NCFL 2013: Essay on Just Societies and War Initiation

Resolved:  Just societies should never deliberately initiate war.


Introduction and Definitions

In this essay, I will review the main definitions in the resolution, identify some of the main Affirmative and Negative arguments that stem from the resolution, and offer some strategic suggestions for both sides based on the arguments that stem from the resolution.

Just societies. Generally speaking, “just societies” are societies that are “fair” and “right.”  The fairness and righteousness can be defined in multiple ways, but they are often defined by complains with accepted laws and norms. In the context of this debate, this laws and norms are most likely going to be international laws and norms, though they can also include laws and norms of the societies in questions.

Never. “Never” means “at no time.”  In the context of the resolution, the Affirmative needs to win that there isn’t a single instance in which it is acceptable for a just society to initiate war.

Deliberately.  “Deliberately” means intentionally. In the context of the resolution, it just the means that the Affirmative just means a just society could never justify intentionally initiating war (as opposed to accidentally initiating it).

War. A war is an armed conflict between different states or states and groups. It is important to note that war doesn’t necessarily have to be between two states but that it can be between a state and a group because some of the literature that discusses whether or not initiating war is just is talking about initiating military action against terrorist groups.  War can be declared on terrorists.

Emanuel Gross, Thwarting Terrorist Acts by Attacking the Perpetrators or Their Commanders as an Act of Self-Defense: Human Rights Versus the State’s Duty to Protect its Citizens, 15 TEMP. INT’L & COMP. L.J. 195, 213 (2001);

President Bush reacted immediately to the terrorist attack by declaring war on those terrorists who perpetrated these atrocities and the state that provided them safe haven. Declaring war on terrorist organization by a state is a new phenomenon in the field of jurisprudence and international law, it raises many moral and legal questions and deserves a separate discussion.

And state v. state war is becoming rare:

Amos Guirora, Professor of Law, S. J. Quinney College of Law, University of Utah, 2008 Anticipatory Self-Defence and International Law – A Re-Evaluation (September 8, 2008). Journal of Conflict and Security Law, U of Utah Legal Studies Paper No. 057-08-10.

Traditional state v state war is largely a relic. How then does a nation-state defend itself, pre-emptively, against an unseen enemy? Existing international law— the Caroline Doctrine, UN Charter Article 51, Security Council Resolutions 1368 and 1373—does not provide sufficiently clear guidelines regarding when a state may take pre-emptive or anticipatory action against a non-state actor.

Should just societies 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 NCFL Public Forum resolution is that winning on the Affirmative requires winning that a country is never justified initiating war and need to be able to effectively respond to every rationale.

But before we begin a more thorough discussion, let’s unpack each of the rationales for initiating war. This will help you see why some rationales are intuitively more defensible than others.

(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 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.

I think that anticipatory self-defense is the strongest rationale for initiating a war, so it is something that Negative may wish to focus on.

(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 preventative 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.

(3)   Democracy promotion/human rights. This category of military action includes military activity to topple dictators who suppress democracy and often violate human rights.  War for the sake of promoting democracy is another element of the “Bush Doctrine,” though there is no “single piece of paper” that identifies a coherent “Bush Doctrine” (Washington Post, 2008,

(4)   Acquire territory/resources.  This is one of the oldest rationales in the military history books for initiating military conflict – countries want to strengthen, or protect, their own economic position by initiating military conflict to take control of additional territory.

These four rationales for initiating military conflict have been identified in this order because they intuitively move from the most accepted rationale to the least accepted rationale. The problem for the Affirmative is that there is almost little criticism of the idea of preemptive military action, particular anticipatory self-defense (at least in limited situations) and this means that it will be hard for the Affirmative to argue that initiating military action is never justified.

There are really only two ways to defend that the US should never initiative preemptive war:

(1)   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.

(2)   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.

With this overall framework in mind, in the remainder of this essay I will explore some of the arguments on both sides of each of these rationales for war.  Most of these arguments are covered in more detail in the Planet Debate evidence release (with supporting quotes).

Preemptive self-defense


–          In the nuclear age, waiting for an attack before military retaliation means committing suicide

–          We cannot wait for terrorist organizations to attack us and since they operate in secret it is difficult to determine their intentions in advance

–          Many actors, especially terrorists, and potentially “rogue” states, cannot be deterred


–          Intuitive examples that support the claim that countries should be able to preemptively attack are really examples of where an attack should be understood to already have effectively commenced. Military action in these cases would be examples of military action in response to attacks, not action to initiate military action.

–          Permitting anticipatory self-defense will be abused by nations who will use it to justify military action

–          International acceptance of preemptive self-defense will encourage extensive preemption and war

There are two additional criticisms of preemptive war.

First, it preemptive 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.

Second, 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 Negative could argue that preemptive war is justified as long as there is also a Declaration of War. Remember that the Negative only needs to win that there is one example of when it is justified.

Preventive self-defense

The big difference between preemptive and preventive self-defense is that preemptive self-defense requires a response to an imminent threat whereas preventive self-defense is based on preventing a potential threat. For example, the US could justify attacking Iraq to prevent them from developing nuclear weapons that may be potentially used against the United States. The nuclear threat is frequently used as a justification for wars that target countries’ emerging nuclear forces and to overthrow regimes that are hostile to the US.

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 (

Also, the 2013 NFL Public Forum topic is, “Resolved: The benefits of American drone strikes against foreign targets outweigh the harms.”  Drone strikes are really a form of preventative warfare that function to kill terrorists before they attack – terrorists that “imminent” threats. You may also want to consult my essay ( on drone strikes as well as Planet Debate’s evidence release ( on that issue.

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.


There is a debate about the value of initiating war to promote democracy. Given that the approach is heavily criticized and that the anticipatory self-defense rationale is stronger, I don’t think that anyone will argue it and it is therefore not worth discussion. I did include some evidence in the release to answer the rationale in case someone argues it.

Resource acquisition and territory expansion

I don’t think that anyone will defend this as a reason for a country to initiate war, so I am skipping it.

Strategic Advice

I want to conclude with some strategic advice for both sides

(1)   Negative – 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)   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.

(3)   Affirmative – 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.

(4)   Research Tip – My primary research tip for both sides is to focus on researching “anticipatory” self-defense. This is where the most literature is on the general question of whether or not it is acceptable for just societies to initiate war.