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Preventive War and Its Alternatives: The Lessons of History

Preventive War and Its Alternatives: The Lessons of History - Cover

Authored by Dr. Dan Reiter.

April 2006

40 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The 2002 National Security Strategy suggested preventive attacks, diplomacy, deterrence, and other policies as means of curtailing threats presented by the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons to terrorists and rogue states. The author analyzes which mix of these policies might best and most cost effectively address the NBC threat, with special focus on preventive attacks. The past performances of preventive attacks, diplomacy, deterrence, and other policies as means of curtailing the NBC threat are analyzed.

The central findings are that preventive attacks are generally unsuccessful at delaying the spread of NBC weapons; that deterrence, especially nuclear deterrence, is highly successful at preventing the use of NBC weapons by states; and that diplomacy has had moderate and perhaps unappreciated success at curtailing the spread of NBC weapons. The author also discusses how funds spent on preventive wars, which are much more expensive than diplomacy or deterrence, might be better spent to combat threats from terrorism and proliferation, on initiatives such as fissile material recovery, ballistic missile defense, and port security.


The 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS) describes several policy tools available to curtail threats from nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons, including diplomacy, deterrence, preventive attacks against NBC programs, and others. This monograph asks the question: What mix of these policies best addresses the NBC threat posed by rogue leaders and terrorists? This question must be asked because the NBC threat remains, and because financial and other constraints prevent the pursuit of all policy choices simultaneously.

The central findings are that, while some of the NSS recommendations are sound, preventive wars are not attractive policy options for addressing NBC threats. Examination of the historical record reveals that limited strikes on NBC programs are generally ineffective. Larger-scale attacks intended to overthrow a regime are sometimes successful, though their financial, human, military, and geopolitical costs (including counterproductive effects on the war on terrorism) are so substantial that they are unattractive policy choices. The financial costs are especially disturbing, given the hundreds of billions spent on regime change attacks which could more effectively be spent on other counterproliferation and counterterrorism initiatives, including ballistic missile defense, fissile material recovery, and a variety of counterterrorism initiatives such as port security.

Fortunately, the other elements of the NSS do promise to address the NBC threat effectively. Diplomacy generally has been successful at dissuading many states from acquiring NBC weapons, and persuading others to give up such weapons. Deterrence has been extremely successful at preventing the state use of NBC weapons. Some ballistic missile defense systems are showing promise of addressing short- and medium-range missile threats. Finally, evidence suggests that defensive counterterrorism measures work. The monograph recommends pursuing these policies. Regarding preventive attacks, the NBC threat might be reduced more effectively if the United States offered to make no-invasion pledges to countries such as North Korea in exchange for substantial NBC concessions, rather than considering or threatening the actual launch of such attacks.

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