The Magazine

Deterrence and Prevention

Why a war against Saddam is crucial to the future of deterrence.

Feb 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 20 • By TOD LINDBERG
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Two conclusions follow. First, preemption or prevention cannot be said to have superseded deterrence. Rather, preemption is the violent reestablishment of the terms of deterrence. Second, insofar as war is intended not merely to reverse an unacceptable situation in the here-and-now but also to have a pedagogical effect (pour encourager les autres), it has in general a "preventive" component. To the extent that one says the Civil War "settled once and for all" the question of whether or not states may secede from the Union, one refers not only to a bloody conflict with a particular outcome but also to a successful exercise in conveying a message. One might say that, in a sense, war is the ultimate means of making your point.

THUS WHAT APPEARS to be a dispute over doctrine, deterrence vs. preemption/prevention, is actually a dispute over whether, hereinafter, the United States should seek to deter not only the use of weapons of mass destruction but also the acquisition of such weapons, at least by certain states. Should the United States, acting alone or (preferably) in concert with others, be willing to go to war in order to prevent a state from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, in the expectation that by establishing our willingness to do so we will deter other states from trying to acquire weapons of mass destruction? Or should the United States remain relatively indifferent to the acquisition of nuclear and other such weapons--offering merely declaratory support for nonproliferation--and remain satisfied with trying to deter their use?

Before we get to that question, however, there is underbrush that needs to be cleared away, the byproduct of mistaken notions about deterrence and prevention and the present conflict.

Some have objected that by embracing a doctrine of preemption the United States invites other states to assert a similar right, thereby serving as a general pretext for aggressive war. This misconstrues the current situation. In order to successfully act preventively, one must have the capacity to do so--which is to say, one must be able to prevail in teaching the lesson one wants learned. At the height of the Cold War, the United States was in no position to declare that it was no longer acceptable for the Soviet Union to have nuclear weapons. The result would have been catastrophic. Nowadays, in areas in which the United States takes an interest, generally speaking it is only the United States that has the capacity to revise the terms of acceptable international behavior. Other states' willy-nilly attempts to undertake revisions of their own run into the question of whether the United States would find their efforts acceptable.

Only by misconstruing what it means to act preventively or preemptively does one arrive at a difficulty here. If anything is possible in a world where deterrence has been abandoned in favor of unilateral wars of prevention, then we are indeed in a mess. But in truth, the capacity of any given state to set or revise the terms of acceptable international conduct neither increased nor decreased as a result of any declaration by the Bush administration. The United States, under current circumstances, can do things other states cannot, something well understood by other states and by Washington. The question of a substantial revision in standards of acceptable international conduct--in this case, the proposition that acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by some parties is unacceptable--is thus mainly a question raised by and answered by the United States (although there is no reason not to seek international participation). It is not a question posed generally to states.