Military Strategy Magazine  /  Volume 5, Issue 2  /  

Haunted by the Preventive War Paradox

Haunted by the Preventive War Paradox Haunted by the Preventive War Paradox
To cite this article: Silverstone, Scott A., “Haunted by the Preventive War Paradox”, Infinity Journal, Volume 5, Number 2, spring 2016, pages 17-21.

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Checking/observation Point On The Afghan Border 3 Photo


During a recent hearing in the U.S. Senate Armed Services committee, Senator Lindsey Graham asked American military leaders to characterize the North Korean threat and he pressed them on the options available to respond to its growing nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. According to General Curtis Scaparrotti, the commander of American forces in Korea, “all of these things, in about five or six years, are going to be a formidable problem.” Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, went further, agreeing with Senator Graham that military strikes were indeed an option to blunt North Korea’s ballistic missile development. This was not the first time American officials talked about this particular problem in these terms.

In 1994, Secretary of Defense William Perry urged President Clinton to order airstrikes against North Korea’s nuclear facilities at Yongbyon in response to its threatened withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Perry justified this bold recommendation with a warning: “whatever dangers there are in [the military attack option]”, he argued, “these dangers are going to be compounded two to three years from now when…they’re producing bombs at the rate of a dozen a year.”[i] In 2006, Perry and his former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy, Ashton Carter (now Secretary of Defense under President Obama), spoke out again on the subject. In co-authored opinion pieces published in the Washington Post and Time magazine, they called on President Bush to launch military strikes “to destroy [North Korea’s] missiles at their test sites.”

While the security challenges posed by North Korea present their own distinctive features, when set in a broader historical perspective there is nothing new in the strategic perspective embedded within these specific policy statements. The North Korean nuclear question merely illustrates the most recent flare up of the preventive war theory. In simple terms, the objective of a preventive attack is to seize the initiative and militarily beat back the rising power of a rival. This is not about defense against actual aggression, or even a first strike to preempt an adversary’s imminent attack. It is the choice to strike a rival as it grows stronger, to avoid the mere possibility that it might one day be strong enough to pose a great danger, even though the future remains inherently uncertain.

The impulse to launch preventive attacks reaches back at least to the Peloponnesian War among the Greek city-states 2,500 years ago. Repeatedly, through history we find three key ingredients stirring a temptation to fight: shifting power, fear of the future, and strong voices warning of the terrible fate that lies ahead unless the growing threat is neutralized with military action.

Indeed, the allure of preventive attack remains vibrant in the United States. During a September 2015 speech at the Brookings Institute, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton drew from the same strategic logic used by Secretary Perry to address the potential threat from a different source. She proclaimed that as president “I will not hesitate to use military force if Iran attempts to pursue a nuclear weapon.”[ii] Secretary Clinton’s blunt language on Iran, and the broader reaction to her declaration, reveals the reflexive confidence reserved for the preventive war option in American security policy. While Clinton’s assertion was widely covered in the press, the idea itself was largely met with collective silence from other political leaders and virtually ignored by opinion shapers and media commentators. An attack against North Korea or Iran would constitute one of the most serious initiatives imaginable in contemporary American foreign policy. Yet there was no debate over the merits of preventive attack against Iran, nor discussion of its viability as a solution to the security problems driving American fears.

The objective of this article is to jump into the vacuum that currently surrounds the question of preventive war to offer some observations that should inform deliberations over how to deal with the power-shift problem. The goal is twofold: first, it will outline how the central logic of preventive war rests on stunted strategic grounds, since it fails to recognize the difference between operational military effects and the strategic political effects that should guide how one evaluates the use of military force. Second, it will introduce a paradox through which operational battlefield success might actually produce strategic failure by undermining rather than bolstering the attacker’s security. To help make these points, the article turns to an iconic figure in the history of preventive war–German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck–the most widely cited leader to weigh in on this question and think in a truly strategic way about its value and drawbacks. To set the stage for Bismarck’s strategic assessment of preventive war and how it affected German decision making in the late 19th century, the next section will explain the paradox of preventive war as a security concept.

The Preventive War Paradox

It takes little imagination to conjure up scenarios in which a rival translates increasing military capabilities into increasingly aggressive behavior. The more time goes by and the stronger the rival grows, the more dangerous the future appears. The implications of this fear of the future are immense: state leaders face a potent incentive to take action while they still enjoy a window of opportunity. In most cases through history we find some form of counter-balancing against rising power: declining states buy more weapons, conscript more soldiers, invest in more advanced military technologies, stage military exercises to improve combat readiness, or join forces with new allies. Each of these options is motivated by the same goal, to reverse the declining state’s slide and avoid a future of increasing peril.

In some cases we find states taking this impulse to its logical extreme. Why merely balance when you can dominate? Instead of just racing ahead to outpace a rival’s growth by amassing your own physical power, why not provoke a fight or launch an attack to destroy physically those growing military capabilities that haunt one’s vision of the future? When balancing, one lives with the danger. One’s safety rests precariously on one’s rival’s decisions, ambitions, the risks it is willing to endure, and ultimately on one’s ability to fight and defend if the rival lashes out. Preventive war promises deliverance from that danger. Its allure comes from the hope that by initiating an attack–earlier rather than later in the power shift–it will be possible to destroy or degrade the target state’s military capabilities so severely that this challenger no longer poses a threat.

The strategic premise behind preventive war is therefore simple, security “grows out of the barrel of a gun,” echoing Mao’s famous aphorism on power. In other words, the assumption is that there is a straight line linking material power and security: the more relative power a state has, the more security it enjoys. In the field of international relations there is nothing inherently controversial about this claim. In fact, the relationship between power and security is the starting point for most assessments of international politics.

Drawing on this assumption, observers tend to evaluate the strategic viability of the preventive war option from a narrow operational military perspective. That is, success or failure of preventive war is measured by target destruction, terrain seized, or an army defeated in the field, relative to the costs of achieving these military effects. Which state is most likely to stand victorious on the battlefield when the smoke clears? Will the state that pulls the preventive war trigger be able to deliver a sufficiently crushing blow to free itself from its rival’s rising power? Or is it taking a foolish gamble that could just as easily lead to operational failure?

While an important part of the calculus, this approach leaves our evaluation of the strategic implications of preventive war grossly incomplete. As the Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz pointed out in the early 19th century, purely military criteria ignores the central strategic purpose of war. War is not about winning battlefield victories. War is about the political objectives that states seek through military means and—as many leaders in history have painfully discovered—brilliant operational success on the battlefield will not automatically produce the strategic political outcomes they desired. According to Clausewitz, “there can be no question of a purely military evaluation of a great strategic issue, nor of a purely military scheme to solve it.”[iii] Echoing Clausewitz, B.H. Liddell Hart observed that the “objective in war is a better state of peace,” and Colin Gray asserts warfare is about the “character of the subsequent peace” it produces.[iv]

From this strategic vantage point one must then ask, what “better state of peace” is preventive war meant to serve? The operational objective of any preventive war would therefore be to deliver a physical blow against a rising adversary sufficient enough to weaken its military capabilities to some degree. But even if preventive war were to produce this immediate military effect, Clausewitz would insist on evaluating whether it had the strategic effect desired: did it produce a more secure future? While preventive attack is meant to eliminate the threat posed by a rival’s rising power, Clausewitz warned that “in war the result is never final…The defeated state often considers the outcome merely as a transitory evil, for which a remedy may still be found in political conditions at some later date.”[v]

This is the perspective Otto von Bismarck brought to the problem of shifting power. He looked beyond the prospects of victory on the battlefield to consider the likely political effects of preventive war on Germany’s security. He was pessimistic because he recognized that security is not merely a function of the distribution of power, it is a function of the political relationships among states that shape whether they pose a threat to each other, how they perceive the severity of these threats, and the likelihood of armed conflict among them.

Advocates of preventive war have universally claimed self-defense as their motivation. Yet by definition, it is an act of war initiation against another state in the absence of any immediate threat or demand for urgent self-defense measures. This makes preventive war radically different from alliance formation and arms-racing. While one may win victory on the battlefield or destroy a rival’s key power assets through preventive war, one might also sow dragons teeth that yield a political order stewing with hostility, one that is ripe for even greater violent challenges. Unless it leads to the complete annihilation of the adversary state, preventive attack will likely intensify security competition, push adversaries to redouble their efforts to recover and advance their military capabilities, entrench enduring rivalries, and generate passionate demands for revenge. In time, a preventative attack could make an even more violent armed conflict more likely than it otherwise would have.

Bismarck on Preventive War

Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of Prussia and Imperial Germany from 1862 to 1890, is the most widely cited historical figure on the question of preventive war. His opposition to this strategic option is routinely highlighted in security studies literature, biographies, histories of great power politics, and by commentators weighing in on contemporary policy problems. His opinions were often delivered through colorful metaphors that warned against breaking eggs “out of which very dangerous chickens might hatch,” or that pointed to the absurdity of “committing suicide for fear of death.”

It was not the risks of war per se that troubled Chancellor Bismarck. This is clear from his enthusiastic embrace of war in 1864 against Denmark, in 1866 against Austria, and in 1870 against France to serve his most cherished political goal: unification of the Germanic states under Prussian leadership. Bismarck once declared that “to my shame I have to confess that I have never read Clausewitz.”[vi] Nonetheless, it is perfectly clear that he shared his fellow Prussian’s most important views on the relationship between war and the political objectives of the state. Success in war cannot be measured by the amount of physical destruction inflicted on the adversary or by tallying the relative costs suffered by each of the combatants. The success or failure of war can only be judged by its political effects, the character of the peace left in its wake.[vii]

And for this reason, Bismarck stood virtually alone in the German government, successfully holding the line in a series of policy battles against well-positioned rivals like General Helmut von Moltke, chief of the German General Staff, and General Alfred von Waldersee, Moltke’s deputy and later successor, who pushed the logic of preventive war repeatedly as the solution to a shifting threat environment. But for the Iron Chancellor, it was the political character of preventive war specifically that was troubling.

In the decades that followed unification in 1871, we find an intense preventive war temptation at work within the German government during two crisis periods: in 1875 in response to French economic and military recovery from its devastating defeat by German forces a few years earlier, and between 1886 and 1888 targeting both France and Russia. In each of these crises, Bismarck agreed with the champions of preventive war that Germany risked increasing vulnerability over time as its relative power slipped. He too was afraid of hostile French and Russian intentions in the years to come, and he never questioned the General Staff’s optimistic calculations of Germany’s military advantages in a near-term fight.

Even so, Bismarck refused to sanction war under these allegedly favorable conditions. In his counterintuitive reasoning, Bismarck was afraid of the costs of victory in the preventive wars that German military leaders were confidently advocating. Rather than eliminating the security problems Germany faced, preventive war would undermine its security by generating an even greater adverse power shift and magnifying the level of hostility and likelihood of aggression Germany would face in the future.

For Bismarck, this assessment crystalized during the “War-in-Sight” crisis of 1875. By 1873, Bismarck and his colleagues were watching France’s rapid recovery with growing alarm. Its economy had rebounded from the war with remarkable speed, allowing France to pay off its heavy war indemnity ahead of schedule. An even more alarming indicator of French recovery was a bill working its way through parliament that would reorganize its army by adding an extra battalion to each regiment. General Moltke’s assessment was that reorganization would quickly add 144,000 soldiers to the French army’s ranks, it would allow France to field 19 army corps compared to Germany’s 18 corps, and each French corps would have eight more battalions than Germany’s.[viii]

In the early months of 1875, the preventive war temptation that had simmered during the previous year intensified. In February, the German government learned that France was pursuing the purchase of 10,000 saddle horses to equip its growing military. To Bismarck, this “bears the stamp of a preparation for war,”[ix] and he ordered an embargo on German horses destined for France. In April and May, European newspapers and diplomats buzzed about agitation at the highest levels of the German government over the advantages of launching a preventive war to deal with this problem. On April 8, a story in the Berlin newspaper Die Post laid out the dangers of rising French power and its hostile intent, then suggested that a German preventive attack might be the necessary response. General Moltke concluded that France would be ready for a war of revenge by 1877, a war he estimated would cost the lives of an additional 100,000 German soldiers compared to a fight in the near term.[x] With these calculations in mind, General Moltke argued “urgently and insistently” in favor of preventive war in discussions with the Kaiser and the Chancellor.[xi]

The European reaction to this drum beat of preventive war cemented Bismarck’s opposition to this security option for the rest of his career. The British government—from Queen Victoria on down—heaped criticism on every hint of the preventive war temptation emerging from Germany and Bismarck was left in no doubt about the damaging political effects an preventive war would generate. Queen Victoria worried that Chancellor Bismarck was becoming “so overbearing, violent, grasping and unprincipled…all agreed that he was becoming like the first Napoleon whom Europe had to join in putting down.”[xii] Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli concurred: “Bismarck is really another old Bonaparte again, and he must be bridled.” On May 6, Disraeli directed Lord Derby, his foreign secretary, to explore the prospects of an alliance with Russia, and perhaps Austria and Italy, that could keep German ambitions contained.[xiii]

Bismarck’s memoirs frame the security problem this way: other states, he explained, “tolerate[d] the new development of German power, and…regard [it] with a benevolent eye,” particularly “after the astonishing proofs of the nation’s military strength” in the earlier wars, only because of the subsequent “peaceful character of German policy.” War in 1875, “which could have had no other motive than preventing France from recovering her breath and her strength,” would have destroyed this tolerance for Germany’s new position. He continued:

A war of this kind could not, in my opinion, have led to permanently tenable conditions in Europe, but might have brought about an agreement between Russia, Austria, and England, based upon mistrust of us, and leading eventually to active proceedings against the new and unconsolidated empire…Europe would have seen in our proceedings a misuse of our newly acquired power; and the hand of everyone…would have been permanently raised against Germany, or at any rate been ready to draw the sword.[xiv]

In 1887, when the fear of approaching war once again swept across Europe, Russia became the most serious target of preventive war agitation. For a growing number of senior officials, in the military and the foreign ministry alike, a two-front war against a Russian-French alliance no longer seemed abstract or avoidable. In an eerie preview of the strategic worldview that underpinned the march to war in 1914, those who were caught up in this fear of inevitabilities sought relief through a preventive showdown with Russia.

To Bismarck, his colleagues’ fear of a coming war was not groundless or overblown. From 1886 to1888 Bismarck was distressed by turbulence in French domestic politics and a serious spike in revanchist agitation that made the threat of war more palpable than at any other time since 1871. He also could not ignore a simultaneous surge of anti-German sentiment in Russia, or the fact that a number of well-placed Russians were growing more interested in closer relations with France. Perhaps Bismarck was overstating the threat, but he put it bluntly to Lord Salisbury: “Given this state of affairs, we must regard as permanent the danger that our peace will be disturbed by France and Russia.”[xv] The question German leaders debated in this period was not whether the security situation was becoming more dangerous–all agreed that it was. The debate was over what should be done in response.

For a remarkably large number of influential officials, the answer was obvious: preventive war against Russia. It was a conclusion grounded in widespread acceptance of the inevitability of conflict and calculations that Germany’s relative battlefield capabilities were peaking in 1888 with the completion of rearmament that included repeating rifles for the infantry, new artillery, high explosive shells and shrapnel ammunition. This window of opportunity, however, was expected to close over the next several years.[xvi]

Friedrich von Holstein, an influential political counselor in the foreign ministry, observed in a diary entry from March 1888, “the generals…think time is running against us, that 1889 will be a particularly unfavorable year, and that we ought not to allow certain [Russian] military preparations along our frontier or the Galatian frontier.”[xvii] Two months earlier, Prince William, soon to be Kaiser, felt the same pressure imposed by time and shifting power; as he put it to Holstein, “The Chancellor…doesn’t want another war…I shall have to pay the interest on this delay later on.”[xviii] As early as 1885, General Alfred von Waldersee, Moltke’s deputy and eventual successor as chief of the General Staff, had dismissed Bismarck’s confidence in a political solution to Germany’s vulnerability within Europe; for Waldersee, security would only be found “in a Great War in which we lastingly cripple an opponent, France or Russia.”[xix]

In November 1887, Moltke and Waldersee together called explicitly for preventive attack against Russia during the coming winter. In a memo written for the emperor, the military leaders showcased improvements in the Russian army since its war with the Ottoman Empire a decade earlier and continuing Russian work on fortifications and railroads in Poland. According to the memo, “there could be no doubt that Russia is arming for immediate war and is preparing the deployment of her army by a gradual or rather by a spasmodic process of mobilization.” In his cover letter to Bismarck, General Moltke argued that “only if we take the aggressive in company with Austria and at an early date will our chances be favorable.”[xx] In early December, Germany’s ambassador to Austria reported that Waldersee was secretly in Vienna advocating for war with Russia,[xxi] and just days later he and Moltke met with the Kaiser, without Bismarck present, to push the idea of war.[xxii] In the summer of 1888, General Waldersee, now chief of staff, was still assuring Bismarck that Germany could successfully fight both France and Russia.[xxiii]

Despite this uncompromising warning about the threat and confident predictions that they could still beat the Russians in the field, Bismarck’s response was forceful and unwavering: there would be absolutely no German preventive attack against Russia. If Austria launched an offensive on its own initiative, Germany would leave Austria to meet its fate.

For Bismarck, this was the only question that mattered: even if the German army beat its rivals on the battlefield, would preventive war actually solve Germany’s security dilemma? He believed the answer was clear: absolutely not. Even in military victory, Germany would lose strategically. “Holy Russia,” he reminded the Reichstag, “will be filled with indignation at the attack. France will glisten with weapons to the Pyrenees. The same thing will happen everywhere.”[xxiv] He made this point fervently to Crown Prince William in the spring of 1888, just weeks before his father, Kaiser Frederick III, died and William inherited the throne. “Even after a successful war Germany would gain nothing, for Russia would be filled with hatred and desire for revenge, and Germany would be in a hopeless position between two defeated states of great potential military strength.”[xxv]

An Enduring Dilemma

This article began by pointing to the enduring allure of preventive attack among American leaders worried about the evolving threat posed by North Korea and Iran. When set alongside the security problems Bismarck faced, the differences between these two time periods are immanently clear: the distribution of power, the character of the states, and the technological details of warfare create profoundly different security environments for early 21st century America and late 19th century Germany. It is also clear that the preventive war paradox would not play out for the United States in the same way it could have for Germany. It is important to recognize, however, that the United States is not immune from the basic dynamics of this security paradox. Those tempted by the promise of preventive war to neutralize shifting threats should not ignore the warnings embedded within the preventive war temptation’s cautionary twin.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is perhaps the most forthright public official to weigh in on the strategic logic of preventive war in decades. He frequently went on record to suggest that he actively opposed a preventive attack against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure because it would set back Iran’s program by no more than one to two years. But most important, Gates recognized its paradoxical effects, worrying that a preventive attack would give Iran an incentive it might not otherwise have to produce nuclear weapons. In a private memorandum for President Bush in 2007 he argued that an American or Israeli attack would “guarantee that the Iranians will develop nuclear weapons, and seek revenge.”[xxvi]

Some might argue that we should avoid a public discussion of the paradox altogether, because the threat of an American attack might serve as a deterrent and prevent Iran from reneging on the nuclear control agreement reached in July 2015. Ignoring the preventive war paradox, however, will not make the potential dangers of this dilemma disappear. It is better to think through the implications of this problem and what it means for the strategic utility of preventive attack as the means to address these modern challenges, guided by a blunt appreciation of how this option might end up undermining American security.


[i] Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman, and Robert L. Gallucci, Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2004), p. 204.
[ii] Hillary Clinton Addresses the Iran Nuclear Deal, Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., September 9, 2015. Transcript available at
[iii] Carl von Clausewitz, Two Letters on Strategy, eds. Peter Paret and Daniel Moran (Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army War College, 1984), p. 9.
[iv] B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy (New York: Praeger, 1967); Colin S. Gray, “How Has War Changed Since the End of the Cold War?” Parameters Vol. 35, No. 1 (spring 2005), p. 25.
[v] Carl von Clausewitz, On War, eds. Peter Paret and Michael Howard (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993), p. 89.
[vi] Otto Pflanze, Bismarck and the Development of Germany Vol. I (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990), p. 470, fn. 1.
[vii] Otto von Bismarck, Bismarck: The Memoirs (New York: H. Fertig, 1966), pp. 106-107.
[viii] James Stone, The War Scare of 1875 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010), pp. 199, 207; Gordon Craig, Germany, 1866-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 107.
[ix] Letter from Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to Prince Hohenloe, German Ambassador to Paris, February 26, 1875, in W. N. Medlicott and Dorothy K. Coveney, Bismarck and Europe (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1971), p. 88.
[x] James Stone, The War Scare of 1875 (Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2010), p. 208.
[xi] Stone, War Scare of 1875, pp. 202-208.
[xii] William L. Langer, European Alliances and Alignments 1871-1890 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1950, p. 51.
[xiii] Ibid., p. 48.
[xiv] Bismarck, Memoirs, pp. 192, 253-254.
[xv] Otto von Bismarck letter to Lord Salisbury, November 22, 1887, in Medlicott and Coveney, Bismarck and Europe, p. 166.
[xvi] Holstein diary entry December 27, 1886, The Holstein Papers Vol. I (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955), p. 327.
[xvii] Ibid., March 27, 1888, p. 366.
[xviii] Ibid., January 11, 1888, p. 361.
[xix] Waldersee diary, October 15, 1885, Alfred von Waldersee, A Field Marshal’s Memoirs (London: Hutchison & Co., 1925), pp. 122-123.
[xx] Langer, European Alliances and Alignments, p. 444, emphasis added.
[xxi] Ambassador Reuss to Holstein, December 8, 1887, Holstein Papers, p. 233.
[xxii] Pflanze, Bismarck and the Development of Germany Vol. III, p. 272.
[xxiii] Waldersee diary, July 10, 1888, Field Marshal’s Memoirs, p. 148.
[xxiv] Otto von Bismarck speech to the German Reichstag, February 6, 1888, in Louis L. Snyder, The Blood and Iron Chancellor: a Documentary-Biography of Otto von Bismarck (D. Van Nostrand Co., 1967), pp. 314-315.
[xxv] Langer, European Alliances and Alignments, p. 485.
[xxvi] Robert M. Gates, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014), p. 192. For an extended analysis of the preventive war paradox in the case of an American or Israeli attack on Iran, see Kenneth M. Pollack, Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2013), chaps. 8 and 9.