The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Humanitarian interventions bad

November 6, 2005

Ivo Daalder an email from Stephen Cimbala attacking humanitarian interventions. Here’s a representative expert:

The mechanics of Bush policy are bad enough, but the discussions on policy related Websites show that, in academia as in policy studies, there is insufficient regard for geostrategy and military history – including American history. The Philippine insurrection that followed our victory over Spain was a preview of postwar Iraq from 2003 to 2005. And has anyone seen The Battle of Algiers?

Cimbala’s a distinguished expert on these issues, but I have to wonder: what does the history of two colonial insurrections, and one anti-occupation war, tell us about the general category of humanitarian intervention? I would answer, “not so much.”

You can go read the whole thing if you want. A lot of argument ad populum (scholars and policy makers don’t pay enough attention to the opinions of “Middle America”), invocations of ‘lessons of history,’ and the like, mixed in with some useful points about adequate planning.

At the end of the day, Cimbala paints a rather stark choice: using military force only to defend “vital” American interests or engaging in inappropriate “imperialist” projects such as those involved in humanitarian interventions. My problems with this argument are many. What’s a “vital interest,” particularly in a world in which failed states become havens for terrorists? What is the ethical position that makes “vital interests” the only basis for the use of force? It seems to me we’ve ‘been here, done that’ before (e.g., the “selective engagement” debate of the early 1990s), and what we learned was that “vital interests” quickly becomes the equivalent of “never.” What “vital interests,” after all, were clearly at stake for the US in World War II?

None of this, of course, answers the cogent questions Mal posed in a comment thread below, which involve precisely how we decide the relevant balance of interests and under what conditions opt for military action. But I think that there is a pragmatic medium between “never” and “always.”

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.