Security Studies Program Seminar
The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention
December 2, 2009
- This project begins with an anomaly. In the 2000 Presidential Election, both Bush and Gore argued intervention in Rwanda would have been a mistake. Yet in the 2008 election – when barriers to supporting intervention were high due to the Iraq experience – both candidates supported of humanitarian intervention.
- It thus appears the notion of humanitarian intervention has survived the G.W. Bush Administration. How do we explain the pervasiveness of this interest?
- The answer has three parts:
- First, humanitarian intervention has a deeper historical basis than simply constituting a byproduct of the 1990s.
- Second, the free press has taken a significant role pushing for intervention, generating strong support in liberal societies for the mission.
- Finally, there is an evolution in terms of how the great powers and international community manage the practice that has strong implications for international relations theory and current practice.
- Humanitarian military intervention (HMI) is the use of military force to protect foreigners from harm. This excludes self-interest and imperial expansion – even cloaked in the language of humanitarian motivations – from the litany of cases.
- Using this definition, humanitarian military interventions have a long history going back at least 170 years to the British intervention in support of the Greeks against the Ottoman Empire in the 1820s.
- Significantly, the notion that there are “true” cases of humanitarian intervention is a direct challenge to certain schools of Realist and Marxist thought.
- Yet why do states pursue “true” humanitarian intervention?
- The first explanation has to do with the distinction between liberal and illiberal regimes. Liberal regimes face normative and popular pressure to excise illiberal behaviors from the system even if the effort goes against the state’s strategic interests. Illiberal regimes do not face these pressures.
- Yet the liberal vs. illiberal distinction is a necessary but insufficient cause. An additional element comes from the presence of a free press and, equally important, the prevalence of reporting agents in areas where atrocities occur.
- Combined, the presence of a free press with extensive reportage of a conflict area within a liberal society raises the likely pro-HMI pressure groups will gain influence as the masses are mobilized in support of HMI.
- Yet even liberal states will not intervene unless the intervention is low-cost. States are not expected to intervene when the intervention breeds the hostility of other great powers. One needs a power advantage for the intervention to go forward.
- Where are we likely to see evidence for or against intervention along these lines? What would make a good test of the theory?
- The first step is to select a period where liberalism is expected to a weak force in international politics – this ensures we are not biasing the sample in favor of the theory.
- The second is to look at a period where the balance of power is evenly distributed, ensuring HMI is not a case of the strong doing as they want sans consequence.
- The third is to evaluate government decision-making processes, where talk is less cheap and motives are more readily revealed.
- The Nineteenth Century is thus an optimal choice as it is considered the heyday of realism, the system is multipolar, and sufficient time has passed that we can obtain access to the archives.
- In fact, the theory plays out nicely in the case of the British intervention in support of the Greeks against the Ottomans in the 1820s.
- This is a solid test because the British interest is in strengthening the Ottomans against the Russians, rather than taking steps to weaken the Ottomans and providing a window for Russian expansionism in Europe. Any deviation from this expectation suggests a realist explanation is lacking.
- For a period of time, we do in fact find the British pursuing their strategic interest as Foreign Minister Castlereagh defends the British alliance with the Ottoman Empire. Intervention pressures are resisted.
- Unfortunately, the Ottomans then purportedly massacre 25,000 Greeks. This leads to a public outcry perpetuated by reports of the massacre in the British press.
- Castlereagh is vilified (ultimately committing suicide) and a large portion of the British public is mobilized to pressure the Government to act.
- The public outcry is ultimately such that the British Navy is sent (along with a French squadron) to destroy the Ottoman fleet in Navarino Bay (1827).
- The negative effects of humanitarian behavior must be recognized, however. Powerful states, even acting on humanitarian grounds, are likely to scare others. Public statements are not likely to assuage concerns.
- The realist response to this problem is to argue “don’t do it.” There are, however, clearly normative and path dependent barriers to this prescription. Instead, we should consider intervening only when we can make our purely humanitarian motives credible, that is, using credible commitments to signal benign intentions.
- The great power concert system of the nineteenth century, where humanitarian intervention is allowed only with the sanction of all great powers, provides a way forward. Here, if there was no unanimity in favor of intervention, then it did not occur.
- Application of a similar system today would likely reduce the number and spate of interventions, but may assuage the concerns of other states that HMI is a pretext for humanitarian expansion.
Rapporteur: Joshua Shifrinson
back to Wednesday Seminar Series, Fall 2009