American Strategy and Pre-emptive War
Henry A. Kissinger, International Herald Tribune:
The recent publication of the second Bush administration statement on national strategy passed without the controversy that marked its predecessor in 2002 even though the new statement reiterates the commitment to a strategy of pre-emption in exactly the same words as the last.
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.
The 2006 report was received with less hostility because other countries have had more experience now 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 weapons technology that some reconsideration of existing rules is overdue.
Pre-emptive strategy involves an inherent dilemma: When the scope for action is greatest, knowledge is at a minimum. When knowledge is high, the scope for pre-emption has often disappeared. READ MORE
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.
But 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, the absence of any rules would spell international chaos. Some universal, generally accepted principles need to be matched with the machinery of their operation.
Of course, the United States, 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.
A first step is to recognize 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 damage coupled with the demonstrated will to do so imminently. The right to use force unilaterally in such circumstances is more or less accepted.
The most obvious targets for pre- emptive strategy are terrorist organizations. These cannot be deterred because they have nothing tangible to lose. 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 doctrine concerns preventive use of force: measures to forestall the emergence of a threat capable, at some point in the future, of being overwhelming. Here the issue of proliferation 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 aspiring great powers, the incentive is precisely the opposite - to acquire weapons of mass destruction as rapidly as possible, either for their own security or as a safety net for assertive or revolutionary policies.
Any 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.
How should that balance be struck?
One school of thought holds that mortal danger is inherent in the very process of proliferation.
Before World War II, it was generally considered that a country could legitimately go to war if an aggressor brought about a change in the global balance of power that could threaten international security. Modern weapons of mass destruction bring about an increase in a country's power vastly exceeding what could be achieved by any territorial acquisition.
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.
Yet another approach makes a distinction between friendly and threatening countries. The United States 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. At the same time, the United States has strongly opposed the spread of nuclear weapons to Iran and North Korea because they are governed by hostile autocratic regimes.
That implies America's antiproliferation policy is concerned not so much with the fact of proliferation as with the nature of the regime.
A special case is humanitarian intervention, which applies to circumstances that threaten American security only indirectly. This was the basis for the intervention in Kosovo. It was also a significant motive force in the American decision to remove Saddam Hussein.
But the impulse toward preventive intervention has proved difficult to apply to genocidal events like the massacres in Rwanda and Darfur. The fact that no country felt directly threatened prevented, alas, any action.
These applications of preventive force suggest the following conclusions:
The analysis underlying the Strategic Doctrine document is correct in emphasizing that the changes in the international environment create a propensity toward 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 analyzed not only in terms of threats but of outcomes and consequences.
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. The major nations are all dependent on the global economic system. They are all threatened if ideology and weapons run out of control.
The challenge is to build a viable international order without the impetus of having survived catastrophe.
Henry A. Kissinger heads the consulting firm Kissinger & Associates. Distributed by Tribune Media Services. )