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The move toward preventive military action is an international phenomenon

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In a nutshell

I wrote Eve of Destruction hoping to get people to understand that the previous era of warfare—one in which there were at least some rules about when and why states could go to war—is over. It used to be, at least theoretically, that states would have to show some direct threat to their interests before they could go to war. They could act in self-defense, or in some way show a threat to themselves or their allies. Otherwise, they were considered aggressors. Usually, a state was considered justified in going to war if it could show that it was in danger and had no other choice. An entire body of thinking about “just war” was developed by Christian thinkers over the past millennium precisely to consider such questions and conditions.

But now, with changes in technology, and new threats from enemies whose likes we’ve never seen before, like transnational terrorists, states are no longer waiting for actual threats to emerge. They are instead increasingly tempted to act against potential threats. This is called “preventive war” and until the twenty-first century, it was not considered either moral or wise. Bismarck called it “committing suicide out of a fear of death.”

Of course, it was always acceptable to attack someone who was about to attack you. This is called “preemption,” and even today this is legal and justifiable in international law and practice. But the point of my book is that the difference between “preemption” and “prevention” has become very difficult to separate. We are in a whole new world of warfare; I believe states are going to be far more willing to use force than ever before.

“Preventive military action is a lot bigger than George Bush, 9/11, the UN, or anything else […] the erosion of national sovereignty and the growing temptations of preventive war have been in the works since at least the late 1980s, and in countries all around the world.”

The wide angle

I actually did not intend to write a book on preventive war. A lot of people assumed I became interested in the subject because of the 1991 Gulf War, or 9/11, or Operation Iraqi Freedom. Even the U.S. National Security Strategy of 2002, which makes very clear arguments for preventive war, really didn’t get my attention. In the end, it was the Russians who got me interested in the problem.

For most of my career, I studied Russia as my area of regional expertise. I have spent quite a bit of time there. And so I follow their press and defense journals, and over time I was startled at a kind of new aggressiveness I seemed to be finding in their national security debates. Russian leaders were regularly making bold pronouncements that they would not hesitate to strike at any threat to Russia, anywhere, anytime, and so on. This piqued my curiosity, and I started to look at other European nations as well.

I was fairly stunned at what I found. The Russians may have been making the loudest claims about the right to take preventive actions. But they were hardly alone. The more I looked into it, the more I found similar views being voiced—and in official statements and documents—in France, Britain, the EU, Australia… even Japan. I felt I had discovered something going on in the international community, and decided to look at it more systematically.

What I found was that years of intervention—in my view, justified interventions in the name of humanitarian relief—had worn down previous views of the sovereignty of the state. No longer were state borders considered inviolable regardless of what sort of mayhem taking place behind them. By the late 1990s, and especially with the 1999 war over Kosovo, the Western powers had made it clear that the old rules of absolute state sovereignty (sometimes called “the Westphalian system,” after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) were no longer in force.

From there, it was a short step from arguing that powerful states could intervene in the affairs of smaller states, to arguing that powerful states should intervene, and perhaps even intervene ahead of time, to prevent terrible things from happening—especially if one of those terrible things were, for example, the creation of a weapon of mass destruction by someone who intended the rest of us harm.

Some might well argue that the old rules are too dangerous in this era of new and ever more bizarre threats. I am sympathetic to that concern. But I also argue in the book that we should not simply give up and declare open season on any and all threats. Doing so will result in anarchy, chaos, and a great deal of violence—at various levels and by any number of powerful nations, the United States among them.

February 24, 2009

A close-up

In chapter 4 I show how the move toward preventive military action is really an international phenomenon. Perhaps the most frustrating thing I found in writing the book is that a lot of people could not get past their emotional reactions to think about this in a larger context.

The Iraq war looms large in the book. A lot of people simply cannot think rationally when they think of George W. Bush; in some quarters Bush engenders a kind of visceral hatred more intensely than Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton ever did. On the other hand, my solution to this problem centers on the United Nations. And a lot of people simply shut their eyes and clench their fists with rage when they even hear the words “Security Council,” thinking the UN is some sort of Socialist plot to undermine American independence. I got a lot of bricks thrown at me from both the right and the left while writing. So I would hope reading chapter 4 will help people come to the realization that preventive military action is a lot bigger than George Bush, 9/11, the UN, or anything else. The problem is not as new as you might think; the erosion of national sovereignty and the growing temptations of preventive war have been in the works since at least the late 1980s, and in countries all around the world.

“We have never in history had a situation where small groups, unaffiliated with any state, and embracing radical, death-loving ideologies, could do vast-scale damage to us all.”


My hope is that the significance of the book will rest with a new debate, both among policymakers and citizens, about the use of force. While I very much fear a new age of preventive war, what I really fear is a new age of unregulated preventive war. It may well be that we have to throw out some of the old law books and traditions, and do things we find distasteful. But that’s the hand we’ve been dealt in the twenty-first century. We have never in history had a situation where small groups, unaffiliated with any state, and embracing radical, death-loving ideologies, could do vast-scale damage to us all. But I think before we trash some of the principles that have served us well for four centuries, we need to think about alternatives. I especially hope that this leads to more debate about the United Nations. The United Nations may well be the most dysfunctional bureaucracy in the history of mankind. But it is still our best hope for keeping the peace before we utterly lose control of the situation within the next two or three decades.

In the end, we have to get past the partisan arguments of the past several years, and accept two important realities. First, the current system of international security, including the UN Security Council, has become “broken”—not least because it was never designed to handle the threats of this century. Second, traditional rules of warfare are not going to protect us against the kinds of rogues and terrorists who have been set loose by the end of the Cold War and advances in technology. How we solve those two problems is up to us. But we’d better start thinking about it sooner rather than later.

© 2009 Thomas Nichols
Thomas M. Nichols Eve of Destruction: The Coming Age of Preventive War University of Pennsylvania Press 216 pages, 9 x 6 inches ISBN 978 0812240665
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Tom Nichols is a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. He previously taught international relations and Soviet/Russian affairs at Dartmouth College and Georgetown University. Dr. Nichols served as personal staff for defense and security affairs in the United States Senate to the late Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania, and was a Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. He is currently a Fellow in the International Security Program and the Project on Managing the Atom at the John F. Kennedy School at Harvard University, where he is working on a book on the reform of nuclear strategy.

Cover Interview of
February 24, 2009