What is a Preemptive Strike?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A preemptive strike is a military action which is designed to neutralize a potential threat, or to gain a distinct advantage against an enemy. The legality of preemptive strikes is questionable, as they are generally considered offensive actions except in very specific circumstances. For example, a preemptive strike against troops massing near a nation's border might be considered justified, while a random airstrike on a known enemy might not be legally acceptable. Despite debates over the legality of such actions, many nations throughout history have used preemptive attacks as military tools.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

When a preemptive strike is considered, several things are usually incorporated into the decision. The first is a careful examination of the nature of the threat, with concrete threats like troop buildups or detonations of nuclear devices being considered justifications for preemptive attacks. Analysts also think about the likelihood of an anticipated attack from an enemy, weighing things like public announcements, intelligence information, and historical activities by the enemy.

Generally, governments are also encouraged to consider alternatives before moving on to a preemptive strike. When weighing the decision to make such a strike, government officials look at other options like diplomacy, sanctions, and other tools. Ideally, an aggressive action should only be undertaken if all other options have been exhausted. Finally, analysts may consider legal and ethical justifications for such a strike, to see if it conforms with the terms of the United Nations Charter.

For the striking nation, a preemptive attack can be a powerful military tool, especially if it is carried out well. The opposing nation can be unbalanced and surprised by the attack, thus giving the attacking nation the upper hand. The goal is to prevent further military action with a show of force, but a preemptive strike can also weaken an enemy's military abilities, which can be an advantage in a prolonged war or military action. A preemptive strike also requires far less military personnel than a conventional attack or invasion.

Several governments prefer preemptive attacks to actual declarations of war, because these declarations may require the participation of legislatures, which takes time. A preemptive strike can be authorized by the head of state and rapidly carried out, which creates an element of surprise and minimizes public debate over the issue. However, legislatures and citizens may hold their governments accountable for such strikes, and United Nations members may also be expected to justify their preemptive attacks in an international forum.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@ValleyFiah- I would have to agree with @cougars that pre-emptive action against another nation is not the best way to peace. In most of the cases I know of, the aggressor is often made to be the villain by the global community. Of course, I know there are arguments for pre-emptive strikes as well, some of which are pretty compelling. I guess this is one of those situations where hindsight really is 20/20, and it's hard to know what the consequences will be.


@cougars- I do not think that the pre-emptive strike against Iraq was an utter mistake. While the reasoning behind the strike may have been misguided, the quality of life we enjoy relies on our government securing its interests and displaying force when necessary. More than anything, foreign policy is a game of showing your strengths and hiding your weaknesses.

What would have become of Iraq's people if we never intervened? Regardless of how Saddam came to power, he had the potential to be a very dangerous enemy to the United States. The strike against the government could have also prevented terrorist networks setting up shop in a country that was utterly vital in keeping the global oil markets stable.


While preemptive strikes by definition seem like a good strategy, the reality is that they can be a very risky political maneuver. In the case of Iraq, the government preemptively struck Saddam Hussein under the false assumption that he had weapons of mass destruction that posed a direct threat to the United States. This turned into one of the worst military blunders in recent history. We disposed of a dictator that was only emboldened by former foreign policy, and there turned out to be no weapons of mass destruction.

As much as people may think that sanctions and diplomacy are a sign of weakness, the recent preemptive strikes have not necessarily made the country any stronger. The military has been stretched thin, thousands of troops have died, thousands of troops now suffer from PTSD, and the debt has skyrocketed mostly due to paying for military expenditures. In my opinion, a preemptive strike made in haste is just as bad as being caught blindsided.

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