Concept of preemptive war

The article investigates the concept of the preemptive war, conditions and consequences of realization of this concept.

Keywords: preemption, prevention, preemptive war, war, Coup d’état, aggression, governance, sovereignty, theory of deviations in public administration.

Concept of «preemption»

Today, the terms of «preemption» (French – «préemption»; English – «preemption») and «preemptive» (French – «préemptif» or «préemptive»; English – «preemptive») are on the list of rather new terms, nevertheless, giving an opportunity to provide a relevant description of the new reality, for which the framework of the previously known and widely applied models of the international relations description is not enough.

The term of «preemption» is collective, covering a set of various actions, and polysemic, having a number of meanings.

In the interstate and international relations and in international policy, preemption means an advancing capture or another proactive mode forceful action [2; 3; 4].

As Karl Mueller, Jasen Castillo, Forrest Morgan, and others write, preemptive attacks are based on conviction that the opponent is going to attack and that to make a strike first is better, than to allow the opponent to do it. Application of such concept can be attractive as it allows to win a victory more likely, than to get defeated, or, at least, to reduce destructive impact of the conflict upon the subject realizing preemptive actions [16, p. xi-xii].

The concept of preemption is not nearly a synonym of the concept of prevention.

According to the reasonable statement of  Yu.V. Krupnov, «the preemptiveness needs to be distinguished from preventiveness. The word «preemption» comes from Latin «buy before», i.e. to buy a priori: in the English language this word usually means «the privilege to purchase» or «take possession before the rest » and in the USA practice «acquisition of the privilege to purchase public lands». And the word «preventive» comes from Latin «venio» – «I come», i.e. to come to the place or to manage to do something earlier, to prevent. And the meaning of preemption, thus, is not prevention and not abstract advancing, but, literally, seizure… Preemptiveness is in every respect a revolutionary idea which not only gives reasons to revolutions and regime changes almost in any place of the Earth, but also revolutions in the reasoning systems and the systems of law» [5].

There is no sense to deny the novelty of the word «preemption», but the phenomenon (or, more precisely, a method of actions) meant by it is hardly new. In the world history there have been a lot of examples which are quite suitable for this concept.

In relation to the interstate and international relations, to the spheres of the state foreign policy, spheres of revolutions, wars, and military conflicts, according to our definition, preemption is a concept (approach, method) and motive (reasoning and explanation) of independent active precource-preempt and advancing actions concerning the antagonist (counteractant, opponent, victim, goal), the object of application of such actions, besides that

– actions are reasoned and based (justified) by real or imaginary (including deliberately in a false manner demonstrated) in the remote or perspective future by critical aggravation of contradictions and collisions of interests with the antagonist or critical aggravation of the threats (by existence of real or imaginary intensions to create such threats) resulting from the antagonist proceeding from their predictive assessment or proceeding from the representation of own current or perspective interests concerning the object of application of such actions;

– actions (on blocking the antagonist’s actions, blasting the antagonist’s capabilities, damaging, disorganization, and destruction of the antagonist, occupation of the territories and acquisition of the property possessed by the antagonist, causing damage to the antagonist’s reputation) are, as a rule, characterized by disproportionate excess of the force application of such actions and the damage to the object of the application of such actions realized by them in comparison with the parameters of the predicted real or alleged dangers and damage from the antagonist.

Preemption assumes not so much preventiveness (as, for example, prevention of aggressive actions of the opponent), as anticipation and suppression of to some extent effective opportunities (of the object state, the victim state) in the future to be protected from the planned actions, aggressive towards it, from the actor state; destruction of opportunities of resistance and resiliency of the victim state to aggressive hostile actions of the actor state.

Concept and genesis of the concept of preemptive war

The relevant conventional definition of the concept of «preemptive war» does not exist. At the same time, the definitions of this concept in scientific literature are rather similar, differing, mainly, only in the degree and completeness of disclosure of the essence of this concept. We will provide some examples.

According to Thomas Lee, preemptive war can be characterized as a subjectively reasonable need to resort to a war within anticipatory application of self-defense [14, p. 158].

Dan Reiter specifies that war can be considered as preemptive if it is developed, first of all, because of the assumption of the attacker that the attacker can become the object of an armed attack in the near term [20, p. 6].

According to Avishag Gordon, preemptive war is a collective term for designation of various actions directed upon anticipation and interception, which are undertaken by the state for the purpose of ensuring protection of its citizens against danger of external attack [12, p. 496].

At the most general level of understanding, preemptive war logically assumes existence of simultaneous ability of both states to start attack, and also some kind of parity concerning offensive opportunities where the approaching threat of aggression from one state is neutralized, in turn, by aggression and attack from the other state. Such ability to start attack demands existence of offensive armament from the both parties, and, besides that, such attack has to be inevitable [13, p. 225].

According to Dan Reiter, preemptive war can take place when the state considers that, otherwise, in a certain prospect (which, as a rule, makes some years) it can suffer in view of the increasing strategic weakness [20, p. 6-7].

The cornerstone of the concept of preemptive war is the paradigm according to which the state can be put in such situations when uncertainty of intentions of other such states, i.e. so-called «safety dilemma», takes place. In other words, the state is compelled to assume that the states, being its opponents, are guided by the most adverse to it intentions, as the mistake in a guess costs a survival of this state [14, p.158].

The sources of the concept of «preemptive war» can be tracked to so-called case of Carolina – a borderline case with participation of the USA and Canada in 1837 [13, p. 222].

Formation of this concept happened a bit later.

As Ersun N. Kurtulus notes, the concept of  «preemptive war» gained momentum during the Cold war and it is in a certain degree a product of strategic nuclear thinking [13, p. 223]. As Dan Reiter notes, the concept of preemptive war represents not the military theory, but, more likely, the instrument of forecasting of wars by means of various theoretical approaches [20, p. 6].

After the beginning of the 2000th, the approaches to definition of the concept of preemptive war have changed owing to the USA to some extent [21]. Within the last decade, the concept of «preemptive war» is quite often used in interrelation with so-called «Bush’s doctrine» formulating the «right» for preemptive military operations not for all states, but exclusively only for the USA.

Preemptive war and preventive war, unexpected war and other similar concepts

Now, the confusion in the approaches to interpretation of the concept of preemptive war still exists. Quite often this expression is considered as synonymous to such expressions as «preventive war», «unintentional war», etc. that, according to Ersun Kurtulus probably is a consequence of that all these concepts are not introduced in any exact way [13, p. 223]. And, also there are «hybrid», «irregular», «asymmetric», «indistinct» wars…

It is reasonable to consider the question of correlation of the concepts of preemptive war, preventive war, and unexpected war, and also other concepts which, at first sight, can be represented if not synonymous, then similar or overlapping.

Most often the concepts of preemptive war and preventive war are considered as similar.

In scientific literature correlation of such concepts is interpreted in different ways [16, p. хii; 20, p. 6-7; 21].

Preemptive war and preventive war, for a long time, were considered as absolutely different concepts, but George Bush and Richard Cheney’s administration (2001–2008) decided to call preventive war «preemption» [21].

According to our concept, unlike preventive attack, when the threat of the opponent’s attack is real and inevitable (proceeding from the incontestable basis to consider that the attack of the opponent approaches and it is inevitable) and when the aspiration to strike first, but not second is realized, preemptive attack has at the heart of its motivation and justification a significantly more postponed and implicit (or even imaginary) threat, aspiration to start a war earlier through anticipation of realization, possible in the future, of this postponed or expectedly arising threat.

We will consider also the correlation of the concepts «preemptive war» and «unexpected war».

Dan Reiter writes that an unexpected war, a sudden attack assumes that the target-state (victim) of such attack was not informed about it. Preemptive attacks often are sudden, but not all sudden attacks are preemptive as the state can resort to a sudden attack for the reasons other than the need of application of self-defense, for example, for expansionist purposes [20, p. 7].

Examples of sudden attacks are the attacks of Germany against Poland in 1939 and against the USSR in 1941, attack of Japan against the USA in 1941.

In general, the following types of the first attack are defined: 1) preemptive; 2) preventive; 3) aggressive [13, p. 223]. The difference between these terms is based by some substantial nuances.

Also, there is such a concept as preemptive mobilization which does not necessarily involve preemptive attack and conceptually differs from it, however, it can increase perspective chances of war developing [20, p. 7].

Conducting a preemptive attack (setting off a preemptive war) significantly differs from preemptive activity [16, p. xii].

Preemptive aggression in the form of engineering, assisting in, providing, and realizing a coup d’état

Quite often preemptive actions consist of engineering and realizing a coup by the actor state actor in the victim state.

According to N. A. Komleva, in the meaning of the considered concept, «the technology of preemptive war includes the following three stages: 1) «regime change» – changing of the regime; 2) «nation building» – building of the nation; 3) «remaking the country» – renovation of the country». Preemptive war «is not limited to an actual military phase, but assumes a large-scale application unarmed (economic, political, ideological) violence in relation to peoples and regional communities» [3, p. 29-30].

According to Ch. A. Ture, the concept of «military coup» reflects illegal, unconstitutional, mainly violent (as a rule, due to the use of armed force and application of the methods of violence) capture (or capture attempt) of the authority (at civil or military regime) of the highest government  by the army, separate army parts, or organized group of persons from the military personnel or police employees, employees of security service, with participation of representatives of the civil society or without that [6].

According to our definition, military coup is a rather rapid (carried out in the shortest possible time, usually – suddenly) illegitimate and anti-constitutional act of change of the higher authority in the state (or attempt of that act), interfaced to axial (pinpoint) force application interception of the main centers and key channels of communications of public administration, which is carried out by army and/or police divisions or other paramilitary groups, frequently with participation of representatives of civil opposition and/or part of the personnel of the existing public authorities, with discharge from the power and with physical isolation (murder, imprisonment, provoking an escape abroad) of the persons acting as the state leaders at the moment preceding the beginning of the coup.

The factors promoting development of a preemptive war

Ersun Kurtulus allocates the following conditions which have to be observed in order to consider the carried attack as preemptive:

  • existence of an acute crisis between the states, and also bringing the armed

forces of the both states into the condition of  high  alert;

– existence in the both states of the offensive arms with a certain degree of vulnerability;

– rigid strategic parity between them concerning their offensive opportunities [13, p. 225].

As Dan Reiter specifies, there are the following main theories about the reasons of the war according to which the preemption is the way bringing wars to development:

– the spiral model according to which the relations between the states are often characterized by the increasing spirals of hostility and fear and which is used as an explanation of dynamics of  international crises. And an assumed outcome of the spiral, in crisis, is a preemptive war;

– the model based on the  balance of attack and defense according to which development of  the war is more probable when attack is considered by the states as advantage in the battlefield and also as being more favorable, than defense, also  from the point of view of the corresponding financial expenses. According to one of the approaches to the concept of preemptive war, the probability of development of such wars becomes higher when the states believe that other states are hostile in relation to them and they are an inevitable military threat to them [20, p. 8-9].

One of those factors which can lead to development of preemptive war, according to a number of authors, also, is a revaluation of military capacities of the opponent, that is perception of the approaching strong shift in balance of power in favor of the opponent. The incorrect perception of potential of the opponent causes motivation for preemptive attack, that is there is a confidence that the sooner a preemptive attack is launched, the higher chances for a victory are. The motivation  for preemptive attack can also be short-term changes in tactical advantage. Thus, examples of incorrect perception of tactical advantage and setting off a preemptive war are also known in the history [10, p. 101-102].

Preemptive war within international law

Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations establishes that «nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council …» [7].

As Dietrich Murswiek notes, the state, acting within article 51 of the Charter of the UN which this author interprets broadly, has the right to apply measures for self-defense in the form of launching preemptive attack only if there is not enough time any more to expect acceptance of necessary measures by the UN Security Council. Thus subsequently that state has to provide necessary convincing proofs that the attack from the other state was inevitable [17, p. 7].

And only the UN Security Council has the right to make decisions on, whether there is a threat to the peace and whether it is necessary to take military measures. Leaving the definition of this issue completely to the discretion of the states can lead to negative consequences as now, during the globalization era, besides, when such phenomenon as terrorism has universal character, many states have bases to feel and assume the threat towards them from other subjects of international law. And if each state has the right to take measures as self-defense in response to such threats, it will lead to weakening of the functions of the UN Security Council. Besides, if violation of a ban on the use of force begins to depend on the subjective judgment of certain states, such ban will simply cease to exist subsequently [17, p. 7-8].

According to John Mitchell, application of the concept of preemptive war contradicts the theory of the public contract according to which the population transfers (delegates) the right independently to establish laws of (for the population itself) in exchange for guarantees of that the state will protect them from serious risks of fatal attack against them; and it is incorrect to assume that the same founders who accepted the theory of the public contract for the government, would allocate it with the right to attack others outside the state, when there is no direct threat [15, p. 506].

Immorality of the concept of preemptive war

Preemptive actions are always asymmetric and inadequate.

In relation to the interstate and international relations, to the sphere of revolutions, wars, and military conflicts, preemption (unlike prevention) is an extremely immoral and dangerous concept (approach, method) as quite often preemptive actions are absolutely inadequate to the threats positioned as the basis and justification of application preemptive actions. Moreover, even more often the term «preemption» covers the hypertrophied impudence interfaced to insolence and lie (reflected by the concept «chutzpah» in one of its meanings) in interstate and international relations, own expressed aggressive, obviously invasive intensions.

I.S. Aksakov (1823–1886) wrote: «If, for example, hustle and bustle about love to power and aggressive lust of Russia happen, know, that any West European power prepares the most unscrupulous occupation of someone’s land, – Slavic or other, but such capture which directly harms our interests or the interests of our fellow countryman friendly to us » [1] (the quote the existence of which wonderfully is denied by Russian ultra — liberals).

True preemptive actions can not be in interrelation with expectatively the positioned and estimated actions of the victim.

According to Dan Reiter, the essence of preemptive war quite often is in its motives caused by fear, but not aspiration to receive any benefits in such way [20, p. 6].

«All successful wars of mankind, gentlemen, have been preventive wars», – on 12.12.1944, criminal Adolf  Hitler declared (quotation: [22, p. 267]). His subordinate Martin Drewes wrote later that the first victim of war is truth; therefore, all its subsequent facts will be considered and be estimated only from the point of view of the winner [11]. Arthur Ponsonby, in 1928, wrote about all this even better in his book «Falsehood in wartime» [19]. Today, it is called «the truth of the winner» and «justice of the winner» in preemptive war. For example, that for which in the USA the semi-official medal «Cold War Victory Medal» was awarded …

According to Dean Acheson, what takes place as ethical standards of the state policy in the sphere of foreign affairs, represents the collection of moralisms, maxims, and slogans which do not help in any way and do not control, but only confuse decisions [8]. According to Harold Nicolson, there is no such a thing as international morality [18]. They are echoed by Edward Carr: «The place of morality in international politics is the most obscure and difficult problem» [9, p. 146].

And therefore, preemptive actions, unfortunately, will continue being implemented around the world …


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Ponkin Igor V., doctor of science (Law), professor of Department of the state and municipal administration of the Institute of Public Administration and Civil Service of the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (Moscow, Russia) (IPACS, RANEPA), State Professor