Trump Must Listen to Jefferson, Ike, and Reagan and Reject Preventive War
After recent months of continued North Korean weapons development, culminating in July in an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test and this month in a claimed hydrogen bomb test, the Trump administration has preventive war against Pyongyang on the brain.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster explicitly mentioned the option in early August, indicating the United States is “preparing plans for a preventive war” against North Korea to prevent the Kim Jong-un regime “being able to threaten the United States.” A few days later, President Trump warned Pyongyang further threats would “be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” And this week, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said “any threat” to U.S. lands or allies “will be met with a massive military response,” while U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley declared Kim is “begging for war.”
What has become standard fare for Trump, North Korea saber-rattling, would once – for American leaders from John Quincy Adams to Ronald Reagan – have been unthinkable. Preventive war has not been the political or ethical norm for the great bulk of U.S. history, and it is a grave mistake to make it an option for responding to North Korea’s admittedly serious provocations.
First, an aside for definitions is in order, for confusion abounds (and is too often misused by modern Washington) over the nature of “preventive” war and its near-homophone, “preemptive” war. Preventive war is an attack launched to prevent the materialization of a potential future threat; preemptive war is a response to an imminent threat.
To attack North Korea right now because it has a nuclear arsenal would be preventive war. The threat is not imminent (and it is entirely possible, though the probability is debatable, that Kim would never use his weapons, but merely maintain his arsenal to deter regime change efforts).
If, however, U.S. intelligence detected North Korea in the active process of shooting a nuke at Los Angeles, to attack at that moment would be preemptive. As Colin S. Gray writes for the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, this is “the sharpest contrast,” for “a preventive war is a war of discretion,” which is to say a war of choice inevitably based on some degree of “guesswork.” “Put in the vernacular,” Gray explains, preventive war is “the option of shooting on suspicion.”
This sort of preventive strike on North Korea would guarantee the worst possible outcome – that Pyongyang uses its nuclear weapons – and the civilian casualties would be enormous. South Korea and Japan, much more likely than the United States to suffer a North Korean nuclear strike, oppose preventive war for this reason. Yes, the U.S. military would eventually prevail, but the cost of this option is far too high. It is not in our interest to allow Kim to taunt us into a preventive attack.
Indeed, this dangerous strategy is not and cannot be defensive or just, and for that reason, it has long been eschewed in American foreign policy. Preventive war is what happened in the attack on Pearl Harbor; it is utterly unsuited, to borrow the words of John Quincy Adams, to an America who “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
Adams is not alone in this recognition of the incongruity of preventive war with the values the United States is intended to represent. James Madison described war as the “enem[y] of public liberty … most to be dreaded,” and Thomas Jefferson named it the “greatest scourge of mankind.” Neither phrase admits the possibility of an aggressive, avoidable war of choice.
Indeed, the Constitution itself is testament to the sort of war-making the Founders deemed acceptable: It speaks of “common defense,” a limited and accountable military, and armies raised to “repel invasions.” As Daniel Webster would put it while serving as secretary of state, war is only legitimately defensive if the “necessity of that self-defense is instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment of deliberation.” Frantic statements from Haley notwithstanding, preventive war does not fit the bill.
Though the American anathema of preventive war is these days weakened, its decline is relatively recent. In the wake of World War II, when the destruction of preventive war had been put on repulsive display by Axis powers, U.S. policymakers on both sides of the aisle formally rejected preventive war, though certainly many were not consistently true to their principles in practice. The National Security Council Report 68 (NSC-68), a major Cold War strategy document delivered to then-President Harry Truman in 1950, noted it “goes without saying” preventive war is “generally unacceptable to Americans.” The same year, Truman declared preventive war “the weapon of dictators, not of free democratic countries like the United States.”
When Eisenhower took office, his national security strategy likewise flatly rejected preventive war. “All of us have heard this term ‘preventive war’ since the earliest days of Hitler,” Ike mused at a press conference in 1954, condemning preventive war for “all sorts of reasons, moral and political and everything else” and calling it “an impossibility” in the nuclear age: “How could you have [preventive war] if one of its features would be several cities lying in ruins, several cities where many, many thousands of people would be dead and injured and mangled, the transportation systems destroyed, sanitation implements and systems all gone?” “Frankly,” Eisenhower concluded, “I wouldn't even listen to anyone seriously that came in and talked about such a thing.”
Reagan, too, would brook no counsel of preventive war despite his presidency’s central contention with a nuclear power that posed a far more serious threat to the United States than North Korea could ever hope to do. “The defense policy of the United States is based on a simple premise,” he said in 1983. “The United States does not start fights. We will never be an aggressor. We maintain our strength in order to deter and defend against aggression – to preserve freedom and peace.” In fact, when “Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981,” notes Peter Beinart at The Atlantic, Reagan’s “United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick declared the attack ‘shocking,’ and worked with Iraq to craft a resolution condemning it and demanding ‘appropriate redress.’” Even in a close ally, preventive war was categorically rejected.
Unfortunately, preventive war is not “shocking” today. Where Kirkpatrick condemned it, her present successor, Haley, seems to salivate at the prospect. But though attitudes in Washington may have changed, preventive war has not. It is still a dangerous and unethical tactic, mired in uncertainty and indisputably a chosen, avoidable act of aggression. The promise of eventual U.S. triumph does not outweigh the enormous cost of such a strike, centrally including the certainty that it would prompt the Kim regime to use its nuclear weapons.
The Trump administration would do well to listen to the wisdom of Americans past and take preventive war against North Korea permanently off the table.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.