Preventive War: Does it Work?


The Center for the National Interest hosted a panel discussion entitled “Preventive War: Does It Work?” with James Carafano, Vice President for Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation, and Michael O’Hanlon, Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution. Dov Zakheim, a former Under Secretary of Defense in the George W. Bush administration and a Vice Chairman of the Center for the National Interest, moderated.

The Trump Administration has suggested that the United States could go to war against North Korea to prevent Pyongyang from successfully developing the capability to attack the United States with a nuclear missile. This raises an important policy and historical question: do preventive wars work? Preventive war is typically defined as war to prevent a highly undesirable but otherwise likely change in the balance of power favoring the target of the attack and damaging to its initiator. The only recent major American preventive war has been the 2003 war in Iraq, which was (mistakenly) intended to prevent Iraq from obtaining a nuclear weapons capability. Other nations have also launched preventive wars.

We asked two leading experts on war and foreign policy to provide their perspectives on preventive war as an instrument of U.S. foreign policy. Does it work? Under what circumstances is preventive war likely to be more, or less, successful? What considerations should shape the decision to wage a preventive war?

– James Carafano is Vice President, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, E. W. Richardson Fellow, and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and a 25-year Army veteran. He has written extensively on war and national security topics.
– Michael O’Hanlon is Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution, co-director of the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, and director of research for the Foreign Policy program at Brookings. His most recent book is The Future of Land Warfare.