Ethics & International Affairs

Roundtable: Evaluating the Preemptive Use of Force

Self-Defense in an Imperfect World

Chris Brown*

In his address at West Point on June 1, 2002, President George W. Bush appeared to be signaling America's willingness to regard the mere possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) by potential enemies as grounds for an anticipatory war. Historically, however, a clear distinction has been drawn between preemptive and preventive, or anticipatory, war, with the latter regarded as illegitimate. The National Security Strategy announced by the president on September 20, 2002, was more conventional in its approach to preemption, but doubts remain as to whether the old distinction can be preserved. And this discussion is taking place in the context of a specific problem, namely the apparent desire of Iraq to obtain WMD and the determination of the United States, and, less clearly expressed, the UN Security Council, to prevent this from happening.

Chris Brown is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics. He writes on international political theory, human rights, and issues of global justice. He is the author of International Relations Theory: New Normative Approaches (1992), Understanding International Relations (1997; 2nd ed. 2001), Sovereignty, Rights and Justice (2002), the editor of Political Restructuring in Europe: Ethical Perspectives (1994), and has published numerous journal articles. Recently, he coauthored, with Terry Nardin and N. J. Rengger, International Relations in Political Thought: Texts from the Greeks to the First World War (2002).


* An earlier version of this article was presented at a roundtable at the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, New York, N.Y., November 14, 2002. I am grateful to the other participants for their input, and to Joel Rosenthal and Tony Lang of the Carnegie Council for the opportunity to contribute to this roundtable. I am also grateful to Michael Donelan, Christopher Hill, and Nicholas J. Wheeler for comments; none of the above, of course, is responsible for the views expressed in this article.