The case for collective force


Matt Yglesias is sharply skewing the facts in his Op-Ed “ Beyond preemption,” when he tries to link Hillary Clinton’s purported willingness to bomb Iran, for which there is no evidence, to a piece that Lee Feinstein and I co-authored for Foreign Affairs in 2004. That piece was entitled “A Duty to Prevent.” In it we did indeed write, as Yglesias quotes, that “the biggest problem with the Bush preemption strategy may be that it does not go far enough.” But Yglesias employs the journalistically unprofessional tactic of quoting only part of a sentence. The full context for that quote is the following passage:

“Addressing [the danger of “a brutal ruler acquiring nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction”] requires a different strategy, one that maximizes the chances of early and effective collective action. In this regard, and in comparison to the changes that are taking place in the area of intervention for humanitarian protection purposes, the biggest problem with the Bush preemption strategy may be that it does not go far enough.”

The phrases I have italicized go to the core of our argument. We acknowledged that the weapons of mass destruction had not been found in Iraq and indeed noted that had the U.S. been willing to follow the United Nations process to its logical and legal conclusion, we would have been persuaded that those weapons did not exist in the first place. However, the possibility of regimes with no checks and balances on their power acquiring illegal nuclear weapons continued to exist (Exhibit A: North Korea). We argued that the world had to be prepared to take “early and effective collective action” against such a threat just as it was preparing to take early and effective collective action against massive humanitarian violations through the doctrine of an individual government’s responsibility to protect its own people.


The centerpiece of our argument is that unilateral action that involves force ought to be avoided at all costs, but that at the same time the existing rules for multilateral authorization of options of the use of force were inadequate to meet the kinds of threats we face in the 21st century. We thus proposed a doctrine that would allow a collective response to the potential acquisition of nuclear weapons by a regime with no checks on its ability to use them on either a global or, as a last resort, a regional basis.

The larger issue here goes to the core of one of the most disastrous consequences of the Bush foreign policy. The unilateralism espoused by the first Bush administration and many still within the administration today has created a false choice between adhering to a collective decision-making system created for a different world in 1945 and going to war without any collective authorization whatsoever. Our article was a sharp rejection of the Bush Doctrine. But it was nevertheless an attempt to chart a different path, a path of reform that recognized both the existence of new threats and the vital importance of a rules-based response.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and author of The Idea That Is America: Keeping Faith with Our Values in a Dangerous World.