As a last resort, unilateral military force is justified to minimize nuclear weapons proliferation.

Resolved: As a last resort, unilateral military force is justified to minimize nuclear weapons proliferation.



In 2003, the United States attacked Iraq using the justifications that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons, that Iraq was lying to weapons inspectors, and that the only way to stop Iraq from using nuclear weapons or giving them to terrorists was to attack them.  Most other countries in the world did not support the US attack on Iraq, so it is generally considered to be a unilateral attack by the US on another country.
The resolution above attempts to access the general debate over the desirability of unilateral attacks attacking countries that are trying to developing nuclear weapons and it asks the question of whether or not such attacks are justified as a last resort method to prevent them from doing so.  Currently, there is a debate over whether or not Israel and/or the United States should attack Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons. There is also a debate, though it is not engaged in by as many people, over whether or not the US should attack North Korea so that it does not develop additional nuclear weapons.
In this brief post, I will review some of the key terms in the resolution and suggest arguments both in support of the resolution and opposed to it.  You may wish to download this evidence release for quotations to support the arguments discussed and for other arguments that you may wish to use in your debates.


Nuclear weapons proliferation refers to the spread of nuclear weapons.
There are actually two types of nuclear weapons proliferation – horizontal and vertical. Horizontal proliferation refers to countries developing nuclear weapons that previously did not have them.  Vertical proliferation refers to countries that already have nuclear weapons developing more of the weapons.
I think it is fair that the resolution is meant to refer to the controversy related to stem horizontal nuclear weapons proliferation, though it does not specify.  Nevertheless, horizontal weapons proliferation debate is the one that I suggest that you engage in.  Certainly, I don’t think that you want to be in the position of arguing that the US should attack Russia and/or China in order to prevent either of them from developing more nuclear weapons.
The only caveat to this is that you could argue that the US should attack North Korea to prevent it from acquiring additional nuclear weapons and access the debate about attacks to prevent vertical proliferation. So, there are some instances (or at least one) where the vertical proliferation debate seems relevant, but your arguments should also always include references to horizontal proliferation.
One open question is whether or not the spread of nuclear weapons refers to the acquisition of nuclear weapons by terrorists groups. While I haven’t seen much literature that discusses the spread of nuclear weapons in that context, the context may technically meet the definition of “proliferation.” If it does, it could be easy for the Affirmative to argue that military action, particularly drone strikes and targeted military campaigns designed to prevent terrorists from getting nuclear weapons are justified.
Military force is an attack by armed forces (army, navy, air force, marines) of a country against another.
The inclusion of the phrase as a last resort  in the resolution is a very interesting choice.  Basically, I think that it exists there to serve two purposes. The one known purpose is to prevent the Negative from offering an alternative. The Affirmative only needs to defend the use of force if all other alternatives have failed or are likely to fail.  For example, if the Negative argues that multilateral force is a better alternative that is not relevant because the Affirmative is only arguing or unilateral action as a last resort – when the other hypothetical alternatives are known to have failed. The second potential purpose is to access literature related to the debate about “defensive last resort.” This literature is not precisely on point, but it refers to the idea that the US would only use nuclear weapons as a last resort – that it would exhaust all other options. This literature is specific to using nuclear weapons to attack countries who could potentially develop nuclear weapons, and in many instances the Affirmative will be arguing for a conventional attack, but it is a place where you can access discussions of what a “last resort” is.
Thinking about applying the concept of “last resort” to nuclear weapons proliferation is a bit interesting because the literature about using nuclear weapons as a last resort is really about using nuclear weapons under conditions in which the US was about to be attacked.  While it is certainly possible for a country that develops nuclear weapons to attack the US, the resolution simply asks if their use can be justified to stop them from developing the weapons, not to stop them from using them against the US. A likely/imminent threat is easier to defend the use of force against than a potential threat.
I think that the fact that nuclear proliferation itself is not inherently an imminent threat tips the balance of the resolution a bit in favor of the Negative because I think it is a bit hard to defend attacking a country solely because they have developed or are about to develop the weapons. The US did this in the case of Iraq, but it was widely condemned, and even now many of the advocates at the time question the quality of the decision. (And even in the instance of Iraq there was a discussion of the hypothetical threat of the weapons to the US. Some argued that Iraq would give the nuclear weapons to terrorists).
That said, it is not hopeless for the Affirmative. The term in the resolution that favors a defense of the resolution is justified.  Justified simply means to have a “good” or “legitimate” reason. So it seems that if the Affirmative can come up with one reason that the an attack is needed then they can justify it.  Given that the Affirmative is arguing for a military attack on another country, they need to emphasize that it would be as a last resort and that and only that it is possible to justify it, not that they are arguing that the US should simply start attacking other countries to reduce nuclear weapons proliferation.

Literature bases

I think that there are three literature bases and sets of arguments that are useful to explore when debating this topic.
First, as already mentioned, there is the a debate about under what conditions the US should use nuclear weapons as a “last resort.” As noted, this literature isn’t directly applicable to this debate because it talks about attacking countries using nuclear weapons, but it may be useful for definitions of “last resort.”
Second, and most on point, there is a big debate about whether or not it is right to attack another country in order to prevent the development of a threat.  This involves preemptive warfare, but at least contextually, preemption refers to an attack that is designed to prevent an imminent attack from an adversary. So, the literature and argument base that you need to access is about preventive warfare.  Preventive warfare is also referred to as the “Bush Doctrine” because it was US President George Bush who first argued for attacking a country (Iraq) because they were developing nuclear weapons that could be used. Since the resolution asks the Affirmative to justify an attack simply to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, not to prevent their imminent use against the United States, this is really a debate about prevention.   This topic is covered extensively in the IPPF evidence release.
Third, there is a debate about how big of a threat the spread of nuclear weapons is in the first place.  There is both a general theoretical debate about it and a debate in specific instances, particularly Iran and North Korea. Some scholars argue that the spread of nuclear weapons is not that bad, and can even be good because the weapons can deter conventional war, will others argue that the spread of the weapons will substantially increase the risk of nuclear conflict.
Fourth, there is the specific debate about the likelihood that Iran will develop nuclear weapons and the potential implications of that (whether it would be good or bad). This is covered extensively in the evidence release.
In the next two parts of the essay, I cover the debate about whether or not preventive war can be justified. The debate about the desirability of nuclear proliferation is covered in another essay.
Is it just to deliberately initiate war?
In order to determine if it is appropriate for just societies to initiate war, we need to examine why countries go to war and then determine if those reasons are just.
There are a number of different reasons that countries initiate war –
(1)  Preemptive self-defense
(2)  Preventive self-defense
(3)  Democracy promotion/human rights promotion
(4)  Acquire land or territory
This list is not necessarily exhaustive. I’m sure that military historians could identify other reasons that that countries initiate war, but it is a good start for our analysis.
What is important to note regarding the IPPF resolution is that winning on the Affirmative requires winning that a country is justified initiating war in response to the spread of nuclear weapons.  This does not deal with rationales (3) and (4), but it does implicate the first two rationales.  So that you can better understand these rationales, I’m going to unpack each of them.
(1)  Preemptive self-defense. Arguably the most just rationale for initiating war, preemptive self-defense means attacking another country or actor in order to prevent a devastating, imminent attack on one’s own country. The Department of Defense defines a preemptive attack as “An attack initiated on the basis of incontrovertible evidence that an enemy attack is imminent” For example, if the US had known that an attack on Pearl Harbor was imminent it might have preemptively attacked Japan.  Similarly, if the US knew that the Russians were about to launch a nuclear first-strike against the US, the US might initiative a preemptive war by launching its own nuclear first strike on Russia’s missile silos.
An example that is commonly cited is that if your neighbor began amassing armies on your border with an obvious intent to attack that you should be able to preemptively strike them.  This is even defined as “anticipatory self-defense,” and self-defense is permitted under the UN charter.
The BBC ( identified a specific historical example of what many consider to be a justified initiation of war out of self-defense:
One example is the Six Day War of 1967. Israel was the first to use military force, when it attacked the Egyptians. Egypt had not used force against Israel, so Israel appeared the aggressor and in the wrong. But Egypt had carried out the following actions before Israel struck:
–        announced a policy of hostility to Israel
–        put its military forces on maximum alert
–        expelled the UN Emergency force from the Sinai border area
–        strengthened its forces on the border with Israel
–        announced the closure of the Straits of Tiran to Israeli ships
–        formed mutual support treaties with Iraq, Jordan and Syria
You may think that this level of threat provides a moral justification for attack.
This idea of anticipatory self-defense stems from claims made by the British Secretary of State Daniel Webster who argued that a state may attack in self-defense when the threat is instant, overwhelming, and leaves no choice of means.
Although everyone does not agree on exactly what constitutes legitimate anticipatory self-defense, most, though not all, agree that it does exist, at least under customary international law (CIL).  CIL is international law that is developed by contemporary practices of states that lead to norms for international behavior. This is contrasted to treaty law that is driven by legal agreements between states that take the form of treaties. Although these are distinct forms of international law, some scholars consider them reinforcing and some even argue that CIL supports a definition of self-defense in treaty law that includes anticipatory self-defense.  This debate is covered in detail in the Planet Debate evidence briefs.
Anticipatory self-defense is probably the strongest rationale to justify the initiation of war, but it is unlikely that the mere spread of nuclear weapons rises to a threat level that requires anticipatory self-defense.
(2)  Preventive self-defense. Preventive self-defense is a much broader form of self-defense that defends initiating military action based on the rationale that it is necessary to prevent a potential, less imminent threat. The war in Iraq, for example, was arguably a preventive war. The United States attacked Iraq based on the justification that Iraq likely had nuclear weapons in its possession, or that it was close to developing nuclear weapons, and that it could potentially use those nuclear weapons against the United States or other countries in the Middle East. In this instance, any nuclear weapons threat was not imminent, but it was potential. [As an aside, it is important to note that the Bush administrative defended the Iraq war, and any war necessary to prevent terrorists from gaining access to nuclear weapons as a preemptive war (see National Security Strategy of the United States,, though many saw it as a preventive war.  References to the “Bush Doctrine” include the idea of a preventive war, though some also include the idea of democracy promotion in that reference].  Preventive war is considered illegal under international law unless it is approved in advance by the United Nations – which suggests that a unilateral preventive war is on-face not justified!.
The problem for the Negative is that there is almost little criticism of the idea of preemptive military action, particular anticipatory self-defense (at least in limited situation), which means it is possible for the Affirmative to justify military action. The problem for the Affirmative is that it is difficult, but not impossible, for them to defend the mere spread of nuclear weapons as an imminent threat. If the Negative argues that preemptive war is legitimate and preventive war is not, the Affirmative team should argue that the examples the Negative gives of legitimate anticipatory self-defense are really examples of anticipatory self-defense and that those are justified.
Popular criticism aside, it is possible to defend the idea of preventive war. The basic rationale is that in the modern age of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (chemical weapons, nuclear weapons, biological weapons) we need to take military action to prevent countries from building those weapons and then attacking us directly or indirectly through state-sponsored terrorism. And credible threats of preventive war may deter the development of those weapons in the first place.
Critics of preventive war make the same arguments that critics of preemptive war do but have an even stronger case because accepting preventive war makes it possible to create even stronger rationales for attacking other countries, magnifying all of the risks discussed above.
In 2008, the January-February Lincoln-Douglas resolution was, Resolved: It is just for the United States to use military force to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons by nations that pose a military threat. This is basically a resolution about preventive defense, as it focuses on the question of whether or not the United States should use military force to prevent the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Of course, it does say of countries that “pose a military threat,” potentially shifting the focus a bit to debating preemption, but the resolution does not say that those threats must be imminent, making it more a topic about preventive warfare than preemptive warfare.  There were, and still are, strong arguments on both sides of this resolution, and you may want to download Planet Debate’s previous L-D release on this question (
When researching and reading about preventative war you should not that many authors do not carefully distinguish between preventative war and preemptive war when writing articles.  This is because some of them don’t understand the distinction and it is also because preventative war is one form of preemptive war, so sometimes it is appropriate to use the terms interchangeably.

Other Arguments the Affirmative can make

Define preparation for war as war itself and argue that if a country responds to an imminent strike with military action that they are really responding to an act of war.  This may seem to be playing with semantics too much, but it is how the most ardent opponents of anticipatory self-defense get out of the most persuasive cases for preemption, such as an impending Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor or an impending nuclear strike.
Argue that in the nuclear age, waiting for an attack before military retaliation means committing suicide.
Argue that we cannot wait for terrorist organizations to attack us and since they operate in secret it is difficult to determine their intentions in advance.  This argument will be strengthened by a claim that countries will give nuclear weapons to terrorists and it can be made even stronger with an effective claim that the spread of nuclear weapons to terrorists is considered “nuclear proliferation.”
Argue that many actors, especially terrorists, and potentially “rogue” states, cannot be deterred
Isolate specific example and argue that the spread of nuclear weapons to a particular country such as Iran constitutes an imminent threat and that military action to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to that country is justified.  Remember that in order to win that it is justified you really only need to defend it in one instance. Perhaps we should not have attacked Iraq, and perhaps we should not attack any other country, but this does not mean that we aren’t justified in attacking Iran.

Other Arguments the Negative Can Make

The Negative could argue that preventive war makes it appear that the side initiating the conflict is the aggressor, even though the initiator is undertaking the action in self-defense. This is a good point, but it is not relevant for this resolution because we are debating about what is potentially just, not what appears to be just.
Some critics argue that preemptive war is illegitimate because it occurs without a Declaration of War. Again, this is not inherently relevant to the resolution that is up for debate because the Affirmative could argue that preemptive war is justified as long as there is also a Declaration of War. Remember that the Affirmative only needs to win that there is one example of when it is justified.
Third, the Negative can argue that the spread of nuclear weapons is good because those weapons deter conventional military conflict. If the spread of nuclear weapons is good, and is not bad, then the US would not be justified in using unilateral military force to prevent the spread of those weapons.
Fourth, the Negative can argue that attacks on countries that are trying to develop nuclear weapons will fail to solve the problem because the countries will simply hide the nuclear weapons deep underground and that the US will not succeed in destroying them. This could arguably be non-responsive to the question the resolution presents because it is simply asking if the attacks can be justified, not if they will succeed/be effective, but if the Negative can win that those attacks will not succeed it will be more difficult for the Affirmative to justify the attacks.
Fifth, Negative teams can argue that deterrence, diplomacy, and police action (arresting terrorists) can all be take to avoid the harms of countries acquiring nuclear weapons.
Sixth, Argue that international acceptance of preventive self-defense will encourage extensive preemption and war
Seventh, Argue for a strong version of pacifism – that violence is never acceptable. This is not impossible to win, but it is much more difficult to win than it is for the Negative to win that initiative military action in even a single instance is just.

Strategic Advice

I want to conclude with some strategic advice for both sides
(1)  Affirmative – Isolate an instance.  In order to win, the Negative just has to prove that a just society can initiate war in one instance. The Affirmative has to win that it is never justified. This is a very difficult hurdle for the Affirmative.
The Negative can really agree to any condition that the Affirmative argues is required for a just society to initiative war.  The Negative could even agree that a just society can initiative war if every country in the world (sans the one being attacked, of course) believes that the war is justified.
(2)  Affirmative – Win that military action that is designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons can be considered “anticipatory self-defense.” This argument will not be that easy to win, but if you win it, you can access all of the arguments as to why anticipatory self-defense is justified (many are included in the evidence release)
(3)  Affirmative – Undermine the distinction between prevention and preemption.  There is strong evidence in the release that argues that this distinction is not clear cut. Since the Negative may defend preemption, the Affirmative can argue that the Affirmative and the Negative are arguing for the same thing.
(4)  Negative –Defend preemptive war. Preemptive war is the easiest to defend as being just.  Preventive war is more difficult to defend, though there is a body of easily accessible literature that defends it and I suggest focusing on the justification of initiating war as a form of anticipatory self-defense.  You could, for example, argue that the US is justified in preempting the use of nuclear weapons by other countries when those countries become an imminent threat to the US but that they are not justified in using military force merely to prevent the spread of the weapons.
(5)  Negative – Defend pacifism. Since the Affirmative has to win that initiating war is never justified, I don’t think they have an alternative.  I did include some evidence in the release on pacifism.