NCFCA LD: Defining Preventive War

The 2019-2020 NCFCA LD resolution is:

Preventive War is Ethical.

That should sound a bit familiar to a Stoa LD veteran. In 2017-2018 (my final year of competition) the Stoa LD resolution was “Preemptive warfare is morally justified”. That season was dominated by definition-centric cases. This season you can expect the same to happen.

The ability to grapple with word meaning will be key to your success. Here’s an overview of preventive war’s most prominent definitions:

1: Belief of Inevitability

“A war initiated in the belief that military conflict, while not imminent, is inevitable, and that to delay would involve greater risk.” - The Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms

Strategy notes:

  • The key word in this definition is “belief”. This interpretation relies on military intelligence being the predictor of the inevitability of conflict. Negatives may only need to take a cursory look at military history to show why that’s dangerous.

  • This is the official definition of the United States Government. A strong argument can be made that it should be preferred because it most impacts reality, making it superior to ivory tower definitions created by academics. After all, since governments are the ones that will actually use preventive war, their definition will determine its use. On the opposing side, it could be argued that definitions need to work for every nation, so one created by a single nation’s military simply won’t cut it.

2: Expectation of Defeat

“A preventive war is a military, diplomatic, and strategic endeavor, aimed at an enemy whom one expects to grow so strong that delay would cause defeat.” - Barry Strauss, a military historian with the Hoover Institute

Strategy notes:

  • This one raises the stakes. Whereas the DoD definition says that delaying would cause greater risk, this definition states that the expectation is that delay would cause defeat, shifting preventive war from being an aggressive tactic used by nations to bully the globe, to a reasonable line of defense by a nation whose existence is threatened. Use this definition on affirmative if you’re interested in arguing that a preventive war is the only thing that stands between some nations and extinction.

  • This definition also sets the field for a brutal turn. Plenty of nations have longstanding rivalries with each other and believe that the future holds for certain defeat. This definition does give license to some of the most reckless nations in the world to fuel their bombers and send them off. Be wary.

3: War of Discretion

“By way of the sharpest contrast, a preventive war is a war of discretion. It differs from preemptive war both in its timing and in its motivation. The preemptor has no choice other than to strike back rapidly; it will probably be too late even to surrender. The preventor, however, chooses to wage war, at least to launch military action, because of its fears for the future should it fail to act now.” - Colin S. Gray, Professor of International Politics and Strategic Studies at the University of Reading, England

Strategy Notes:

  • The open-endedness of this definition is both a strength and a weakness. The motivation for preventive warfare under this interpretation is to remove fears about the future. Affirmatives should be mindful with this definition, because it invites the negative to run applications of reckless military decisions. It may be difficult to defend preventive war as ethical when it seems to justify violence by way of paranoia.

  • The term, “discretion” is vital here. Its inclusion makes this a perfect foil to idealistic affirmative definitions which argue that preventive war only exists when war is actually inevitable and doom is on the horizon. Making this argument work is easy: nations use their discretion, and more often than not that discretion is misplaced.

4: Balance of Power

“Preventive war occurs when a state launches a military conflict to prevent another state or other international actor from becoming a threat. This type of war differs from the more typical situation in which states go to war after a period of crisis or as a reaction to a particular event. Preventive wars are not in response to a specific crisis or direct threat to security, but rather to a perception of a potential change in the future balance of power between a state and its likely adversaries.” - From, quoting the book Americans at War by historian Stephen E. Ambrose

Strategy Notes:

  • A hidden nugget in this definition is the inclusion of the section, “This type of war differs from the more typical situation in which states go to war after a period of crisis or as a reaction to a particular event. Preventive wars are not in response to a specific crisis or direct threat to security…”. The majority of applications are going to be about a specific crisis or a reaction to a particular event. This definition shrugs them off.

  • Hegemony is aggressive. However, a strong affirmative case can be based around this definition. The world we live is built on the foundation of a few powerhouse nations calling the shots. World superpowers can use the power of preventive war to snuff out international threats long before they materialize. This system may have some drawbacks, but seems to in large part prevent chaos.

Have you found any other definitions you like? Let us know in the comments!