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Uniformed military member hands child a pallet of bottled water next to a helicopter.
February 10, 2023

Is Humanitarian Intervention Possible?

Using military force to solve humanitarian crises gained popularity after the Cold War, but decades of foreign policy blunders have called it into question.

Since the end of the Cold War, the question of whether humanitarian crises justify military intervention has played a prominent role in foreign policy debates. While the collapse of the Soviet Union at the dawn of the 1990s gave the United States a free hand to employ military power in the name of liberal values and human rights, the debacles in Afghanistan and Iraq a decade later exposed the cynical uses to which humanitarian rhetoric could be put. The humanitarian crises unleashed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which is nearing its first anniversary, have only made the question of when and how to intervene more urgent. 

As historian Daniel Bessner discusses in a 2018 review of books by international relations scholar John Mearsheimer and political theorist Michael Walzer, perspectives on post–Cold War U.S. foreign policy come in two main varieties: realism and internationalism. Where realism is associated with restraint—some might even say isolationism—and a concern for the balance of power, internationalism insists on a moral duty to promote liberal democratic values globally as well as a practical interest in doing so.

While Bessner criticizes the realist position espoused by Measheimer for its tendency to “reify” great power competition, he is equally—if not more—skeptical of Walzer’s internationalist faith in the ability of “humanitarian intervention” to promote peace, justice, and stability abroad, a faith that Bessner considers an anachronistic holdover from the 1990s. For those aiming to chart a course out of the impasses created by the last two decades of U.S. foreign policy blunders, he writes, the key question “is how to integrate these two types of foreign policies into a coherent program that is popular, effective, and wise—no easy task.”  

Meanwhile, for political scientist Adom Getachew, the challenge of how to respond to humanitarian crises requires placing them in an international context that is rarely considered. Reviewing the development of the “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) framework, which was adopted in the early 2000s in an effort to reassert the primacy of international law after the excesses of U.S. unilateralism in Iraq, Getachew argues that its focus on “specific instances of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity” is too narrow, inattentive to the global structures that give rise to humanitarian crises in the first place. “The liberal internationalism of R2P demands little of us,” she writes. “It conceives of responsibility primarily in the form of a bomb.” Instead, she emphasizes the need for non-military solutions that prioritize diplomacy, reparations for past injustices, and global cooperation. 

Other essays on this week’s list look at the concept of humanitarian intervention from a variety of historical, geographical, and disciplinary perspectives, including Michael Ignatieff’s reflections on the parallels between Bosnia and the Syria; archival essays from Christopher Hitchens and Noam Chomsky on the hypocrisy of imperialists and the propaganda value of human rights; Sam Lebovic’s review of Stephen Wertheim’s history of U.S. global supremacy; Sarah Sewall on the concept of genocide; Caroll Bogert on Burundi; and more.

It is time to develop a new geostrategy unencumbered by past traumas.

Daniel Bessner

The UN's “responsibility to protect” framework has failed to achieve a just international order. The Caribbean movement for reparations points the way forward.

Adom Getachew

When state order collapses, every confessional or ethnic group asks one question: Who will protect us now?

Michael Ignatieff
Putin's war in Ukraine breaks the rules, but powerful states always do. Far from dying, a just global order remains to be built.
Simon Waxman

An anti-genocide policy that works.

Sarah Sewall

What's really at stake in debates about humanitarian intervention is not human rights, but modern imperialism.

Christopher Hitchens

Are states moral agents?

Noam Chomsky

Debating humanitarian intervention.

Carroll Bogert

U.S. political elites sold the United Nations to the public as a route to global peace. In reality they wanted it as a cover for militarization.

Sam Lebovic

How military intervention became the norm.

John Tirman

The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan sacrificed politics—the only viable route to peace—for massive corruption and violence.

Faisal Devji

Two British reports deliver a damning and decisive verdict on the politics of interventionism.

Alex de Waal

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