Preemptive Warfare is morally justified.

Within that simple phrase are a boatload of questions.  What does it mean to be morally justified?  What moral obligations do states have?  Is preemptive warfare necessary?  Is warfare ever justified?  

Those questions are important, but for another day. Today I’d like to focus on what should perhaps be the first question asked:

What is preemptive warfare?

The answer, as you might suspect, is sure to be a topic of argument throughout debate rounds this year.  So making sure you set up your case understanding what you are debating about is imperative.

Encyclopedia Britannica describes preemptive force as: “Preemptive force, military doctrine whereby a state claims the right to launch an offensive on a potential enemy before that enemy has had the chance to carry out an attack.”  

Okay, sounds pretty straightforward.  Preemptive warfare is attacking someone else before they attack you.  Surely that isn’t something that people have argued over for decades if not centuries?  

Wrong.  

What kind of rights the preemptive warmonger has is a hot topic of contention.  Let’s look at two different schools of thought on the issue of what constitutes legitimate preemptive warfare (for your reference, these names are my own creation- there are not such descriptors in the literature).

Imminent Attack School

The first school of thought to explore is the one espoused by the current Wikipedia article on the subject, as well as Arthur Schlessinger (although he does not draw a direct distinction, the inference is clear).  This school of thought insists that preemptive warfare means that an attack is literally right around the corner, and the preemptive strike is being used to destroy the attacking force.  I would add that this is the classical school of thought embraced by the majority of just-war theorists and modern philosophers.

A helpful distinction built into this school of thought is the one between preemptive and preventive war.  While preemptive war is against a nation setting up surface-to-air missiles on your frontier, preventive war is against a nation building surface-to-air missiles five hundred miles from your frontier, just in case they ever manage to move them all that way.  In other words, preventive war is waged to destroy a threat before it exists rather than respond to one imminent.  This school would describe the attack on Pearl Harbor as preventive, but the Israeli attack beginning the Six Day War as preemptive.  Expect to see a lot of this thought from Affirmatives this year.

Helpful links:

https://www.bakerinstitute.org/media/files/Research/50987fa2/Preemptive_and_Preventive_War-1.pdf

https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/4330386.pdf?refreqid=excelsior:fb7a8f20bba31f1d19ce5d2c8aae80b1

Bush Doctrine School

The other school of thought on this issue is that espoused by President George W. Bush.  This is articulated in the Bush Doctrine, which has four tenets.  But the one that we are concerned with is the third, which is summarized by President Bush in a speech to the West Point graduates:

“Homeland defense and missile defense are part of stronger security, and they’re essential priorities for America. Yet the war on terror will not be won on the defensive. We must take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge… Our security will require transforming the military you will lead — a military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world. And our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for preemptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.”

Bush here establishes a preemptive strike as one which destroys a threat before it emerges.  In contrast to the imminent threat school, Bush would see a preemptive war as one which preempts a target from emerging, not from attacking.  This is not an accepted view in world philosophy and the literature base. Most who study this would call Bush’s notion of preemptive warfare preventative warfare.

What’s the Point?

By this point, you should be able to see a clear difference between these two positions.  You may even be imagining debate rounds where the entire question falls on these two different interpretations of the words “preemptive warfare.”  I certainly have been.  

Even more importantly, note the difference in your research. The Bush Doctrine school of thought is what most people think of when they think of preemption. However, it’s not the definition of preemptive warfare that is commonly used among those in the literature base. So know what kind of “preemptive” warfare you’re looking at when you’re reading.

But what should you do about it?  Whatever position you end up taking, on Affirmative or Negative, you need to be ready to defend it.  So find more sources and quotes about what preemptive warfare means.  Look at the examples of history and explore what philosophers have said about war throughout the ages.  Don’t settle for a shallow debate round- study for a deep one.  


Noah Farley is a junior in high school. He has been debating for three years, primarily in LD and Parli. He participates in both Stoa and NCFCA. Last year, Noah moved to debate finals 5 separate times and finished the season as the top ranked LD debater in Tennessee.