range of possible futures is.

You've also written a book called Preventive War and American Democracy. I wanted to talk a little bit about the psychology of this and how the democratic system plays into that. In democratic systems, of course, the public has a voice. You talk about lost opportunity. There is a sense of urgency when you see a rising threat, and the public may be placing pressure on leaders to take a decision whether or not they feel ready to do so or not.

How do you think leaders should deal with that? If preventive war isn't a good option, how should they respond to some of the pressures that come in a democratic system when the public is feeling fearful?

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: This is a great question. When you look at the cases post-Cold War in the United States in which the preventive war option for the first time in American history became something that was politically palatable—that could be talked about openly and actually generate public support, it really is a phenomenon of the 1990s up to the present day—this was about the presidents themselves wrestling with shaping a willingness of the American public to actually support this. We don't see in these cases this organic outcry from the American people, from members of Congress, or the widespread opinion that you see in the media to actually take action that the presidents weren't pushing themselves.

When we go back to the early 1990s there was an active debate over whether or not the United States should attack North Korea. In 1994 the Clinton administration had two principal-level committee meetings in the National Security Council to study this very question. The North Koreans had just threatened to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, they had a very primitive nuclear technology infrastructure, and Secretary of Defense William Perry was actually advocating very strongly with President Clinton that he authorize strategic attacks to destroy these nodes within the North Korean nuclear facility. This of course went on behind the scenes and really never percolated to a public level, and President Clinton rejected this.

Under President George W. Bush this really was an idea that came from the Bush administration, and they needed to sell that, so they sold that with a combination of lingering fear of rogue states and so-called "terrorist allies" and this idea of weapons of mass destruction.

It has really been about presidents in the last 25 years trying to lead public opinion, as opposed to from the ground up.

MALIA DU MONT: I'm glad you brought up Bill Perry. Ash Carter was my advisor in grad school. I also took a class with Steve Walt. I was a student of these folks, and of course Bill Perry and Ash Carter came up with this idea of preventive defense, and they have a whole book about it.

I'd like to contrast their concept of preventive defense with what you're talking about as preventive war. Those are two slightly different concepts.

Your critique of preventive war is that it's all-or-nothing in some ways and that you're going too far if you're going with preventive war. But Ash Carter and Bill Perry were talking about preventive defense as a range of options, some of which could be short of total war. It could be that instead of completely eliminating a threat you could have a limited strike, some kind of raid, to neutralize a specific threat but not engage in a larger conflict.

What do you think about those alternatives that are short of war? Is that still possible now? Do you think it's naïve to think that you could limit war in that sense?

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: I don't think it's naïve. I think we actually see some very successful preventive measures that fall short of actual military violence. It's a great question.

If you think about the Stuxnet virus, for example. This is a preventive measure.

For those of you who aren't familiar with this, this is a brilliant operation that was developed and executed—I don't know if I should say this as a member of the United States Army—by Israel and the United States to actually insert a virus into the computer systems that controlled the centrifuges that were enriching uranium for Iran's nuclear program. The virus actually set up a wobble. These are highly precise high-speed spinning centrifuges, and it created enough of a wobble in thousands of these centrifuges that it literally destroyed them and set back the Iranians' ability to enrich uranium by several years. That is a preventive measure. [Editor's note: For more on Stuxnet, check out this YouTube clip from a recent Public Affairs talk with New York Times correspondent David Sanger.]

But I think when you start talking about even limited military strikes, a military strike is a military strike. If it's seen overtly as an act of violence—and it could come in a full-scale invasion that overthrows a government, like we saw in Iraq in 2003; it could come in the form of an air raid that destroys a facility, like we saw the Israelis conduct against Iraq in 1981; anywhere on that range of options—if it's overt, if it's violent, if it has physical destructive capabilities, I think this concern about how it might put in motion a desire for revenge, deepen rivalries, deepen hostility, and create that paradox, even if you execute the regime change operation brilliantly, even if you are completely able to destroy the targets that you hit, once you move into that side of the equations, those kinds of options, the logic of my book has to be considered by leaders.

Anything short of this—there has been reporting just in the last week about American sabotage of key rocket parts that are being supplied to Iran that may have led to a series of failed launches by Iran, these ballistic missile tests they've tried to conduct—is a preventive measure because you're trying to have a physical effect to undermine, to somehow neutralize their ability to continue to grow their material power. But it has a very different political effect because it's quiet and it's nonviolent.

MALIA DU MONT: This gets to what you call a "preventive war temptation" in some sense. In the book you really go deeply into the interwar period, especially the Locarno agreements.

I think the preventive war temptation still exists, and there is an idea that maybe with some tweaking Locarno could have worked, or in the future we could manage the risks associated with this idea that the wish for revenge is going to grow on the other side, that you could put together some kind of agreement that doesn't lead in that direction, that you could really manage the aftermath of a preventive war in a way that prevents the rise of a revenge syndrome.

Do you think that's possible? Why isn't that an option?

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: I don't know how you do that. Across this 2,500 years of history that I looked at I really have only found two cases in which the initiator of a preventive attack actually was not on the receiving end of an escalation of hostilities and actual violence.

One is an ancient example that goes back actually to Rome and Carthage. If you've studied the relationship between Rome and Carthage, they are vying as great city-states and rising empires for dominance in the Mediterranean. They had fought a series of wars against each other which were really just about diminishing the power of the other so they wouldn't face this threat of the rival state.

This rivalry ended with the Third Punic War in which Carthage was destroyed. The Romans believed they could not live side by side, that if they just continued to deliver these military blows the Carthaginians would continue to recover, and this would be a lingering nightmare they'd have to confront. The only way to do this is to literally destroy their society, which is what they did.

The only other example from a modern sense—and there is very little public information on this—is the Israeli attack against a Syrian nuclear site in 2007. The best information we have after this—Prime Minister Olmert went to Assad just weeks after the attack and said: "You know we did this. We don't tolerate the Syrian regime developing nuclear weapons. If you don't talk about it, we won't talk about it. Let's keep everything quiet. Let's not unnecessarily escalate this." And for some reason Assad, probably given his strategic weakness relative to Israel, kept his head down, and nothing was made of this. So the Israelis got away with it in 2007.

There are no other cases of managing the fallout that I've come across. I think you're taking a baseball bat to Pandora's box, and you just need to be prepared for the consequences.

MALIA DU MONT: One of the reasons that preventive war didn't take place with the Germans—the French wanted to engage in war, and the Brits shot them down. I want to challenge your interpretation of why the British decided not to engage in that.

You're saying that their understanding of the strategic consequences was a little bit more sober in some ways, that they had a better understanding of the preventive war paradox—that they weren't going to achieve a more lasting peace, they weren't going to be able to achieve their political objectives by allowing the French or by supporting the French in a preventive war into the Rhineland.

But, in Churchill's phrase, "Thank God for the French military," maybe it's just easier because Britain is physically more removed. It's easy for them to say, "Okay, France, engage in this if you want to, but we're not going to support it," and just leave it up to the French because they're on the front lines, and the British can hang back because physically they're just removed from it. So they have less risk, so it's easy for them to opt out. The Germans aren't on their doorstep. It's one kind of fear versus another in that sense.

How do you respond to that?

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: That's a very good point.

Let me just fill in some of the historic context behind this particular moment in time. The key moment that I'm looking at is 1936, and it's the so-called "Rhineland crisis" of March of 1936.

If you go back to the Versailles Treaty that ends World War I, the Germans were prohibited from maintaining any military forces to the west of the Rhine River. If you think about the map of Germany, the Rhine River flows from the south to the north, cuts off about a third of Germany that borders France, Luxembourg, Belgium, and the Netherlands. The Germans were prohibited from maintaining any military forces, developing bases, any kind of exercises within the Rhineland west of the Rhine River and this 50-kilometer strip to the east of the Rhine River.

The idea was—this was driven by France. France desperately wanted this buffer zone coming out of World War I for obvious reasons, and this was a great shock to their overall strategy to try to keep Germany indefinitely suppressed as the best route toward European peace and French security. So I think you're right in that we can explain the difference in the level of fear between France and Britain because of geography and because of history.

I get it. I understand very well why the French government was willing, in March of 1936, when Hitler made a surprise announcement and moved a relatively small force west of the Rhine River. It created a big crisis, and the French were willing to go. They were willing to use a military offensive with the operational objective of pushing the German force back across the Rhine River and restoring the demilitarized zone. They made this, though, fully contingent on British political support at least, and the British vetoed this.

I can understand simultaneously why the French preventive war temptation was much higher than the British, but when you go back and you look at the documents and you look at how British leaders across the spectrum were thinking about the problem, they were worried about: "What do we actually set in motion? We're actually going to guarantee another great war," and the consensus position in Great Britain in 1936 was not the way we see it today with hindsight. There was no clarity on what Adolf Hitler was going to do and the fact that they were going to confront a second world war whatever they wanted to do, and they believed they were just going to guarantee a war. That comes very clearly through the documents.

MALIA DU MONT: So the British saw it in a sense that this ticking time bomb was embedded in a way in the Versailles Treaty, so there is an idea that at some point there's going to be some kind of confrontation around that.

Perhaps preventive war is delaying in a sense the other side's ability to build up their power to a greater extent. Maybe that's the best military or strategic outcome you can hope for in the immediate term. It's not ideal, but it's better than allowing them to continue to build up unopposed.

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: That's absolutely right. Everything hinges on your assessment of the likelihood that they're actually going to act aggressively in the future.

So clearly by 1938, even after the Munich Agreement and a very serious shift in the tone of the German government in late 1938—by late 1938 there was a consensus position in Great Britain crystalizing very quickly that we have reached a tipping point, and we need to confront the German government because it's the only option we have to try to deter, contain, or at least defend ourselves against what looks like a threat that's coming.

But again, in 1936 what is your assessment of the likelihood of future war? If you choose that option that you just described—this is actually the way the Israelis describe it today. The Israelis use this phrase, "mowing the grass." It's a very simple analogy. We all understand what happens with your lawn. You mow your lawn to cut it back; the lawn grows, you just cut it back again. And the Israelis have this concept they still work with today that each time a pocket of power among rivals around Israel continues to grow, you conduct some kind of a military attack to "cut the grass." That may be the best situation you have if you believe that if you allow the grass to continue to grow it's going to lead to a catastrophic conflict in the future.

What you should also be concerned about, however, is whether or not the grass is going to grow back with nuclear blades. Because human beings are not grass. Grass is an inanimate object. So to me, the metaphor only goes so far. The reaction of your target isn't necessarily going to be: "Oh, well. Let's try it again. Let's just continue to build up." They may make political decisions that take them to a place in which they desire capabilities they didn't desire before: "Okay, I guess we do need a nuclear weapon now," which is what Iraq said after the Israeli attack in 1981, not before the Israeli attack. Or, "I think we need to ratchet this up."

That would be my warning. How long can you sustain a mowing-the-grass strategy until it really backfires in a worse way than if you had just tried to contain the threat through deterrence and balance of power?

MALIA DU MONT: Part of the relevance for that today, the question of how do you integrate a rising power into the international system, and there is a lot of consternation and disagreement about China and how we're integrating China into the international system and whether attempts to integrate it more have actually decreased China's expansionist instincts as some people see.

What are some of the options that you would think about with regard to China? If preventive war isn't ideal, there are more soft power options available now. What are some of the other things you would think about? Deterrence? How do we deter without a really strong threat of—you have to demonstrate at some point for the deterrence to be really persuasive.

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: Credibility of your capabilities and your willingness to defend your interests is key to this. Historically, the classic alternative, frankly, that's much more common than a preventive attack against a rising adversary to diminish its power has been balance-of-power politics, arms races, alliance building, and sometimes war if necessary, but usually when you're on the receiving end of some kind of aggression by the rising state. So, balancing, arms races, alliances, deterrence.

Frankly, it's not perfect. It comes with risks. But it's about risk management at the end of the day. There is no such thing as absolute security, so you need to figure out how do I produce the kind of military capabilities that will signal my credibility, my willingness to defend what I value in enough of a convincing way that a rising China, a rising Iran, North Korea, or Russia won't be tempted to actually use some kind of aggressive acts.

MALIA DU MONT: How does that square with the point that you end the book with about the importance of humility and taking a patient, sober approach to these strategic questions? How do you operationalize humility, and how does humility square with deterrence?

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: My advocacy of humility is rooted in my belief that human beings are very poor predictors of the future. The logic of preventive war really hinges on your level of confidence that you can see the future clearly enough and you evaluate the likelihood of aggression, the likelihood of a future war, with enough clarity that you are willing to pull the trigger and take on all the risks that come with military action.

Deterrence falls short of this. It is risky. It is confrontational and oftentimes in world history it has spiraled into actual military conflict. There has been wonderful research on this. Philip Tetlock, a political psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, has done wonderful work on this question of our ability to predict the future with enough precision to take very bold action.

MALIA DU MONT: This is The Good Judgment Project that you're referring to?

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: Yes. He's got 40 years of data in which he has actually tapped into the expertise of foreign policy scholars, of journalists, people who have spent their entire careers studying certain foreign issues, studying certain parts of the world, and he asks them to develop predictions—two year out, five years out, 10 years out—with a wonderful methodology, and then over 40 years he has been able to go back and evaluate the level of accuracy in their predictions.

He literally concludes that they are no more accurate than pure chance or, in a metaphor he uses in his book, "a monkey throwing a dart at a dartboard" could have a more accurate prediction rate than the smartest people on these particular problems.

So, preventive war comes with high risks, and it depends on your confidence that you see the future with enough clarity that it's worth taking this action in the first place.

MALIA DU MONT: The importance of prediction—this is something that we talked about a lot when I worked in the office of the secretary of defense, the inability to predict and the importance of avoiding the temptation to try to predict a specific outcome and rather instead think about the range of potential outcomes and plan for that. That's something that I think is important for strategists to keep in mind.

One more question before we open it up to the crowd. We have a lot of students in here, future decision-makers. What advice do you have for them about decision making under conditions of uncertainty?

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: It would begin with a healthy dose of humility and an appreciation for the complexity of these issues, an appreciation for the poor track record that human beings have in terms of being able to predict. I will end my answer by circling us back to something that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in 2015, which I think really captures the zeitgeist in the United States right now around this question of preventive war in particular cases.

I'll say this up front. This is not a hit against Hillary Clinton. What she was expressing in this interview, this talk she gave at the Brookings Institution, reflects a consensus position among many in the United States.

This was in September of 2015. If you remember the timeline of the negotiations with Iran that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that is to cap Iran's nuclear capabilities that was signed in July of 2015, so she's giving this talk. It's clearly ramping up for the political season. She has thrown her hat in for the nomination for the Democratic Party.

You have to understand the political context. She needs to sound tough on Iran, and she's being challenged in this public forum at Brookings, and she says—I've thought about this so many times I've memorized the quote—"I will not hesitate to use military force if Iran attempts to pursue a nuclear capability."

Think about that. "I will not hesitate to use military force if Iran attempts to pursue a nuclear capability." She did not say "to get a nuclear weapon," "to threaten the use of nuclear weapons," or of course, "use nuclear weapons," merely if Iran "attempted to pursue a nuclear capability."

My plea for young people who will be in leadership roles in the future is hesitate. That's all I ask.

Questions

QUESTION: I'm John McAuliff. I head a small non-governmental organization (NGO) called the Fund for Reconciliation and Development that worked for years with Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, and is now focused on Cuba.

The title probably needs one more example: Hitler's Germany to Maduro's Venezuela, because I think we are right now on the verge of launching into a very similar kind of situation.

I think these situations, especially when you're talking about a democratic country, need to have a large chunk of illusion built into them, illusion both about the motives and character of the country you plan to attack and the opinions and forces within it, a large amount of self-righteousness about yourself and ignorance of your own history, and a very one-sided media interpretation of what's going on because that creates that atmosphere that allows us to have thought that we could go into Iraq and the people would welcome us and that would be the end of the story.

We now have this illusion that we push through what's clearly a phony humanitarian aid vehicle, we push that, and that the Venezuelan Army is going to essentially welcome us or fall apart.

MALIA DU MONT: Sir, can you articulate your question? We have a lot of people.

QUESTIONER [Mr. McAuliff]: The question is: When you're talking about a democratic situation, how much has to happen so that people convince themselves or national leaders convince themselves or convince the population that what you are really engaged in is preventive war as opposed to a war of aggression or hegemonistic control?

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: I've been thinking about the Venezuelan case in the context of my own research, and this is the best way I can give you an answer that cuts to what I think is behind your question but somehow tied into what's on my mind.

The Venezuelan case is not classically the same kind of situation you find in a preventive war-motivated situation. I think the best example we can have of the United States actually using military force in our hemisphere, within our own neighborhood, that falls clearly within the logic of preventive war is the Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba in 1961.

This is just two years after Fidel Castro is now the new leader of Cuba, and he is aligning himself progressively more and more with the Soviet Union. The fear in the United States wasn't about democracy and the nature of the regime per se, it was the fear that Cuba would become a base for Soviet power, and if we allowed this regime to stand 90 miles off America's coast, then it could host strategic bombers, submarines, the kind of military capabilities the Soviets with this proximity to the United States could actually use in a dangerous way. So the Bay of Pigs is a preventive war in a way, when you think about a similar example.

In the Venezuelan case, unless the U.S. government makes an argument that the Maduro government or who the Maduro government may host—if this is about the relationship between this regime and Russia or this regime and China, and only by overthrowing the Maduro regime can we prevent these two rivals from developing a military or political foothold in Latin America, then you're skirting closer to the preventive logic.

But if this is really just about instability and the chaos and the humanitarian issues, it falls in a different category than what I'm working on.

QUESTION: Good afternoon, sir. My name is Kevin McMullen from no place in particular.

I'd like your opinion on the problem of multiplicity of wars. The Naval War College puts a big emphasis on practicing the economy of enemies. We have now two wars which we're still involved in, and every time I hear somebody talk about attacking Iran or North Korea, I think: Oh, good. We could have three or four simultaneously.

Part of the problem may be the political objective of each of these wars, that it's too ambitious, that it isn't just a preventive war, it has much bigger aims, and perhaps, though we needed to punish the Taliban, for example, it was a mistake to completely run them out of the country and out of the government.

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: This is a great question. I've got two thoughts when I think through this idea of multiplying conflicts, and clearly this is a potential consequence any time you use military force, but what it comes back to is: What are your political objectives any time you use military force?

I'm convinced in the United States we fixate on military operations, and the United States is incredibly proficient at the application of disciplined firepower. We're really good at that. But that's not the problem. The problem is: What happens the next day? It's the political end states that you create.

If your political objective is no more sophisticated than, Here is a set of targets that are potentially dangerous to me in the future, and I can physically destroy them, and once they're destroyed, problem solved, that's a very easy strategic political problem. But inevitably, if it creates all sorts of other political consequences, you can't walk away from that problem. You may create a whole new set of problems that now make you less secure in the future, when your entire intention of going in in the first place was to make yourself safer. So all of these spinoff effects need to be in the forefront when you're thinking through these issues.

Robert Gates, former U.S. secretary of defense, has this great phrase. He says: "The three least-uttered words in Washington, DC, are: 'And then what?'" Think about that. It's profound. And I think he's right. We become focused on: What is the military problem? Can we achieve target destruction at a reasonable cost? If yes, pull the trigger, and then what? What happens the next day? Military operations always have an endpoint. Politics is everyday. Are you just proliferating problems that spin off from what you thought was going to be a relatively clean surgical strike to solve your fears?

QUESTION: Sondra Stein.

I want to ask you about—it seems the new war is cyberwar and how your ideas would fit into that.

In terms of the advice you gave the graduates, I was reading a book on physics, and as Einstein presented a theory, he said, "It seems like," and then the writer says, "Genius hesitates."

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: Yes, that's good.

Cyber is a new battlefront. It's a new capability. It clearly has the potential—as we've all been exposed to in terms of what the threat scenarios hold for cyberattacks—to pose a threat. They pose a very different kind of threat.

Within the larger history of preventive war, the only case we have of the actual use of a cyberattack, of course, does go back to the operation against Iran with the Stuxnet virus to have a physical effect on its ability to enrich uranium.

There is so much uncertainty right now in terms of the very character of cybertools and how cybertools can be employed offensively, how you defend yourself against them, how do you anticipate attack, how do you identify the responsible party for the attack and therefore pick targets. This is a radically different problem set than states developing visible capabilities that are out there in the world that you can actually use military force to take down. There is just a tremendous amount of uncertainty on what that means.

MALIA DU MONT: I think we're not great at predicting all the unintended consequences in conventional war. Now in these new domains there is so much that we don't understand. There's a lot more to manage in the aftermath of a conflict.

QUESTION: Hi, I'm Peter Burgess.

I'm bothered by the confidence with which you talk about things. I've worked internationally for 40-50 years in some very interesting places. I was in Afghanistan just after the Soviets withdrew, and we did a development plan for Afghanistan. We got zero funding for that, zero, zero, zero. It was even worse than that, because in Pakistan next door, the USA took its budget from quite big down to zero.

I've been in the field a lot. I've tried to communicate with Washington or London or Paris, and I can't believe the dumbness of the people that we got to talk to. I was in Rwanda just before the genocide. Everybody in the field knew that things were going on, but could we get any attention from the policymakers?

I feel very strongly that rather than preventive war we should be waging preventive peace. The world is full of nice people. They don't run these countries, they live in the countries. Soft power has a huge value I believe.

What can we do to change the idea that we're going to fight our way out of these problems and rather soft-power it, collaborate, help? The Chinese are far better at this, in my experience, than we are. This scares the living daylights out of me.

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: You raise some very important points.

Over the last 30 years there has been a tremendous amount of work done by scholars, by concerned think tanks, NGOs, and members of certain governments to think about this notion of preventive diplomacy, and how do you develop insight into triggers? How do you anticipate the future potential of civil wars, genocide, intrastate wars early enough that you're not at the stage where you actually have to think about military options?

It's not my area of expertise. I know there are a lot of people working on this. I understand your frustration because those efforts really don't get the kind of attention, frankly, that the operations that I'm focusing on here do once they reach the potential for violence.

MALIA DU MONT: Unfortunately, one of the reasons that the Chinese are better at wielding soft power in support of their strategic objectives is because it is an authoritarian dictatorship. They control the full spectrum of capabilities, and that's not the case with the U.S. government to the same extent, obviously.

Also, under the current administration there has obviously been a real decrease in the funding for any kind of soft power.

Interestingly, we have a cadet here wearing a German Armed Forces Proficiency badge. I think that's very appropriate.

QUESTION: Excuse my ignorance on the topic. I'm just now in international relations, sir.

With the mowing-the-grass metaphor, what if instead of mowing the grass, you just simply uprooted the grass, like what we did with Japan or Germany in World War II? What if you just completely dissolved their government, make sure you're there when they write the new constitution of their state, and ensure that they become an ally or a puppet state of your own?

What about that? Is that naïve and arrogant and unrealistic, or is that a possibility?

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: It depends on how much you want to bring to the fight and how long you want to be engaged in the fight, both the military fight and the political fight, for the long term. It depends on how high the stakes are.

I mentioned the Carthaginian solution. This is the solution that Rome turned to. You destroy the target completely. It ceases to exist as a political entity.

The Japanese case is a very interesting one. You could put American policy in the late 1930s coming into the 1940s against Japan in the larger logical framework of preventive war.

What the United States is responding to is Japan's increasing war in China and its increasing territorial control which may ultimately, in President Roosevelt's mind at the time, lead to empire for Japan across all of East Asia, into Southeast Asia, into the Dutch East Indies, and what would this mean once Japan achieved hegemonic status, controlling all of East Asia and could use this as a base of power to project into the Western Hemisphere, project into other places in the world that America cared about, or merely restrict the United States from getting access to markets and resources or trade routes through East Asia. The sanctions placed on Japan, cutting off 80 percent of Japan's steel imports, 100 percent of Japan's oil imports—they were fully dependent on the United States—were preventive measures to put the hurt on Japan so they would pull out, they would reduce their power base, and the United States would maintain its privileged power position.

The Japanese attack then on Pearl Harbor is a preventive attack. As Japan is declining, the goal is: You knock out the American fleet, you open up enough time to then drive south and grab Southeast Asia and the Dutch East Indies. Hopefully, before the Americans come back you've got your solid base. So, American policy and Japanese policy in the early 1940s is within this idea of trying to undercut the other's power for this very reason.

President Roosevelt in the early stages of the war declares, "We are going to fight Japan to unconditional surrender." You think about the hellacious costs and what we had to do to force Japan to accept unconditional surrender was based on a larger vision that President Roosevelt had, which was we need to fundamentally transform Japan. And he had this larger international vision of cooperation and new political relationships impossible with the current Japanese political system in power, so the only choice was to grind them into the dirt, force them into unconditional surrender, and rebuild Japan as a fundamentally new entity and integrate it into a new international system.

So, yes. That was FDR's solution. How often do you want to do that I guess becomes the question.

QUESTION: Do you see a way out of this preventive war trap that the United States definitely has gotten into with our political structure given that general election campaigns start two years before, and there's sort of like a never-ending campaign style that's going on?

I like the quote that you gave by Hillary Clinton. I thought that was a perfect example of how politics comes into this fold.

I go back to the example of President Bush. If he said, "We're not going to do anything" after 9/11, I don't think he would have gotten reelected. Do you see a way out of this trap that the United States is in?

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: I think when you hesitate and you think through the preventive war paradox—are you actually creating a worse future situation than solving—if that becomes part of the way that leaders wrestle with this question—Do I or do I not attack Iran? Do I attack North Korea?—I think there's evidence that we have that comes from the George W. Bush administration and from the Trump administration in 2017 that political leaders are aware of this potential problem.

You go back to 2007, and Israel actually approached the Bush administration asking for a green light to engage in attacks against facilities within Iran's nuclear infrastructure. The only member of the Bush cabinet who was willing to support Israel was Vice President Cheney. George W. Bush said no.

We didn't give our permission to the Israelis, and the Israelis pulled back. But this was a position that was supported by General Hayden, who was director of the Central Intelligence Agency at the time, and when we look at George W. Bush's memoirs, when we look at Robert Gates's memoirs, and things that the CIA director said, all of them argued the reason we didn't give Israel permission is that we would actually create the problem we were trying to prevent: We would give Iran the incentive and the moral excuse, the political excuse, to move more decisively toward a nuclear weapon. That was an active concern, that preventive war paradox, in the W. Bush Administration.

General McMaster, when he was national security advisor for President Trump in 2017—that was a very difficult summer if you were watching. Fire and Fury, "Little Rocket Man," "My button's bigger than your button," there was a lot of stuff going back and forth.

General McMaster gave an interview to Newsweek magazine, and he did what any official in his position would likely do, and that's saying, "All options are on the table."

The interviewer kept pushing him: "What are you talking about? What are you actually debating within the White House?"

General McMaster said: "Are you asking me if we're talking about preventive war? Yes. We're talking about preventive war against North Korea."

I don't know if that was just a moment of frustration, but things that we've heard since then, the deescalation coming into the latter part of 2017 was once again rooted in this concern that we were just going to actually again take a baseball bat to Pandora's box, and it's going to be much worse than just trying to either negotiate with the North Koreans. Even if negotiations fail, I'd rather rely on deterring North Korean aggression than take on this big problem.

It's sort of taking the solution that we were talking about a minute ago, going to war against North Korea because if we go to war against North Korea, it's likely to escalate to a full-scale conflict and a regime change. I don't know what that looks like. It's going to be very costly.

But I think it's out there. Political leaders are at least intuitively aware of that potential problem.

QUESTION: Good evening. I am Sumesh. I am one of the former students of Professor Silverstone.

Do you think criminalizing preventive war against, like crime aggression, or creating some sort of international norms against preventive attacks will lead to a more peaceful world? Why or why not?

SCOTT SILVERSTONE: We tried that about 90 years ago. In the 1920s preventive war was very deliberately defined in treaty law as an act of aggression, and this is a byproduct of World War I.

The German motive for seizing this crisis in July of 1914 is really rooted in their deep fear of the continuing rise of Russian power. Of course, Russia is allied with France, and that leads to certain requirements to actually fight the Russians.

But the Russians are the real target for the Germans in 1914. They know they're losing ground. The Russians are modernizing their military, building railroads to the West, their economy is starting to pick up, and they are deathly afraid that 10 years in the future the Russians would just crush the Germans, and there would be no way for the Germans to resist. This is their window of opportunity.

Coming out of World War I, this logic—and the moral guilt that the Germans are now carrying, the war guilt built into the Versailles Treaty—translates into a series of negotiations that outlaw preventive war, declaring it very bluntly as aggression and not legitimate self-defense.

That really didn't have an impact on the debates of the 1930s about Germany interestingly, and it certainly didn't restrain Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or later cases that we see. But it has been tried.

Good to see you, Simesh.

MALIA DU MONT: Scott, thank you so much, and congratulations on this very interesting, provocative book. Please join me in thanking Scott Silverstone.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less