Preventive War and Preemption

Scott A. Silverstone

in International Relations

ISBN: 9780199743292
Published online March 2011 | | DOI:
Preventive War and Preemption


Preventive war is a persistent theme in the history of international politics and in theoretical explanations of war. The preventive motivation for war can be found as early as Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century bce, it was a key feature in the origins of World War I and the Japanese attack on the United States in 1941, and it features prominently in the argument over America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. The preventive motivation is also central to the ongoing concern about Iran’s nuclear program and debate over alternative policy options to deal with it. The strategic logic of preventive war is rooted in the desire to halt the erosion of relative power to a rising adversary and the future dangers this power shift might present. Leaders calculate that a war fought in the near term will be less costly than a war fought at a later date, after the potential adversary has had an opportunity to increase its military capabilities. Under preventive war conditions, there is no certainty that this future war will actually be fought; preventive war is launched to avoid the mere possibility of a higher-cost future war or the potential for the target state to use its rising power in a coercive way. Preemption, on the other hand, is meant to grab the tactical advantages of striking first against what is seen as a truly imminent threat, when an adversary’s attack is close at hand. Levy 1987 (cited under The Logic of Preventive War and Preemption) provides the most commonly cited definitions of these terms. There is a well-developed literature on the strategic logic of preventive war that examines the specific conditions that make it more likely and its actual utility as a strategy to deal with the power shift problem. The concept of preventive war has also produced an ongoing debate over its normative or ethical acceptability, and its status under international law; this debate revolves around the question of whether it should be considered legitimate self-defense, or whether preventive war is actually an aggressive use of force.

Article.  8059 words. 

Subjects: International Relations

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