How Just Would a Pre-Emptive Strike of North Korea by the U.S. Be?

How Just Would a Pre-Emptive Strike of North Korea by the U.S. Be? November 30, 2017

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The other day I watched a video clip of Senator Lindsey Graham saying to Wolf Blitzer that the Trump Administration and the United States will not allow North Korea to have a nuclear weapon that it could use to strike the United States (Refer here). While Graham does not think war is the best option, and although he understands the devastation a war (thousands or perhaps millions of casualties) with North Korea would cause (including to South Korea), he added, “…the President is picking America over the region, and I hope the region will help us find a diplomatic solution.” But if a diplomatic solution cannot be found, a preemptive strike against North Korea might very well be in the works.

Certainly, this is a very complex situation, which could evolve in a variety of ways. Perhaps all the saber rattling is simply intended to get North Korea to cease with its provocations and stop developing nuclear weapon technology. Perhaps such saber rattling or even increased economic sanctions will eventually push North Korea over the edge. Or just perhaps the U.S. will engage in a preemptive strike that will begin a catastrophic war.

There are no easy solutions. Perhaps it is also the case that it is not easy to discern if a preemptive strike would be deemed valid according to just war doctrine. Here’s what one article on just war doctrine claims about preemptive strikes:

Possessing just cause is the first and arguably the most important condition of jus ad bellum [right to war]. Most theorists hold that initiating acts of aggression is unjust and gives a group a just cause to defend itself. But unless “aggression” is defined, this proscription is rather open-ended. For example, just cause resulting from an act of aggression can ostensibly be a response to a physical injury (for example, a violation of territory), an insult (an aggression against national honor), a trade embargo (an aggression against economic activity), or even to a neighbor’s prosperity (a violation of social justice). The onus is then on the just war theorist to provide a consistent and sound account of what is meant by just cause. Whilst not going into the reasons why the other explanations do not offer a useful condition of just cause, the consensus is that an initiation of physical force is wrong and may justly be resisted. Self-defense against physical aggression, therefore, is putatively the only sufficient reason for just cause. Nonetheless, the principle of self-defense can be extrapolated to anticipate probable acts of aggression, as well as in assisting others against an oppressive government or from another external threat (interventionism). Therefore, it is commonly held that aggressive war is only permissible if its purpose is to retaliate against a wrong already committed (for example, to pursue and punish an aggressor), or to pre-empt an anticipated attack. In recent years, the argument for preemption has gained supporters in the West: surely, the argument goes, it is right on consequentialist grounds to strike the first blow if a future war is to be avoided? By acting decisively against a probable aggressor, a powerful message is sent that a nation will defend itself with armed force; thus preemption may provide a deterrent and a more peaceful world. However, critics complain that preemptive strikes are based on conjectured rather than impending aggression and in effect denounce the moral principle that an agent is presumed innocent – posturing and the building up of armaments do not in themselves constitute aggression, just a man carrying a weapon is not a man using a weapon, Consequentialist critics may also reject preemption on the grounds that it is more likely to destabilize peace, while other realists may complain that a preemptive strike policy is the ploy of a tyrannical or bullying power that justifies other nations to act in their self-interest to neutralize either through alliances or military action – such is the principle behind the “balance of power” politics in which nations constantly renew their alliances and treatises to ensure that not one of them becomes a hegemonic power. It is also feared that the policy of preemption slips easily into the machinations of “false flag operations” in which a pretext for war is created by a contrived theatrical or actual stunt – of dressing one’s own soldiers up in the enemy’s uniforms, for instance, and having them attack a military or even civilian target so as to gain political backing for a war. Unfortunately, false flag operations tend to be quite common. Just war theory would reject them as it would reject waging war to defend a leader’s “honor” following an insult. Realists may defend them on grounds of a higher necessity but such moves are likely to fail as being smoke screens for political rather than moral interests.

Another article claims that “A pre-emptive strike can conflict with the doctrine of the just war in two ways: it is carried out before the other side attacks with military force, and so appears to make the side carrying out the strike the aggressor[;] it is usually carried out before a formal declaration of war”. This same article defines preemptive strike in these terms: “A pre-emptive strike is military action taken by a country in response to a threat from another country – the purpose of it is to stop the threatening country from carrying out its threat.”

Based on the earlier articulation of just war and its bearing on preemptive strikes from a consequentialist ethical stance, a preemptive strike in the case of the US attacking North Korea would not prevent war, but start a war. So, at least from a consequentialist framework, it might prove difficult to argue for the U.S. launching a preemptive strike. Moreover, preemptive strikes provide precedents for other countries to operate in similar ways when facing what they take to be imminent threats. The United States has often been viewed as provocative based on our increased military presence in regions. Does that mean other countries have just cause to launch preemptive strikes against us, or is a nation, including North Korea, innocent until proven guilty by way of physical attack?

I appreciate that the U.S. Administration claims that it still hopes for a diplomatic solution to the growing crisis. While it is often deemed naïve in our world today, preemptive love and good will can at times ease tensions and eventually lead to a cessation of hostilities. In addition, preemptive care for our allies as well as our armed forces already stationed in the region should give our nation’s leaders significant pause. After all, no matter how much we think North Korea will strike the U.S. homeland if we don’t, North Korea will definitely strike out across the border and in the region if the U.S. does launch a preemptive strike. In other words, there would be no chance of failed presumption. From another angle, what makes us so sure that North Korea would strike the U.S. first, and not one of the other nations in the region? Do we find our allies in the region expressing the same level of concern that we have, and calling on us to launch a preemptive strike against North Korea? Or could it be that they fear the U.S. more when our nation’s leaders promise, “We’ll take care of it.”

It is extremely likely that the U.S. will win a war with the North Koreans in the short-term, but will we win the long-term war of winning hearts in the region, or will we be looked upon as the bully and ultimate aggressor? Where might such perceptions eventually lead, not just with North Koreans, but also with other powers in the region? To commandeer an old saying, perhaps it is the case that those who live by preemptive strikes die by them, too.

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