Sunday, 30 November 2008

“Striking First”, by Michael Doyle (Princeton University Press)

Doyle-StrikingFirst Tackling one of the most controversial policy issues in international relations of the post-9/11 world, Michael Doyle argues that there is no adequate response to pressing issues of international security in today’s world. In Striking First, Doyle “addresses not only the underlying moral question of the conditions under which preventive war is justified, but also the complex practical question of how, if at all, international law should be refashioned in the current era”. Doyle’s aim is to offer his opinion of the conditions under which preventive war is justified.

Doyle explains how the United Nations can again play an important part in enforcing international law, something the Bush Doctrine has often flaunted and disregarded in the administration’s pursuit of the War on Terror. In an effort to redeem the practice of pre-emption and prevention (now much maligned in the wake of the Bush administration), he suggests circumstances when unilateral action can be justified (i.e. without UN sanction) or is necessary. Doyle argues that traditional international orthodoxy is unrealistic and unnecessarily constraining given the conditions and situations that now confront global leaders. At the same time, Doyle argues that the Bush Doctrine offers to broad and unstructured a framework through which to work.

A useful addition to the book is a collection of responses from noted international relations scholars Richard Tuck, Jeffrey McMahon and Harold Koh, allowing Doyle’s ideas to be put to a peer-review. These are then followed by another chapter from Doyle, responding to these guest writers.

Drawing on a number of examples of preemption/prevention, Doyle looks at the current war in Iraq, the 1998 attack on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the Cuban Missile Crisis and a number of other events to help reinforce his argument. His framework is comprised of four guidelines that address 1). the lethality and likelihood of perceived threat; 2). the legitimacy of the threat; 3). the necessity to make the case to international institutions (e.g. the UN); 4). the acceptance that multinational bodies don’t always act rationally or reasonably.

Not everyone will agree with his proposals, such as the unilateral pursuit of pre-emptive measures when multinational consent is found wanting (see the guest commentator’s critiques for more on this, specifically Koh’s essay), but they deserve to be taken seriously. There is also a question of feasibility, and not enough attention is paid to electoral incentives to act in a nation’s self-interest, rather than seeking international approval for specific actions; the efficacy of the UN is also questioned as a body capable of influencing determined state actors.

This is an useful book to further the debate about pre-emptive and unilateral state action in international relations, and I believe Doyle succeeds in his ultimate goal of offering a framework to help improve decision making and assessment of looming threats, and also further out understanding of when a nation might be justified in acting unilaterally and preemptively. The book’s brevity is a bonus, and Doyle doesn’t get too bogged down in the minutiae of international law, making the work more accessible to intermediate level IR scholars and enthusiasts. His long experience both as a scholar and government official informs his thesis throughout, adding extra weight to his positions.

Striking First won’t suit everyone, but if you’re interested in learning more about preventive and defensive pre-emption, this would be a good place to start.

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