The Maroon Project on Security and Terrorism (MPOST) hosted a debate between two political science professors on Monday night on the ethics of preemptive strikes against potentially belligerent countries that are in the process of developing nuclear weapons.
James Wilson, who specializes in political philosophy, ethics, and law, argued that preemptive attacks can sometimes be justified. Paul Staniland, who focuses on political violence and international security, countered that they can never be justified.
“Preventative self defense is a just cause for violence,” Wilson said in his opening statements. “Think of a classic case of getting punched in the face. You don’t wait until they’ve already punched you. We can relate this to the threat of attacks against the U.S.”
He went on to explain certain characteristics that a “rogue state” developing nuclear arms needs to fit in order for the United States to justify a preventive strike against it, such as strong militarism, disregard for international law and conduct, and prior history of engaging in unjustified warfare.
Staniland argued that those conditions are vague and can apply to any current country with nuclear weapons, including the United States and Russia.
“Preemptive war is radically different from self-defense,” Staniland said. “The capacity to engage in nuclear attacks is not justifiable for preemptive actions.”
He went on to cite World War I, World War II, and the war in Iraq as examples of preventative war gone awry. He pointed out that countries have been developing nuclear weapons for over 60 years, and so far nuclear war has not occurred.
“Preemptive strikes are more likely to lead to war than allowing nuclearization,” Staniland said. “I’m comfortable making the generalization that preemptive war is usually a terrible idea.”
Wilson was not convinced that the history of nuclear weapons is necessarily an indicator of the future. “The fact that eight nuclearized powers haven’t attacked the U.S. can’t be assumed for the future,” he said.
At the end of the debate, there was a brief question and answer session during which audience members asked questions regarding North Korea and Pakistan.
MPOST is a student group that hosts regular events related to international affairs, the military, and foreign policy.