Preventive war is a persistent theme in the history of international politics and in theoretical explanations of war. The preventive motivation for war can be found as early as Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta in the 5th century BCE, it was a key feature in the origins of World War I and the Japanese attack on the United States in 1941, and it features prominently in the argument over America’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. The preventive motivation is also central to the ongoing concern about Iran’s nuclear program and debate over alternative policy options to deal with it. The strategic logic of preventive war is rooted in the desire to halt the erosion of relative power to a rising adversary and the future dangers this power shift might present. Leaders calculate that a war fought in the near term will be less costly than a war fought at a later date, after the potential adversary has had an opportunity to increase its military capabilities. Under preventive war conditions, there is no certainty that this future war will actually be fought; preventive war is launched to avoid the mere possibility of a higher-cost future war or the potential for the target state to use its rising power in a coercive way. Preemption, on the other hand, is meant to grab the tactical advantages of striking first against what is seen as a truly imminent threat, when an adversary’s attack is close at hand. Levy 1987 (cited under The Logic of Preventive War and Preemption) provides the most commonly cited definitions of these terms. There is a well-developed literature on the strategic logic of preventive war that examines the specific conditions that make it more likely and its actual utility as a strategy to deal with the power shift problem. The concept of preventive war has also produced an ongoing debate over its normative or ethical acceptability, and its status under international law; this debate revolves around the question of whether it should be considered legitimate self-defense, or whether preventive war is actually an aggressive use of force.
The Logic of Preventive War and Preemption
Much of the literature on preventive war is dominated by the strategic logic linking power shifts to preventive war, with a heavy emphasis on theoretical and historical analysis. As one of the main dynamics in the history of international affairs, this power-shift literature is rooted in classic power analysis dominated by the realist school of international relations. Most of this theoretical and historical literature appeared before the 2003 Iraq war. By 2002, most interest in preventive war focused on so-called rogue states and weapons of mass destruction. Some of the best examples of this theoretical and historical literature include Organski 1968, Gilpin 1981, Van Evera 1999, and Copeland 2000. Other work in this vein, such as Levy 1987 and Lebow 1984, specifies the different conditions that increase or decrease the likelihood of preventive war under power-shift conditions. Much less research has been devoted to preemption, as it appears to be a much less common phenomenon than preventive war; two valuable sources on preemption remain Betts 1982 and Reiter 1995.
Betts, Richard K. Surprise Attack: Lessons for Defense Planning. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1982.
Written during the Cold War by the leading scholar on surprise attack, with the problem of deterring attack by the USSR as the central focus. Remains one of the premier analyses of history of surprise attack in the 20th century and lessons drawn from this history for theory and policy.
Copeland, Dale. The Origins of Major War. Cornell Studies in Security Affairs. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2000.
Presents critique of existing theories on the origins of war, focuses on the expected depth and probability of a dominant state’s decline in power as drivers of strategies that increase likelihood of preventive war and preemption. Strong theoretical framework examined across cases, ancient Greece through World War I and II.
Gilpin, Robert. War and Change in World Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.
Argues that history shows repeated pattern of major states competing for hegemony in international system. States grow in economic and military power at different rates, allowing secondary states to rise and challenge hegemons, often through crises that lead to preventive war. Among most important works on the subject.
Lebow, Richard Ned. “Windows of Opportunity: Do States Jump Through Them?” International Security 9 (Summer 1984): 147–186.
Valuable theoretical and historical critique of notion that “windows of opportunity,” when states enjoy a military advantage relative to a rival, increase the chance of preventive war. Argues that Clausewitzian political goals, not mere military variables, shape decisions on war. Highlights important non-military variables that reduce chance of war.
Levy, Jack. “Declining Power and the Preventive Motivation for War.” World Politics 40 (October 1987): 82–107.
Touchstone theoretical work on strategic logic of preventive motivation for war and variables that increase or decrease its likelihood. First extended treatment to bring rigor to defining key concepts and specifying antecedent conditions. Numerous historical examples illustrate points. Essential source for any research question on the subject.
Organski, A. F. K. World Politics. 2d ed. New York: Knopf, 1968.
Classic work on power transitions and war, inspired extended literature testing main hypothesis that rising states most likely to initiate war when reach power parity with formerly dominant states. An alternative approach to the key question of how the power shift dynamic in world politics creates conditions for war.
Reiter, Dan. “Exploding the Powder Keg Myth: Preemptive Wars Almost Never Happen.” International Security 20 (Fall 1995): 5–34.
Important empirical study of preemption demonstrating that it is extremely rare historically. Only three cases since 1816: World War I, Chinese intervention in Korea 1950, and the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Presents explanations for rare occurrence including political costs of striking first and how fear of preemption leads to peaceful crisis resolution.
Van Evera, Stephen. Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict. Cornell Studies in Security Affairs. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.
An influential work. Preventive war is set in a broader context of hypotheses on how material power and perceptions contribute to outbreak of war. Most useful for highlighting important role of leaders’ perceptions of power shift. Wide use of historical examples, critiqued for not providing a systematic test of each hypothesis.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email email@example.com to express your interest.
- Academic Theories of International Relations Since 1945
- Arab-Israeli Wars, 1967-1973, The
- Arab-Israeli Wars, The
- Arms Control
- Arms Races
- Arms Trade
- Asylum Policies
- Authoritarian Regimes
- Balance of Power Theory
- Bargaining Theory of War
- Challenge of Communism, The
- China and Japan
- China's Defense Policy
- China's Foreign Policy
- Civil Resistance
- Civil Society in the European Union
- Cold War, The
- Conflict Behavior and the Prevention of War
- Conflict Management
- Countermeasures in International Law
- Criminal Law, International
- Critical Theory of International Relations
- Cuban Missile Crisis, The
- Cultural Diplomacy
- Cyber Security
- Cyber Warfare
- Demobilization, Post World War I
- Democracies and World Order
- Democracy and Conflict
- Democracy in World Politics
- Deterrence Theory
- Diplomacy, History of
- Diplomacy, Public
- Disaster Diplomacy
- Drone Warfare
- Eastern Front (World War I)
- Economics, International
- Embedded Liberalism
- Emerging Powers and BRICS
- Empirical Testing of Formal Models
- Energy and International Security
- Epidemic Diseases and their Effects on History
- Ethics and Morality in International Relations
- Ethnicity in International Relations
- European Migration Policy
- European Security and Defense Policy, The
- European Union as an International Actor
- European Union, International Relations of the
- Fascism, The Challenge of
- Feminist Security Studies
- Food Security
- Forecasting in International Relations
- Foreign Policy, Theories of
- French Empire, 20th-Century
- From Club to Network Diplomacy
- Future of NATO
- Game Theory and Interstate Conflict
- Gender and Terrorism
- Genocide, Politicide, and Mass Atrocities Against Civilian...
- Genocides, 20th Century
- Geopolitics and Geostrategy
- Germany in World War II
- Global Citizenship
- Global Civil Society
- Global Constitutionalism
- Global Environmental Politics
- Global Ethic of Care
- Global Governance
- Global Justice, Western Perspectives
- Grand Strategy
- Greater Middle East, The
- Hague Conferences (1899, 1907)
- History and International Relations
- Human Rights
- Human Rights and Humanitarian Diplomacy
- Human Rights Law
- Intelligence Oversight
- Internal Displacement
- International Conflict Settlements, The Durability of
- International Criminal Court, The
- International Economic Organizations (IMF and World Bank)
- International Health Governance
- International Justice, Theories of
- International Law
- International Monetary Relations, History of
- International Negotiation and Conflict Resolution
- International Nongovernmental Organizations
- International Organizations
- International Relations as a Social Science
- International Relations Theory
- International Security
- International Society
- International Society, Theorizing
- International Support For Nonstate Armed Groups
- Internet Law
- Interstate Cooperation Theory and International Institutio...
- Intervention and Use of Force
- Iran, Politics and Foreign Policy
- Iraq: Past and Present
- Just War Theory
- Kurdistan and Kurdish Politics
- Law of the Sea
- Laws of War
- Leadership in International Affairs
- League of Nations
- Lean Forward and Pull Back Options for US Grand Strategy
- Mediation and Civil Wars
- Mediation in International Conflicts
- Mediation via International Organizations
- Middle East, The Contemporary
- Military Science
- Minority Rights
- Multilateralism (1992–), Return to
- National Liberation, International Law and Wars of
- National Security Act of 1947, The
- Nations and Nationalism
- NATO, Europe, and Russia: Security Issues and the Border R...
- New Multilateralism in the Early 21st Century
- Nonproliferation and Counterproliferation
- Nonviolent Resistance Datasets
- Peace of Utrecht
- Peacebuilding, Post-Conflict
- Political Demography
- Political Economy of National Security
- Political Learning and Socialization
- Political Psychology
- Politics and Islam in Turkey
- Popular Culture and International Relations
- Post-Civil War State
- Post-Conflict and Transitional Justice
- Power Transition Theory
- Preventive War and Preemption
- Prisoners, Treatment of
- Private Military and Security Companies (PMSCs)
- Pro-Government Militias
- Prospect Theory in International Relations
- Public Opinion and the European Union
- Quantum Social Science
- Race and International Relations
- Religion and International Relations
- Religiously Motivated Violence
- Reputation in International Relations
- Responsibility to Protect
- Rising Powers in World Politics
- Russian Revolutions and Civil War, 1917-1921
- Sanctions in International Law
- Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), The
- Shining Path
- Social Scientific Theories of Imperialism
- Soviet Union in World War II
- Space Strategy, Policy, and Power
- Spatial Dependencies and International Mediation
- State Theory in International Relations
- Strategic Air Power
- Strategic and Net Assessments
- Sustainable Development
- Teaching International Relations
- Territorial Disputes
- Terrorist Financing
- Terrorist Group Strategies
- The Changing Nature of Diplomacy
- The Queer in/of International Relations
- Theories of International Relations, Feminist
- Theory, Chinese International Relations
- Trade Law
- Transnational Actors
- Transnational Social Movements
- Trust and International Relations
- UN Security Council
- United Nations, The
- US and Africa
- US–UK Special Relationship
- Vienna Conventions on Diplomacy and Consular Relations
- Voluntary International Migration
- War of the Spanish Succession (1701-1714)
- Western Balkans
- Western Front (World War I)
- Westphalia, Peace of (1648)
- Women and Peacemaking Peacekeeping
- World Economy 1919-1939
- World Polity School
- World War II Diplomacy and Political Relations