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Mediterranean Quarterly 15.1 (2004) 105-118

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Implications of Preventive Wars for Collective Security

John Davis

Following the United States-led invasion of Iraq on 25 March 2003, scholarly discourse shifted from ruminations concerning the effect of the war on terrorism on al Qaeda to preventive wars and their implications for collective security. The new Bush doctrine of preventive war is the source of this ongoing global discontent. As stipulated and operationalized, the doctrine contemplates attacking rogue states (as was the case with Iraq) and terrorist organizations in the absence of credible intelligence and confirmation of a pending enemy attack.

In the view of the Bush administration, the tectonic shift in U.S. military strategy occurred for two reasons. The first concerned the failure of deterrence. Due to this failure, advisors to the president warned that a new polestar was needed to guide U.S. foreign policy during a period in which transnational terrorism emerged as the principal threat to international security. Second, in the wake of the tragic events of 11 September, the administration learned too late the costs of failing to adjust that strategy: "Catastrophic consequences and the price may be high if the United States allows enemies to strike first."1

This new doctrine is problematic for a number of reasons. First, the Bush administration's strategy represents a dramatic shift in U.S. postwar policy governing preventive wars. In the view of many experts, this change symbolizes a clear and troubling departure from the post-World War II diplomatic [End Page 105] tradition, in which collective security (whether in the United Nations or North Atlantic Treaty Organization) represented the center of gravity of American foreign policy. Second, the doctrine marks a departure from the prohibition of the use of force under international law. Third, this policy shift may clear the way for the unfortunate return of the use of force as an instrument of policy between states, and thus a return to interstate conflict. Ironically, the George W. Bush administration's preventive action in Iraq is in direct contravention of the first president Bush's post-Cold War quest to end interstate wars. Finally, many in Europe have attempted to remind the Bush administration of a long-held democratic belief "that citizens of governments founded on the enlightenment principles of individual liberty and the pursuit of happiness are naturally repulsed by the unethical and immoral aspects of preventive war."2

My aim in this essay is to address, first, the use of preventive wars as an instrument of policy and, second, the implications of preventive wars on collective security. Lastly I will address whether, as argued by the Bush administration, the catastrophic events of 11 September represented clear and unmistakable evidence that new realities associated with international terrorism have forced new meaning on the words imminent threat and necessitated an update of the norms governing the use of force in the international legal order.

Pre-11 September Preventive Wars and Collective Security

Preventive war is by no means a new phenomenon. On this point historian Paul W. Schroeder explains, "Preventive wars, even risky preventive wars, are not extreme anomalies in politics. They are normal, even common tools of statecraft."3 Indeed, history is replete with examples of preventive wars. Randall Schweller acknowledges that twenty great power preventive wars were fought between 1665 and 1945. Each of these wars disrupted the balance [End Page 106] of power in Europe.4 However, in recognition of Edward Vose Gulick's dictum "no state shall preponderate," subsequent security arrangements were erected to restore the balance.5 Thus, preventive wars were an illustration of the application of the balance of power theory. As a negative consequence, preventive wars temporarily forced a collapse of collective security arrangements and threatened stability in the international order. In the final analysis, following a period of discord and Great Power conflict, collective security returned as an instrument to restore continental equilibrium following the conclusion of preventive wars.6

This begs a question: With states repeatedly utilizing preventive wars as an instrument of national policy (and the fact that collective...


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