Eve of Destruction: The Coming Age of Preventive War; Striking First: Preemption and Prevention in International Conflict

In This Review

Eve of Destruction: The Coming Age of Preventive War

By Thomas M. Nichols
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008
192 pp. $39.95

Striking First: Preemption and Prevention in International Conflict

By Michael W. Doyle. Edited by Stephen Macedo
Princeton University Press, 2008
200 pp. $24.95

Preventive war has never had a good name, and the Iraq war has done little to help its reputation. Invading sovereign states on the grounds that they might do something bad in the future is not conducive to a stable world order. Strong evidence that the enemy is up to no good might justify preemption (war in response to an imminent attack), but the accepted standard requires that this can only be justified in cases of overwhelming necessity in the face of an imminent danger. Whether the bar should really be so high has been increasingly questioned, not just by the Bush administration in the run-up to the war in Iraq but also by humanitarians concerned about ethnic cleansing. Still, the case for restraint remains compelling: once powerful states start taking the law into their own hands, even for the best of motives, there is no telling where they will stop.

Both of these books address the dilemma between the moral case to prevent or stop terrible deeds and the dangers of acting too regularly or rashly. Nichols provides a lively guide to the development of this issue after the Cold War. He argues that the only way for preventive action to gain international legitimacy is for it to be blessed by the United Nations but then worries that this requirement can only be made acceptable to the United States by reducing the dysfunctional influence of the more brutish and dictatorial elements on the organization. Here he relies on a "global wave of democratization" that, for the moment, unfortunately, seems to have subsided. Striking First is based on a lecture given by Doyle and includes an introduction by Macedo and commentary by Harold Hongju Koh, Richard Tuck, and Jeff McMahan. The arguments presented are lucid, earnest, and thoughtful. Accepting that preemption might be necessary, Doyle builds on the traditional criteria to stress the importance of the lethality and likelihood of the threat and the legitimacy and legality of the response.

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