Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Toward a Realist Ethics of Intervention

Academic journal article Ethics & International Affairs

Toward a Realist Ethics of Intervention

Article excerpt

Most considerations of the ethics of intervention in international relations attempt to reconcile within a common moral framework claims of humanitarian obligation, sovereign rights, international order, and the just use of coercive force. (1) The obvious normative intent of much of this writing is to contribute to the establishment of a compelling case for the provision of assistance, often in the face of physical resistance and legal objections, to humans who are suffering. Yet a survey of the incidence and progress of force-backed interventions over the past decade would suggest that the efforts of these scholars and jurists have had little traction either within most foreign ministries or on the ground among populations subject to humanitarian concern. Convincing moral cases for a general obligation to intervene have had little effect on the rising tide of postintervention peace-building fatigue that has resulted from ongoing obligations to ensure stability after various interventions. Regimes in Pyongyang, Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and Harare have likewise been unmoved by powerful moral-legal arguments about sovereignty being conditional on a government's respect for the well-being of its citizens (2)--as has the UN Security Council. And as postconflict peacekeepers in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, and Iraq remain powerless to resolve deep communal hatreds, gratitude for the initial interventions among local populations has begun to ebb away. Despite the euphoric claims made about the new moral framework for humanitarian intervention after NATO's Operation Allied Force in Kosovo, considerations of interest, viability, and partiality continue to drive the pattern of interventions.

If ethical inquiry about intervention is to have practical impact, it must range further than purely conceptual discussions of obligations, rights, order, and just war. It must, in short, learn from realism, taking into account considerations that resonate within foreign ministries and on the ground in societies in distress. My intention in this article is to approach the ethics of humanitarian intervention from a more empirical standpoint by presenting a history of humanitarian intervention as a process of evolution through successive stages featuring different dominant rationales and forms. I argue that humanitarian intervention should be discussed in a broader and different historical context than is typical. This context is the rise of developed states' concerns about the domestic institutions and practices of developing states after the 1970s. This "new" interventionism--different from traditional interventionism that was based primarily on considerations of strategic advantage (3)--raised to new prominence in international relations a set of ethical issues concerning political community and obligation. (4) The forces driving the evolution of humanitarian intervention through successive dominant forms have been the internal normative contradictions of each stage and the persistence of concerns about the internal workings of postcolonial, and, later, post-communist states.

My empirical-historical approach to the ethics of humanitarian intervention leads to a conviction that a different set of moral issues, informed by realist considerations, needs to be addressed in creating an effective normative framework for intervention. After outlining this alternative set of moral issues in the next section, I use the following four sections to demonstrate that each "phase" of humanitarian intervention--which I term economic, political, human rights, and governance interventionism--has suffered from an inability to reconcile these normative issues in a way that directly impacts on interventions' effectiveness. In the conclusion I suggest that the current phase of concern with transnational security, if powerful enough to drive a general realignment of conceptions of interests and obligations, presents us with the best chance to construct a common normative framework under-girding humanitarian interventions. …

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