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US and pre-emptive war

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  • US and pre-emptive war

    US and pre-emptive war

    Henry A. Kissinger

    THE recent publication of the second quadrennial administration statement on National Strategy passed without the controversy that marked its predecessor in 2002. This is all the more remarkable because the statement reiterates the commitment to a strategy of pre-emption in exactly the same words as were contained in the 2002 version. When the doctrine of pre-emption was first put forward, it was attacked as being contrary to generally accepted principles of the international system, which had evolved over three centuries and were enshrined in the United Nations Charter in 1945. Though the provisions of the Charter were, to put it mildly, ambiguous — Article 24 prohibiting all use of force “against the territorial integrity or political independence’’ of another state and Article 51 recognising a universal right of national self-defence — the legal framework worked well enough for the remaining years of the 20th century.

    Weapons of mass destruction spread relatively slowly, and the possibility of their being acquired by groups other than governments was yet beyond imagination. Hence the extension of the right of self-defence was widely rejected because the rest of the international community did not accept a definition put forward by one country, which reserved to itself the right to implement it. The 2006 report was received with less hostility partly because other countries had had more experience with the emerging new threats and partly because a more conciliatory American diplomacy has left new scope for consultation. There has evolved a reluctant recognition that pre-emption may be so built into modern technology and international practice that some reconsideration of existing rules is overdue. A high-level group has reported to that effect to the Secretary-General of the UN. A joint study group of Stanford University’s Hoover Institute and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University has held two conferences under the chairmanship of former Secretary of State George Shultz to explore the relationship of the pre-emption doctrine to present global realities.

    Pre-emptive strategy involves an inherent dilemma: It is based on assumptions that cannot be proved when they are made. When the scope for action is greatest, knowledge is at a minimum. When knowledge is high, the scope for pre-emption has often disappeared. Had Churchill’s early warning been heeded, the Nazi plague could have been destroyed at relatively little cost. A decade later, tens of millions of dead paid the price for the quest for certainty of the statesmen of the 1930s. American policy needs to navigate this element of uncertainty. The key question becomes: How is the threat to be defined, and through what institutions can resistance to it be implemented? If each nation claims the right to define its pre-emptive rights for itself, the absence of any rules would spell international chaos, not international order. Some universal, generally accepted principles need to be matched with the machinery of their operation. Any other approach will create additional incentives for spreading weapons of mass destruction.
    Of course, the US, like any other sovereign nation, will, in the end, defend its vital national interests — if necessary, alone. But it also has a national interest to make the definition of national interest of other nations as much parallel its own as it can. Any course that relies for international order primarily on unilateral superior force defines a trajectory toward doomed overextension. A first step is to recognise that the American Strategic Doctrine does not really talk about what is commonly defined as pre-emptive action. Pre-emption applies to an adversary possessing a capacity to do great, potentially irreversible damage, coupled with the demonstrated will to do so imminently. The right to use force unilaterally in such circumstances has been more or less accepted — with some dispute over the definition of the word “imminently.’’

    In that sense the most obvious targets for pre-emptive strategy are terrorist organisations operating from the territory of sovereign states and capable of generating threats heretofore the attribute of the nation state. Operating either by acquiescence or their ability to impose themselves, these entities cannot be deterred because they have nothing tangible to lose and because they have shadowy means to obscure the origin of their attack. Nor can they be dealt with by diplomacy, because their objective generally is not compromise but the destruction of their adversary. The deeper issue raised by the administration’s Strategic Doctrine concerns what is generally defined as the preventive use of force: measures to forestall the emergence of a threat not yet imminent but capable, at some point in the future, of being potentially overwhelming — in other words, preventing the coming about of a situation that eventually is likely to require pre-emptive action.
    It follows that preventive force is not an issue applicable to relations with an established major nuclear adversary. If the US did not act against the emerging Soviet nuclear power at the height of the Cold War or against that of China during the period of deep hostility before 1971, it is not likely to use force against an established nuclear power unless that power engages or is on the verge of engaging in actual aggression — in other words, by conduct justifying pre-emption. The issue of preventive force symbolises the upheaval in the international system. The Westphalian system sought security based on the sanctity of international borders. In our time, the power, range and speed of modern weapons have made this definition too narrow.
    Thus the issue of proliferation to heretofore non-nuclear weapon states emerges as one of the key tasks of preventive diplomacy. The United States has an obvious incentive to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction, especially of nuclear weapons, into wrong hands. For aspirant great powers, the incentive is precisely the opposite, to acquire nuclear weapons as rapidly as possible and, if thwarted, to develop chemical or biological weapons, either for their own security or as a safety net for assertive or revolutionary policies. Any diplomatic outcome to the proliferation issue, therefore, depends in part on whether diplomacy is able to generate security assurances for the country asked to forego nuclear weapons. The test of preventive diplomacy will come if diplomacy fails. How should that balance be struck? One school of thought holds the view that mortal danger is inherent in the process of proliferation. It points out that, until the outbreak of World War II, it was generally considered that a country could legitimately go to war if it was attacked or if an aggressor brought about a change in the global balance of power of a magnitude to threaten international security. (It was the basis for British foreign policy for 200 years.) But in the contemporary world, the coin of power is technology, not territory.

    Modern weapons of mass destruction, by their very existence, bring about an increase in a country’s power vastly exceeding what could be achieved by any conceivable territorial acquisition. The capacity to threaten is accompanied by the increasing range of delivery systems. The very existence of these weapons, according to this school of thought, produces a pre-emptive incentive; the balance of terror that was precariously maintained in a two-power nuclear world weakens with each new entrant into the ranks of states possessing weapons of mass destruction. Deterrence becomes impossibly complicated when many balances have to be considered by many different actors simultaneously. Hence, in this view, the emergence of new nuclear weapons power must be prevented as a last resort by force. Another approach makes a distinction between friendly and threatening countries. The US has acquiesced in the development of nuclear weapons technology in India, Pakistan and Israel because the purpose of these states was believed compatible with long-range American objectives.
    The US has strongly opposed the spread of weapons of mass destruction to Iran and North Korea because they are governed by hostile autocratic regimes and have records of ruthless international conduct. Indeed, a not insignificant school of thought holds that the best anti-proliferation policy — at least in these cases — is to overthrow the North Korean and Iranian regimes. That implies America’s anti-proliferation policy is concerned not so much with the fact of proliferation as with the nature of the regime that acquires these weapons. Does this mean that America would acquiesce in the acquisition of nuclear weapons by elected governments? A realistic policy will bring a resolution to this debate and emphasise that a wise strategy will recognise the threat inherent in the very fact of proliferation, which can be mitigated but not ended by the existence of benevolent government.
    A special case is humanitarian intervention, which applies to circumstances that threaten American security only indirectly. In these cases, the preventive use of force can only be justified on the ground that it resists offences to values considered essential by American society or by the international community rather than to one’s security. This was the basis for the intervention in Kosovo, where Nato acted without Security Council authority to stop the mistreatment by a recognised state of its own population of a different ethnic composition. It was also a significant motive force in the American decision to remove Saddam Hussein.
    Strangely, the impulse towards preventive intervention has proved most difficult to apply to genocidal events like the massacres in Rwanda and Darfur. The fact that no country felt directly threatened prevented both unilateral and multilateral action — not to the credit of the international system or its principal exponents. These earlier applications of preventive force suggest the following conclusions:

    The analysis underlying the Strategic Doctrine document is correct in emphasising the changes in the international environment and the propensity (or perhaps even necessity) they create towards some forms of preventive strategy. But stating the theory is only a first step. The concept must be applied to specific, concrete contingencies; courses of action need to be analysed not only in terms of threats but of outcomes and consequences. Conclusions must go beyond position papers to plans of action capable of implementation on the working level and include enough congressional participation to bring about sustainable public support. Finally, a policy that allows for preventive force can sustain the international system only if solitary American enterprises are the rare exception, not the basic rule of American strategy.

    The other major nations have a similar responsibility to take the new challenges seriously and to treat them as something beyond the sole responsibility of America. A common approach, however contrary to historical experience, may be possible because what used to be called the “great powers” have nothing to gain by military conflict with each other. They are all more or less dependent on the global economic system. They are all threatened (if not symmetrically) if ideology and weapons run out of control. They should know that, after the use of weapons of mass destruction or universal carnage due to a clash of civilisations, their publics will demand some form of preventive diplomacy. The challenge is to build a viable international order without the impetus of having survived catastrophe.
    An interesting view from Kissinger.

    He has raised some issues to take note of.

    What do you feel about what he has written?

    "Some have learnt many Tricks of sly Evasion, Instead of Truth they use Equivocation, And eke it out with mental Reservation, Which is to good Men an Abomination."

    I don't have to attend every argument I'm invited to.