In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Preventive War and Preemption

  • Introduction
  • The Logic of Preventive War and Preemption
  • Assessments of its Strategic Utility
  • Normative Evaluation of Preventive War
  • Preventive War and International Law
  • Democracy and Preventive War
  • Preventive War and Nuclear Proliferation

International Relations Preventive War and Preemption
Scott A. Silverstone
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 August 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0053


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.

    DOI: 10.2307/2538638

    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.

    DOI: 10.2307/2010195

    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.

    DOI: 10.2307/2539227

    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.

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