Project on Defense Alternatives

Prevention or Preemption?

Towards a clarification of terminology

Volker Kroening, MdB
Member of the Bundestag, Germany
PDA Guest Commentary
March 2003

In the September 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States it is stated repeatedly that the United States will exercise the right to act preemptively in the event of deadly challenges to its people or allies emerging from rogue states or terrorist groups.

This prompted criticism from Jimmy Carter: When accepting the Nobel peace prize in Oslo he commented to the effect that the course defined by the White House is not preemption at all, but prevention, and that no one has the right to take such action. And in an obvious allusion to Kant's categorical imperative, he pointed out that if powerful countries adopt a principle of preventive war, this sets a bad example and may well have catastrophic global consequences.

Official definition

Carter is right to suppose that the term "preemption" is being used in a misleading way by the Bush Administration. The U.S. Department of Defense's own official Dictionary of Military Terms defines preemption as "an attack initiated on the basis of incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent."

Prevention is different: A preventive war is "initiated in the belief that military conflict, while not imminent, is inevitable, and that to delay would involve greater risk." This is quite obviously the logic being pursued by the U.S. leadership, especially in relation to Iraq, for there is simply no evidence of any imminent threat.

Deliberate confusion

If what is actually meant is "prevention," but instead the term consistently used is "preemptive action," it seems legitimate to assume that the confusion may be deliberate ๖ especially as a glance at the U.S. Defense Department's dictionary could have clarified the issue. So the question is this: What is the political rationale for the extraordinary course taken by the US Administration?

It must be assumed, first of all, that this lack of clarity is intended to broaden the scope of action for the U.S. Furthermore, the insistence on "preemption" seems to be intended to reinforce the urgency of the need for intervention with the expectation that urgency enhances its legitimacy. Moreover ๖ and surprisingly ๖ it shows an indirect respect for international law, which after all prohibits preventive war, but is rather more liberal on the issue of preemptive action.

In any event, the obstinate use of the term "preemption" reinforces the impression, which is supported by other indicators, that in preparing for a strike against Iraq, the U.S. has more in mind than simply establishing sufficient threat of coercion to bring about further disarmament. If this is the case, a distinct counter-position must be developed at international level, whichGerhard Schroeder, the Federal Chancellor, has substantially contributed to.

Incidentally, the concept of a threat of coercion (German Drohkulisse),introduced by General Naumann (former chairman of NATO`s Military Committee),has been eagerly appropriated by the leadership of the major opposition party alliance CDU/CSU ๖ a stance revealing both the gaps in their perceptions and their tenuous grasp of law. Yet not even the creation of a coercive threat seems to be essential: Several British military commanders ๖ contradicting Mr Blair ๖ have said that even before the recent weaponsinspections, Iraq was already a controllable security risk.

New situation

The confusion over "prevention" and "preemption" reveals a worrying problem. There is obviously atendency in the West's security policy thinking to respond to the "new threats" in a way which ensures that they can be kept at the greatest possible distance, both in temporal and spatial terms. Action should be taken at a very early stage ๖ and even remote crises suddenly seem to be of direct militaryrelevance.

What are the reasons for this? Firstly, it is probably because today's "asymmetric" threats pose such an unsettling challenge, in terms of their strangeness and unpredictability, that there is a desire to keep them well and truly at arm's length. Secondly, it is also because there appears to be a realistic prospect of dealing with at least some of the opponents successfully without too many risks to oneself.

In this sense, Iraq is an ideal opponent for certain Atlantic security policy-makers. It can be somehow linked ๖ albeit with considerable effort and difficulty ๖ to terrorist or, at least, malign threats. At the same time its military machine is of a relatively traditional nature ๖in other words, it is not so bewilderingly "asymmetrical" ๖ and, moreover, conveniently weak.

North Korea is quite another matter: It is far less controlled, and has a far more dangerous military potential than Iraq. Here, very few would dream of violating international law in the name of "prevention." The same applied, as we know, during the East-West conflict. Under those circumstances, prevention was sheer madness. Is this less true of the present conditions? The U.S. should realize how much is at stake.

Volker Kroening, MdB is a member of the German Bundestag from Bremen.

Citation: Volker Kroening, Prevention or Preemption? Towards a Clarification of Terminology, Project on Defense Alternatives Guest Commentary. Cambridge, MA: Commonwealth Institute, March 2003.

Other publications addressing distinctions between preemptive attacks and preventive war:

Eyeless in Iraq
by Arthur Schlesinger Jr., New York Review of Books, 23 October 2003.

First Strike Guidelines:  the case of Iraq
by Charles Knight, PDA Briefing Memo #25, 16 September 2002 (revised and updated 10 March 2003).

The Best Defense:   The problem with Bush's 'preemptive' war doctrine
by Neta Crawford, Boston Review, February/March 2003.

Essential Elements Missing in the National Security Strategy of 2002
by Charles Knight. PDA Commentary, November 2002.

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