An Immense Charge: Realist Lessons about the Consequences of Intervention

An Immense Charge: Realist Lessons about the Consequences of Intervention

In his March 17, 2003 speech delivering a final ultimatum to Saddam Hussein, President George W.

Over time, international commitment to an intervention will wane. When interventions are multilateral, it is inevitable that the contributing states will necessarily be acting under the influence of different motivations, even if the overriding rubric is "humanitarianism." It is part and parcel of international politics that different states will have different interests. Eventually, circumstances will change and interests will diverge. When this happens, the multilateral intervention force's cohesiveness begins to fall apart. During the Liberian civil war of the 1990s, for example, the ECOMOG forces were bedeviled by political rivalries resulting in part from the concern of member states about Nigeria's hegemonic designs. In Iraq, a totally unforeseen event, the Madrid bombings of March 11, led to the defeat of the governing People's Party and the ascendancy of a Socialist government that pulled out of the Coalition. Given the entropic tendencies of ad hoc coalitions, humanitarian interventions, when undertaken, should have clearly delimited objectives and a defined exit strategy.

Despite these limits, presently, at least in general principle if not in practical application to specific cases, no foreign policy seems more benign and enjoys such international consensus as that of humanitarian military intervention. Not only does military intervention appear easily feasible given the overwhelming superiority of Western (especially American) forces over any in the underdeveloped countries where humanitarian crises usually occur, but as Professor Alan J. Kuperman of Johns Hopkins University noted recently, humanitarian intervention is "rooted in the altruistic desire to protect innocents from violent death" especially when "the only obvious costs are a modest financial commitment and the occasional casualty."[iii] However, as Dimitri K. Simes observed in his eloquent defense of the realist approach to foreign policy in The National Interest,[iv] while few realists are opposed to the idea that morality ought to play a part in the formulation of foreign policy, "most believe in the morality of results rather than the morality of intentions." And careful analysis of the historical evidence cautions that, over the long term, the benefits of humanitarian military interventions are smaller and the costs far greater than their advocates usually recognize.

According to the Baron de Montesquieu, a rational concern for general security, as well as moral principle, imposes upon the just victor-which is, after all, what a militarily successful intervention force is-a responsibility "to repair a part of the damage he has done." Thus the sage of The Spirit of the Laws concluded, "I define thus the right of conquest: a necessary, legitimate and unhappy right, which always leaves an immense charge to be paid, in order to acquit one's debts to human nature." While there will be circumstances when humanitarian intervention will be necessary, those who would urge it would do well to contemplate the charge that they would take on, tempering their altruistic instincts with a proper regard for the lessons of history, present day political and logistical realities, and the timeless limits of human nature.      

Dr. J. Peter Pham, a former diplomat, is the author, most recently, of Liberia: Portrait of a Failed State (Reed Press).

[i] See my commentary "Déjà vu in Port-au-Prince?" INTI 3/9 (March 3, 2004), at .

[ii] The failure of the donors to remove the political leaders and uniformed soldiers from the camps led two aid groups, the French section of Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to withdraw in light of the consequences of the militarized camps for the refugees and the region. See Fiona Terry, Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action (Ithaca/London: Cornell University Press, 2002), 155-215.

[iii] See Alan J. Kuperman, "Humanitarian Hazard: Revisiting Doctrines of Intervention," Harvard International Review 26/1 (Spring 2004): 64-68.

[iv] See Dimitri K. Simes, "Realism: It's High-Minded…and It Works," The National Interest 74 (Winter 2003-2004): 168-172.