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Is Pre-Emptive War Wrong?. Is Pre-Emptive War Wrong?. III. III. Brad Roberts: “NBC-Armed Rogues: Is There a Moral Case for Preemption?”. Roberts’ Central Argument. The moral debates surrounding preemption are not as straightforward as typically thought.

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is pre emptive war wrong

Is Pre-EmptiveWar Wrong?

Is Pre-EmptiveWar Wrong?




Brad Roberts: “NBC-Armed Rogues: Is There aMoral Case for Preemption?”

Roberts’ Central Argument

The moral debates surrounding preemption are not as straightforward as typically thought.

  • Not only must the standard prudential considerations of Last Resort, Reasonable Chance of Success, and Proportionality be given subtler thought, but the criteria of Self-Defense and Competent Authority must also be rethought in the context of today’s political climate.


Note: This article was written before 9-11.

1996: Secretary of Defense William J. Perry declares that a new chemical weapons facility in Libya “will not be allowed to begin production,” implying US military force.

  • Would such an action be defensible in moral terms?
  • How are we to treat the apparent threats of “rogue” states brought about by their development of nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons?

Ethical considerations that typically shape debate about preemption:

  • Is the action undertaken as a last resort?
  • Does the action have a reasonable chance of success?
  • Will the action be proportional to the threat being removed?

Background (cont’d)

An act of preemption cannot be deemed “just” merely on the basis of these criteria.

  • Justice requires fulfilling principles of self-defense, and of competent authority.
  • The US has emerged in recent decades as “the world’s only superpower,” leading an international system in which most other states are participants.
  • Recent decades have also seen ongoing diffusion of NBC weapons.
  • If the US fails to use its power in ways that others accept as just, a terrible backlash could result.

Three Prudential Considerations

I. Last Resort (319)

Not every conceivable alternative must be exhausted before preemptive action can be taken.

  • We can never reach “lastness”, or we can never know that we have reached it.
  • However, an assessment is required of all means available to meet a particular threat: economic, political, and military.
  • There must be a preference for means other than war.

The Last Resort criterion does not mean that military action must be forestalled until it cannot be successful (or can succeed only at a higher cost).

  • In the time it takes to fulfill economic sanctions, weapons programs can reach maturity.
  • The Last Resort consideration requires a narrow interpretation.

Three Prudential Considerations

II. Reasonable Chance of Success (320)

The Reasonable Chance of Success criterion requires that military actions not be taken unless they offer a meaningful prospect of eliminating the targeted threat.

  • Suffering must be minimized.
  • Peace must be restored that has been disordered by the threat.

If the military actions fail, the actions may motivate retaliation, resulting in the loss of many lives.

  • The problem is complicated by the fact that NBC facilities tend to be very hard to attack successfully.
  • This leads to questions of proportionality.

Three Prudential Considerations

II. Reasonable Chance of Success (cont’d)

“Success” does not mean perfect success.

  • Eliminating some but not all of an enemy’s NBC weapons could have a number of benefits:
  • Might induce caution on the part of potential aggressors.
  • Could leave the enemy with so few weapons and delivery systems as to render them effectively impotent.

Three Prudential Considerations

III. Proportionality (321)

The Proportionality criterion is generally taken to mean that minimum necessary force should be taken to counter the threat.

  • Jus in Bello (proportionality in waging war)
  • Provided fewer deaths will result from a preemptive strike than by the weapons of mass destruction if unleashed, preemption seems to pass proportionality in jus in bello.
  • Jus ad Bellum (when is it right to resort to force?)
  • Several factors impinge upon proportionality in jus ad bellum:
  • Measuring actual casualties vs. potential casualties.
  • Weighing probability of the enemy’s using the NBC weapons as predicted.

Prior Criteria

I. Self-Defense (322)

Standard ethical assumption: wars of self-defense are just; wars of aggression are not.

  • The crucial issue, then, is how proximate must a threat (of NBC weapons) be? Does just war require waiting until the last minute?

The UN Charter only confuses the issue:

  • First-Use/Second-Use Distinction: Aggression is defined as the first use of force, regardless of circumstances, while defense becomes second use alone. (322)
  • Problem: Aggression does not usually begin when the first weapons are fired.
  • War is often the culmination of some failure to coerce, dissuade, or compel others.

Prior Criteria

I. Self-Defense (cont’d)

Michael Walzer (Just and Unjust Wars): Establishing a sufficient threat requires:

  • Manifest intent to injure;
  • Degree of active preparedness;
  • General situation where waiting or otherwise not fighting increases risk.

Development of NBC weapons fits many of these criteria, but:

  • Rogue states have already established their aggressive intent – acquisition of NBC weapons only helps to confirm this threat.
  • Waiting for the ‘first blow’ makes protection against rogue states extremely costly.

Prior Criteria

I. Self-Defense (cont’d)


  • Because of the interdependence of states, aggression threatens interests beyond that of a given state.
  • Unlike the Cold War, preemptive strikes on rogue states may risk nuclear confrontation, but not armageddon.
  • No rogue state possesses enough power to annihilate a major power, but any major power possesses enough power to annihilate a rogue state.
  • If the preemptive strike fails, and the rogue state uses NBC weapons in retaliation, the US has to decide how to respond, considering deterrence, national survival, and international order.
  • Conventional military operations are unlikely to eliminate nuclear dilemmas.

Prior Criteria

II. Competent Authority (326)

The decision to go to war must be made by a competent authority.

  • Limits the right to make war to sovereign entities.

Given the notion of self-defense, above, a nation need not be directly attacked by an aggressor’s first acts of war to undertake military actions in reply.

  • But can the US justify preemptive strikes on rogue states that have not first made military attacks on it?
  • If the US is not directly threatened, can it authoritatively make a preemptive strike?
  • If the US attacks without the perceived authority, it may be judged as putting itself above the law, thus hurting its relationship with allies and potential adversaries alike.

Prior Criteria

II. Competent Authority (cont’d)

Building a compelling case for preemption would be strengthened by:

  • Presenting a clear normative argument.
  • The best bet would be an argument on the basis of self-defense, but unilaterial preemption flies in the face of multilateral treaties and institutions to which the US is party.
  • Any such preemption risks the US appearing as having only national interests at heart.
  • Building a coalition.
  • But preemption is notoriously unpopular, and generates strong reactions by both allies and potential adversaries.

Prior Criteria

II. Competent Authority (cont’d)

  • Seeking a UN mandate.
  • Though this may serve to warn the rogue state, inducing it to attack.
  • The UN Security Council lacks the authority to make war.
  • The Council is seen by many as symptomatic of an unjust world order.
  • A veto by the Council on a just act of preemption does not make it unjust.

When Is Preemption Just? (331)

There seems no blanket reply to the question, “Is there a moral case for preemption?”

Strongest Moral Case for US Preemption:

  • Aggressor has actually threatened to use NBC weapons against the US, and has taken steps toward this end.
  • Those weapons have been built in violation of international law.
  • The aggressor’s threatened action raise larger questions about credibility of security guarantees or balance of power within a region.
  • The president has secured approval of the US Congress.
  • The US has secured backing of the UN Security Council and relevant regional organizations.
  • The tests of last resort, proportionality, and reasonable chance of success must also be met.

When Is Preemption Just? (cont’d)

Weakest Moral Case for US Preemption:

  • A state has made no NBC threats and has no prior behavior of aggression.
  • The state’s NBC weapons are permitted under international law.
  • The preemption is the culmination of a worsening bilateral relationship with the US, driven by a US loss of objectivity.
  • US actions have been condemned by the UN or opposed by the Security Council.
  • Even if the proposed strike meets the tests of last resort, proportionality, and reasonable chance of success, it cannot be accepted under these conditions.

Moral Obligations Following Preemption (332)

Just war imposes obligations in the aftermath of military action:

  • A clear moral case must be made for the action undertaken.
  • The US must work to alleviate the suffering caused by its military actions.
  • “If US action is deemed necessary to recover something wrongfully taken or to punish evil, then its post-strike actions must work toward those ends.” (332)

Difficulties Posed Today

  • The self-defense requirement is too narrow in a world in which the security of so many depends upon the orderliness of the system.
  • Defense of the world order must have a moral quality analogous to defending a sovereign nation, but this is not reflected in traditional moral theory.
  • Nuclear issues must be reassessed in the context of current strategic realities.
  • The competent-authority requirement is likewise out of date.
  • Principles of authority must recognize the issues of overlapping and international institutions and sovereignties, and world-order problems.
  • The logical focal point is the UN, especially the Security Council.