President Bush’s June graduation address to the cadets at West Point has attracted attention mainly because it is the fullest articulation, so far, of the new strategic doctrine of pre-emption. The radical idea being touted by the White House and Pentagon is that the United States has the right to use military force against any state that is seen as hostile or makes moves to acquire weapons of mass destruction–nuclear, biological or chemical. The obvious initial test case for pre-emption is Iraq, whose government the United States is continually threatening to overthrow, either on the model of the displacement of the Taliban in Afghanistan or by some other method. Washington’s war plans have evidently not been finalized, and whether the intimations of war–despite the numerous objections voiced by neighboring governments and European allies–are to be taken literally is still unclear.
What is certain, and scary, is the new approach to the use of international force beneath the banner of counterterrorism and in the domestic climate of fervent nationalism that has existed since September 11. This new approach repudiates the core idea of the United Nations Charter (reinforced by decisions of the World Court in The Hague), which prohibits any use of international force that is not undertaken in self-defense after the occurrence of an armed attack across an international boundary or pursuant to a decision by the UN Security Council. When Iraq conquered and annexed Kuwait in 1990, Kuwait was legally entitled to act in self-defense to recover its territorial sovereignty even without any UN authorization. And the United States and others were able to join Kuwait in bolstering its prospects, thereby acting in what international lawyers call collective self-defense.
Back in 1956, when the American commitment to this Charter effort to limit the discretion of states to the extent possible was still strong, the US government surprised its allies and adversaries by opposing the Suez war of Britain, France and Israel because it was a nondefensive use of force against Egypt, despite the provocations associated at the time with Nasser’s anti-Israeli, anti-Western militancy. This legal commitment had evolved by stages in the period after World War I, and when the surviving leaders of Germany and Japan were prosecuted for war crimes, “crimes against the peace” were declared to be even worse than atrocities committed in the course of the war. The task of the Charter was to give this concept as clear limits as possible.
Pre-emption, in contrast, validates striking first–not in a crisis, as was done by Israel with plausible, if not entirely convincing, justification in the 1967 war, when enemy Arab troops were massing on its borders after dismissing the UN war-preventing presence, but on the basis of shadowy intentions, alleged potential links to terrorist groups, supposed plans and projects to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and anticipations of possible future dangers. It is a doctrine without limits, without accountability to the UN or international law, without any dependence on a collective judgment of responsible governments and, what is worse, without any convincing demonstration of practical necessity.
It is true that the reality of the mega-terrorist challenge requires some rethinking of the relevance of rules and restraints based on conflict in a world of territorial states. The most radical aspects of the Al Qaeda challenge are a result of its nonterritorial, concealed organizational reality as a multistate network. Modern geopolitics was framed to cope with conflict, and relations among sovereign states; the capacity of a network with modest resources to attack and wage a devastating type of war against the most powerful state does require acknowledgment that postmodern geopolitics needs a different structure of security.