I just returned from the 47th Annual International Affairs Symposium at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. Events were organized as debates — the students developed the topics and invited academics and people from the policy world to participate. My debate was on this topic: “Jumping the Gun? The Legitimacy of Preemptive War.”

The application of offensive war as a defensive measure raises debate over the legality and legitimacy of such campaigns. While purely defensive warfare is often accepted as legitimate, there is broad disagreement over the line between aggression and self defense. If a state perceives a security threat, does it have to right to launch a preventive attack?

My talk was on “The Illegitimacy of Preventive War,” with a great deal of attention on the necessity requirement of a just war. Given great uncertainties about threats — and a history of both threat inflation and intelligence failure — how can states ascertain the hostile future intentions of other states? The risk of false positives would be too great.

In the 1950s, a large number of defense and foreign policy analysts argued that the US should launch preventive war against the Soviet Union. After all, war was inevitable and the US was in a better position then than it was likely to be later…

The most-discussed presentation of the Symposium was Jeremy Rabkin‘s broadside against non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. He began by accusing NGOs of being spineless for refusing to operate in risky countries and for cooperating too much with dubious governments.

Then, he essentially accused NGOs of being evil (and he wasn’t talking about NGOs as “new colonialists”).

Rabkin flippantly claimed that these transnational NGOs (and their donors) are primarily interested in taking up anti-American causes.

Oh and he accused NGOs of failing to report ongoing genocides they witnessed first-hand (Cambodia, Darfur) — for fear they’d lose access to the states in question.

Needless to say, most other panelists and Lewis and Clark students and faculty were left shaking their heads.

In any case, I really enjoyed the event and wish to thank the organizers and student hosts for inviting me to participate.

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