Preventive War

49 Pages Posted: 26 Nov 2003

See all articles by David Luban

David Luban

Georgetown University Law Center


A preventive war is a preemptive war in which the requirement of an imminent threat is relaxed. The present paper examines the justifiability of preventive war. First, it lays out the prevailing doctrine of just war and explains why preventive war does not fit comfortably within it. It then discusses the justification of the prevailing doctrine, first by examining Michael Walzer's rights-based justification for it, which it rejects, then by offering a broadly consequentialist justification, very close to the thinking of the U.N.'s founders. The most important point emerging from these arguments is that the real justification for the prevailing doctrine lies in the importance of a no-first-use-of-force rule for war prevention, not in the importance of protecting state sovereignty. The paper then turns to the question whether a general doctrine permitting preventive war to forestall immature threats is morally defensible, and answers no, arguing that giving a green light to preventive war would make wars too frequent and too routine. However, a more restricted form of the doctrine, which permits preventive war against serious threats posed by rogue states, is sound under certain conditions.

The paper turns to the question of whether, given the incredible disparity in power between the United States and other nations, it makes sense any longer to ask about appropriate "general doctrines" of just war. Should we continue to think of just war theory as a collection of rules or principles that apply to all states, or is this legalistic model of political morality inapplicable in the dramatically altered political constellation we inhabit? Some prominent theorists and policymakers argue that in the current era a double standard is appropriate, in which the United States is not bound by rules of general applicability across all states. The U.S. gets to do things, like launch preventive wars or insist on its own military pre-eminence, that other states do not get to do. The paper concludes that to date proponents' claims that a Pax Americana would be generally beneficial have little to support them.

Suggested Citation

Luban, David, Preventive War. Available at SSRN: or

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Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

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