IISS/CEPS European Security Forum, Brussels, 13 January 2003

Chairman's Summing-Up

by François Heisbourg

The eleventh meeting of the European Security Forum focussed on what is becoming known as the Bush doctrine. The proceedings were underpinned by three particularly penetrating papers, which should be read at leisure, as a brief summing-up will not suffice to convey their full scope.

Walter Slocombe, in his oral presentation, emphasised the need to handle the prevention / pre-emption debate as distinct from the unilateralism / multilateralism discussion: although they intersect, they are analytically separate. Conversely, he tied the prevention / pre-emption debate to the specific requirements of non-proliferation, while noting that prevention / pre-emption tend to be a limited element of non-proliferation policy given the inherent difficulties of implementation: it is easier to assert a policy of pre-emption than to execute it effectively. Walt also underscored the elements of continuity of the National Security Strategy of the United States (NSS) with US and international law.

Carl Bildt recalled that prevention / pre-emption could be tied to contingencies other than those mentioned by President Bush, such a heading off a genocide. In his statements, he also made a distinction which turned out to be one of the key elements of whatever conclusion can be drawn from the discussion: the possible war in Iraq should not be considered as prevention or pre-emption but as an enforcement operation. He also questioned the premise that deterrence doesn't work against rogue state, a premise on which much of the new US doctrine is based. Like Walter Slocombe, he emphasized the difficulties of implementation: indeed, there was no example where countries had been forcefully deprived of their weapons of mass destruction (WMD) without regime change; the only successes in terms of eliminating WMD had implied regime change (as in South Africa). In other words, pre-emption / prevention without regime change would probably not work and even then, it is possible to wonder about the attitude of a post-Saddam regime in Baghdad towards the renunciation of WMD in the face of persisting efforts by Iran and their possession by Israel. Carl recalled that one of the favourite examples of the fans of pre-emption / prevention, i.e. the Cuba missile crisis, had not witnessed a forceful pre-emptive strike. This option had deliberately been discarded at the time. In conclusion, he underlined the danger of the pre-emption rhetoric which could be seen as a licence of others to do the same – or to go nuclear.

Vladimir Nikitin reminded us, inter alia, of the Kosovo precedent: this was presented at the time as an operation destined to prevent human rights violations, regional destabilisation etc..., not requiring a specific mandate legitimising the use of force. But Kosovo also demonstrated the importance of regional organisations in legitimising such forceful operations, with NATO in Kosovo (1999), and the Carribean Community (CARICOM) in Grenada (1983). Vladimir also underlined the Russian reluctance to "doctrinalise" prevention / pre-emption, with Moscow preferring to use it de facto without formalising it since formalisation could reduce strategic freedom of manoeuvre.

Gareth Evans, who had been asked to respond to the three paper-givers, kicked off by confirming the Chairman's suggestion that greater care needed to be made in distinguishing between pre-emption (with its element of time pressure, of imminence) and prevention (with the Osirak bombing as a case of prevention, and the Six-Day War as an example of pre-emption). He also noted that the anticipatory use of force - a notion covering both prevention and pre-emption - does not necessarily imply imminence, notably when the risk of genocide is involved. He concurred with Slocombe's and Bildt's analysis of the difficulties of using force against WMD successfully while stopping short of regime change. As head of the International Crisis Group, he underscored the importance of the notion of consent as a legitimiser. Consent figures in the work of the ICG on the legitimisation of the use of force on the basis of "just war" principles (although any explicit reference to St. Thomas of Aquinas is avoided, out of deference to Muslim sensitivity).

In the general debate, the Israeli attack against the Osirak reactor in June 1981 was discussed. The view was widely expressed that although the attack may have had the perverse effect of driving the Iraqi nuclear programme deeper underground, it did lead to a substantial gain in the time available before Iraq could go nuclear. Prevention was also mentioned by a Russian participant, who indicated that Russian officials had considered preventive action against the Taliban regime in May 2000, he confirmed the Russian aversion towards making a principle of what is a strategic option for use in the near-abroad.

Carl Bildt made the point that pre-emption (tied as it is to imminent threat in international law) should not be considered as being somehow more readily acceptable than prevention: there are all too many wars in which the first country to open fire has claimed a right to pre-emption.

Anticipatory action thus requires rules, and calls were made for its codification. In this respect, humanitarian intervention was yet against cited as an area where anticipatory action could be called for.

On the question of deterrence, the point was made by a number of participants that this continued to be viable vis à vis state actors, and that there was a questionable trend in the US of presenting deterrence, if not as a dirty word, but at least as a poor second best against the Soviet threat. This drew the caveat that deterrence can deter nuclear attacks, but probably not proliferation; indeed, it was highly unlikely that deterrence would play against the sale by North Korea of its WMD wares on the international market. Furthermore, in the case of North Korea, it isn't only, or maybe not even primarily, Pyongyang's nuclear capability which inhibits us from acting forcefully, but the huge conventional firepower threatening the Seoul metropolitan area.

Indeed, in some ways, the state of reflection for criteria (e.g. in the ICG) on the use of anticipatory force in humanitarian contingencies seemed to be more advanced than its application to non-proliferation, notably in current US thinking.

Indeed, on the reactions of doctrines based on prevention and pre-emption outside of the US, the point was made by a European participant that in the EU, the real contention vis à vis the NSS was not the mention of prevention, but the fact that it was considered as the basis for a national, not a multilateral strategy.

The use of force for enforcement of international obligations was also discussed, with reference being made to the illegal reoccupation of the Rhineland by the Wehrmacht in 1935. This was a contingency in which the use of force could have paid off handsomely. As the discussion went into historical analogies – with Walter Slocombe drawing a parallel between the Rhineland case and the Iraqi situation –, a reminder was made by a participant that it is fine to have criteria for legitimising a military operation; but that one still had to ask the question: "is it wise?"

In his concluding remarks, V. Nikitin indicated that there was no clear confirmation in history that the preventive / pre-emptive use of force was the better option, citing in this regard the counterfactual question: what if Kennedy had retained the strike option against Cuba?

C. Bildt for his part, harking back to the Guns of August 1914, emphasized the need to be careful about making pre-emption a popular concept. Enforcement, including in the Iraqi case, is a more fruitful approach. He did not discard the option of prevention, with the building up of a international regime.

W. Slocombe reaffirmed the link between the use of force and WMD proliferation. The non-proliferation regime is in crisis and will collapse if we do not resolve the issue of enforcement.

G. Evans reminded us that the credibility of the UN system was the strongest case which could be made for war against Iraq – but that is a matter for the UN system to decide upon, not a single member. The question then becomes: what is the evidence, and how big is the threat?