Confusing Ends and Means: The Doctrine of Coercive Pre-emption

John Steinbruner

In a speech at West Point last June, in a more formal statement of national security strategy submitted to Congress in September, and in a White House document published in December, President George W. Bush has proclaimed what appears to be a new security doctrine. Reduced to its essentials, the doctrine suggests that the United States will henceforth attack adversaries to prevent them not only from using but also from acquiring the technologies associated with weapons of mass destruction. If it were systematically implemented, this doctrine would represent a major redirection of policy and a radical revision of established international security rules.

The Bush administration evidently intends to make Iraq the first test case, but the doctrine also has direct implications for the two other countries—North Korea and Iran—that the president has named as members of an “axis of evil.” The doctrine is backed by the unprecedented degree of military superiority the United States has acquired. It has also been accompanied by repudiation of prominent agreements that have long been pillars of international regulation—most notably the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In that context, the announced doctrine projects an assertive form of American nationalism that is sure to inspire considerable animosity—and not just among potential adversaries. Signs of an international backlash are already evident to those who are willing to look for them—in the recent elections in South Korea and in Germany, for example.

In attempting to understand the significance of this development, it is important to remember that blunt talk and practical accomplishment are not the same thing. The president’s inherently provocative pronouncements will force deliberation and reaction throughout the world. The eventual consequences of Bush’s declared doctrine will be shaped by compelling interests and competing principles that his pronouncements only dimly acknowledged. When those are considered, as eventually they must be, the importance of cooperatively establishing greater control over mass destruction technologies will overpower the impulse to attack alleged rogues pre-emptively. The idea of using decisive force against implacable evil may be emotionally satisfying, but it is hardly the basis for responsible policy against today’s most likely threats. Pre-emptive actions are the result of policy failures, not the triumph of superior virtue or strategic reason.

The Vital Importance of Legitimacy

The central problem with the Bush administration’s doctrine is that it fundamentally confuses ends and means. Obviously, the aspiration to prevent warfare is intrinsically legitimate and increasingly important. It is also much better to pre-empt the conditions that generate violence than to prevail in a process of countervailing destruction. The question has to do with the methods that are used to accomplish these purposes. The Bush doctrine of pre-emption apparently proposes to rely primarily on coercive power, that is, to initiate violence in order to prevent it, and it appears to neglect and indeed to disdain international legal restraint. In the judgment of much of the world, that formula is more likely to generate violence than to contain it. Civilized security policy is primarily a matter of establishing and preserving a viable rule of law, and the use of coercive power is subordinate to that objective for very practical reasons. Coercion alone is too inefficient and too ineffective to provide adequate protection. Most of normal life depends on consensual rules, so they are necessarily the foundation of security.

A related problem with the Bush administration’s doctrine concerns the scale and character of threat. Before and during the Cold War, security policy was primarily concerned with territorial aggression on a continental scale and with massive destruction by remote bombardment. Preparations for missions of that magnitude would have to be very extensive, readily observable, and centrally organized. Now, threats of primary concern are smaller in scale; much more readily concealed; and, potentially at least, more widely distributed and more diffusely organized. The legitimacy and effectiveness of pre-emptive action depends a great deal on the type of threat to which it is applied.

The most broadly accepted form of pre-emption would be directed against an observably imminent threat of conventional invasion. The prohibition on territorial aggression and the right to defend against it are the most solidly established international legal standards. It is plausible to believe that World War II and the 1991 Persian Gulf War could both have been prevented had timely pre-emption been undertaken. In October 1994, the United States and the United Kingdom successfully reversed a second Iraqi mobilization against Kuwait by credibly threatening a pre-emptive attack, and their actions were backed by a UN Security Council resolution. In any currently foreseeable situation of that sort in which the United States is seriously engaged, the doctrine is likely to be successfully applied. The Bush administration documents cite this established application but attempt to extend it to circumstances where the perceived threat is neither large nor imminent. They do not explain how they will determine aggressive intent before it is demonstrated in deeds or how they will prevent errors of judgment that would make the enacted punishment outweigh the anticipated threat.

Pre-emption against the threat of massive nuclear attack was seriously considered when U.S. and Russian forces were first being formed. Indeed, today U.S. and Russian nuclear forces remain configured to attack enemy nuclear forces in the hopes of destroying them before they can be launched—an operational inclination that could be extremely dangerous during a crisis. It is so difficult, however, to execute a first strike that destroys all enemy weapons—and to be certain that you have that capability—that pre-emption has never been a responsible option for nuclear self-defense. It has also been recognized that a systematic effort to acquire that level of military ability and psychological confidence would lead to destructive competition between potential adversaries (i.e., an arms race). The ABM Treaty and associated offensive force limitation treaties were devised to prevent that from happening.

Bush’s new strategic pronouncements reopen this issue with a new twist. They assert the right to use coercive force against the acquisition of mass destruction weapons and imply that mass destruction weapons might themselves be used for this purpose. That form of pre-emption, traditionally termed preventive war, might well succeed if practiced against a smaller adversary early enough in the cycle of weapons development. It sets an inherently discriminatory and implicitly imperial standard, however, that has no chance of ever being broadly accepted, and in forfeiting legitimacy it promises to incite an interminable process of clandestine retribution. When resistance is widely considered justified, even socially mandatory, coercive pre-emption against all forms of clandestine retribution becomes infeasible, as is evident in the many current instances of active civil conflict.

Over the past decade, the United States and the international community have been repeatedly entangled in instances of civil conflict that could not be resolved by the direct combatants and the nominally responsible sovereign authority. There is as yet no settled interpretation of this experience, but the outlines of an intervention doctrine with pre-emptive implications are nonetheless visible. Interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo generated a reluctant and belated but ultimately acknowledged understanding that sustained violence in those areas would pose an intolerably dangerous threat to the surrounding region. UN Security Council Resolution 1244, which authorizes an indefinite international occupation of Kosovo, asserts an international interest in basic standards of legal order that overrides the traditional prerogatives of sovereignty. In retrospect, it is apparent that these interventions could have been more successful and less costly had they been undertaken earlier than they were. Similarly, it is now widely believed that a forceful intervention could have and should have halted the 1994 genocide in Rwanda well before more than half a million people had been slaughtered and millions more driven from their homes.

In the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, it has been widely recognized that a sustained breakdown of legal order anywhere in the world would provide an organizational base for global terrorism and that forceful intervention to establish basic civil order is justified. The U.S. assault on Afghanistan was generally accepted under that understanding. The implication is that situations of that sort demand pre-emptive correction, but repeated instances would have to be authorized by the international community as a whole for reasons of general interest. Despite September 11, the United States will not be conceded exclusive responsibility for determining the circumstances under which pre-emptive intervention is required to restore civil order, and it does not have the capacity to assert that prerogative against widespread resistance.

Coercive pre-emption against terrorists and terrorist organizations is presumed to be legitimate, as dramatically demonstrated by an incident in Yemen on November 3. On that day, the CIA used an unmanned aerial vehicle to fire a missile at a car traveling in a remote area of the country, killing all five of the vehicle’s occupants. One of them was said to be a key al Qaeda figure, and that assertion was generally accepted as valid justification for the attack. There was no public protest from the Yemeni government, which was apparently consulted in advance but not otherwise involved in the operation. The precedent is nonetheless inherently contentious. The Yemeni operation was in effect a summary execution with no semblance of legal due process—no disputable presentation of evidence, no equivalent of an impartial judge or jury. If repeated often enough, that type of action will assuredly generate incidents that exceed the bounds of accepted justification and will incite recrimination. One cannot defend legal order by violating its central principles. One cannot fight terrorism by actions that are themselves terrorist in character. In fact, terrorism’s strategic purpose is to exploit the target’s natural impulse to respond in kind—to provoke a decisively stronger opponent into reactions that damage and discredit it.

Practical Judgments

Whether ultimately wise or not, coercive pre-emption against Iraq is obviously an imminent possibility. Saddam Hussein’s regime has so indicted itself that due process concerns are not likely to be a significant restraint. The legitimacy of denying Iraq access to mass destruction technology is established in UN resolutions, and a substantial part of the world would apparently acquiesce to a U.S. military campaign dedicated to that purpose. No one doubts the United States’ ability to undertake such a campaign. The major question is whether an attack perceived to be designed for the broader notion of “regime change” would trigger a cascading political reaction sufficiently adverse to discredit pre-emption as a doctrine. If so, that might take some time to recognize.

Even a decisive and enduring success in Iraq would not establish coercive pre-emption against programs to build weapons of mass destruction as a general principle. The international community cannot categorically deny the right of North Korea, Iran, or any other country to nuclear weapons. As non-nuclear-weapon states under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, both North Korea and Iran committed themselves not to exercise their inherent right, but that did not take away the right itself or the associated right to acquire fissile material. North Korea can legally withdraw from the treaty as it stated it did January 10. In the current diplomatic crisis concerning its uranium-enrichment program, North Korea has cited that right, and in its evident reluctance to apply the doctrine of coercive pre-emption the Bush administration has so far implicitly conceded it.

The categorical prohibition on the offensive application of biotechnology formulated in the 1925 Geneva Protocol and in the Biological Weapons Convention is more plausibly considered a inviolable standard. Although the United States has accused some 13 countries, including North Korea and Iran, of having illegal offensive programs, none of them admits to that allegation, and no country currently claims either the right to biological weapons or the possession of them. All countries, however, assertively and legitimately proclaim the right to conduct biomedical research, and most of them actively do it. The United States cannot restrict that right by simplistically labeling a country “evil.”

In addition to having to concede that states have the right to pursue nuclear and biological technology—an admission that undermines the justification for coercive pre-emption—the United States will have to acknowledge that its capability to pre-emptively attack North Korea and Iran is more questionable than its ability to attack Iraq. Since the U.S. military operates within a network of foreign basing rights and access agreements that require consent from the host governments, it would be difficult to organize a pre-emptive attack that did not enjoy general approval. The bottom line is that the United States needs not merely permissive acquiescence but active collaboration of most major countries in order to deal with emerging security problems that cannot be addressed by military force of any sort.

The most urgent of these problems is the management of biotechnology. Fundamental understanding of basic life processes emerging out of a global biomedical research community is enabling extremely powerful applications, both therapeutic and destructive. The eradication of some devastating diseases is becoming feasible as is the deliberate creation of yet more devastating ones. In general, the prospective benefits and the potential dangers are both greater than is the case for any of the other technologies that carry the “mass destruction” label.

The pattern of development is also distinctive. Biotechnology is the product of a worldwide research enterprise operating through open literature primarily for public health purposes. Dedicated weapons projects are a small part of the whole picture and are not the major source of scientific development. The momentum and diffusion of the research base makes it infeasible for any country to appropriate this technology for its exclusive use or to control the flow of information. Current attempts to impose such controls in the hopes of frustrating bioterrorists are unlikely to succeed. Moreover, since biomedical facilities need not be large and do not have inherently identifying features—unlike nuclear facilities—it is more difficult to fathom their activities through satellite imagery and other means.

The relentless implication is that the deliberately destructive use of biotechnology is a threat to all human societies of a scope and magnitude greater than any other. That threat could be developed and delivered by clandestine means, and current national security methods cannot provide adequate protection no matter how they might be elaborated. Under prevailing circumstances of access, it would be impossible to identify and disable all dedicated terrorists and rogues before they have accomplished nefarious deeds, and it would be foolish to attempt to do so by national military operations. A campaign of that sort conducted by the United States under the doctrine of coercive pre-emption is more likely to stimulate the destructive application of biotechnology than to prevent it.

The only reasonable hope is to establish comprehensive oversight procedures within the scientific community robust enough to make dangerous research far more difficult to conceal and simultaneously to organize the research process so that protective applications of biotechnology outpace any destructive ones that might evade oversight. An arrangement of that sort would require intimate, equitable collaboration on a global basis without exception. Impossible as that kind of cooperation might seem given current attitudes, it will be considered, and probably attempted, as the nature of the threat from biotechnology is absorbed. The process of deliberation will impose a major amendment on the doctrine of coercive pre-emption.

The management of fissile material presents a similar imperative in somewhat weaker form. It is technically feasible for terrorists or rogues to use nuclear explosives to wreck devastating havoc with small operations that could be successfully concealed and would therefore evade coercive pre-emption. Doing so is inherently more difficult than using biotechnology to cause damage because the scale of activity required to produce fissile material is far more difficult to conceal and access controls over material already produced are far more developed. Current national standards of accounting and physical security for fissile material are not impermeable, however, and they could be substantially improved by establishing a common international arrangement. The problems involved are more political than technical in character. If the confrontational policies forged during the Cold War were transcended in fact as well as in rhetoric, more robust protection of fissile material could be achieved, but that would assuredly require very convincing restriction on the doctrine of coercive pre-emption. No country will subject its fissile material to international accounting if it believes that coercive pre-emption is a serious possibility.


In the end, the Bush administration’s doctrinal pronouncements may prove to be a transient political exercise of little enduring significance or possibly a useful threat with exclusive application to the Iraq situation. They also might spark major international disputes and eventual adjustment. However it turns out, the central contention—that pre-emptive attack can prevent the acquisition of mass destruction technology—is not realistic and does not provide a responsible basis for protecting the United States or anyone else. Preventive action against potentially unmanageable threats is indeed an increasingly vital security interest, but that cannot be accomplished by coercive methods. It will require the systematic exchange of sensitive monitoring information for mutual protection, and arrangements of that sort cannot be established while one party is wielding a confrontational threat against the others. If coercive pre-emption is to be done at all, it must be done by the international community as a whole for common benefit, not by the United States alone for its own exclusive purposes. The confusion of ends and means presented in the Bush administration’s documents will have to be corrected. That is a direct responsibility of the U.S. political system in which the rest of the world has a very substantial stake.

John Steinbruner is director of the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland.