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A preventive war is a war or military action initiated to prevent a belligerent or neutral party from acquiring a capability for attacking. The party being attacked has either a latent threat capability or has shown through its posturing that it intends to follow through with a future attack. Preventive war aims to forestall a shift in the balance of power[1] by strategically attacking before the balance of power has had a chance to shift in the favor of the targeted party. Preventive war is distinct from preemptive strike, which is the first strike when an attack is imminent.[1]

Most experts hold that a preventive strike undertaken without the approval of the United Nations is illegal under the modern framework of international law.[2][3] [4] Robert Delahunty and John Yoo from the George W. Bush administration maintained in their discussion of the Bush Doctrine that these standards are unrealistic.[5]


Advocates of preventive war have ranged from Posadist Communists, who argued for war to destroy capitalism, to western neo-conservatives such as George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, who argued that preventive war is necessary in today's post September 11th world.[6] Proponents claim it has been used throughout American history and is especially relevant in the present as it relates to unconventional war tactics and weapons of mass destruction. The National Security Strategy advocates a policy of proactive counterproliferation efforts and preventive measures.[7]


There is a consensus that preventive war "goes beyond what is acceptable in international law"[8] and lacks legal basis.[9] While the UN High Level Panel on Threats, Challenges and Change stopped short of rejecting the concept outright, it suggested that there is no right to preventive war. If there are good grounds for initiating preventive war, the matter should be put to the Security Council, which can authorize such action.[10]


The Axis in World War II routinely invaded neutral countries on grounds of prevention, and began their invasion of Poland in 1939 by claiming the Poles had attacked a border outpost first. In 1940, Germany invaded Denmark and Norway, arguing that Britain might have used them as launching points for an attack, or prevented supply of strategic materials to Germany. Then in the summer of 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, inaugurating this bloody and brutal land war by claiming a Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy threatened the Reich. In late 1941, the British and Soviets invaded Iran to secure a supply corridor of petrol to the USSR. The Shah of Iran appealed to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt for help, but was rebuffed on the grounds that "movements of conquest by Germany will continue and will extend beyond Europe to Asia, Africa, and even to the Americas, unless they are stopped by military force."[11]

Pearl HarborEdit

Perhaps the most famous example of preventive war is the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Empire of Japan on December 7, 1941.[12] Many in the U.S. and Japan believed war was inevitable, this belief coupled to the crippling U.S. economic embargo that was rapidly degrading Japanese military capability led the Japanese leadership to believe it was better to have the war as soon as possible.[12]

The sneak attack was partly motivated by a desire to cripple the United States Pacific Fleet in order to allow Japan to advance with reduced opposition from the U.S. when it, in order to secure Japanese oil supplies, fought the British Empire and the Dutch Empire for control over the rich East Indian (Dutch East Indies, Malay Peninsula) oil-fields.[13] In 1940, American policies and tension toward Japanese military actions and Japanese expansionism in the Far East increased. For example, in May 1940, the base of the U.S. Pacific Fleet that was stationed on the West Coast of the United States was forwarded to an "advanced" position at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii.

The move was opposed by some Navy officials, including their commander, Admiral James Otto Richardson, who was relieved by President Roosevelt.[citation needed] Even so, the Far East Fleet was not significantly reinforced. Another ineffective plan to reinforce the Pacific was a rather late relocation of fighter planes to bases located on the Pacific islands (like Wake Island, Guam, and the Philippines). For a long time, Japanese leaders, especially leaders of the Imperial Japanese Navy, had known that the large military strength and production capacity of the United States posed a long-term threat to Japan's imperialist desires, especially if hostilities broke out in the Pacific.[citation needed] War games on both sides had long reflected these expectations.

Iraq War (2003 – 2011)Edit

The 2003 invasion of Iraq was claimed as a preemptive war by the Bush administration. At the time, the US public and its allies were led to believe that Iraq might have re-started its nuclear weapons program or have been "cheating" on its obligations to dispose of its large stockpile of chemical weapons dating from the Iran-Iraq War. Supporters of the war have argued that it was justified, as Iraq harbored Islamic terrorist groups that share a common hatred of Western countries and was suspected to be developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Iraq's history of non-compliance regarding international security matters and history of both developing and using such weapons was a factor in the public perception of Iraq's WMD status.

In support of an attack on Iraq, U.S. President George W. Bush stated in an address to the United Nations on September 12, 2002, that the Iraqi "... regime is a grave and gathering danger."[14] However, despite extensive searches during the several years of occupation, the suspected weapons of mass destruction or weapons program infrastructure alleged by the Bush administration were not found to be functional or even known to most Iraqi leaders. [15] Coalition forces instead found dispersed and sometimes buried and partially dismantled stockpiles of abandoned and functionally expired chemical weapons. Some of the caches had been dangerously stored and were leaking, and many were then disposed of hastily and in secret, leading to secondary exposure from improper handling. Allegations of mismanagement and information suppression followed.[16] [17]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b Taming American Power, Stephen M. Walt, pp 224
  2. ^ Beinart, Peter (2017-04-21). "How America Shed the Taboo Against Preventive War". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2019-03-13.
  3. ^ Warren, Aiden; Bode, Ingvild (2014), Warren, Aiden; Bode, Ingvild (eds.), "Self-Defense in International Law: Preemptive/Preventive Requisites", Governing the Use-of-Force in International Relations: The Post 9/11 US Challenge on International Law, New Security Challenges Series, Palgrave Macmillan UK, pp. 23–45, doi:10.1057/9781137411440_3, ISBN 9781137411440
  4. ^ Suzanne Uniacke (2007), "The False Promise of Preventive War", in Henry Shue; David Rodin (eds.), Preemption: military action and moral justification, Oxford UP, p. 88
  5. ^ The "Bush Doctrine": Can Preventive War be Justified, Robert J. Delahunty & John Yoo [1]
  6. ^ National Security Strategy of the United States of America - September 2002
  7. ^ "A new national security strategy in an age of terrorists, tyrants and weapons of mass destruction" (PDF).
  8. ^ Shaw, Malcolm (2008). International Law (6th edn). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 1140. ISBN 978-0-521-72814-0.
  9. ^ Brownlie, Ian (2008). Principles of Public International Law. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 734. ISBN 978-0-19-921176-0.
  10. ^
  11. ^ Sunrise at Abadan, Stewart Richard pp 94–108
  13. ^ Keith Crane, Imported oil and US national security, p. 26, Rand Environment, Energy, and Economic Development (Program), International Security and Defense Policy Center
  14. ^ President's Remarks at the United Nations General Assembly, September 12, 2002
  15. ^ "CIA's final report: No WMD found in Iraq". Retrieved 2009-05-24.
  16. ^ Ford, Dana (October 15, 2014). "Report: United States kept secret its chemical weapons finds in Iraq". CNN. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. Retrieved 18 September 2019.
  17. ^ Chivers, CJ (14 October 2014). "The Secret Casualties of Iraq's Abandoned Chemical Weapons". New York Times. Retrieved 18 September 2019.

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