Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Morality of Humanitarian Intervention

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Morality of Humanitarian Intervention

Article excerpt

This note will include an introductory comment on the need for new thinking in foreign policy, a clarification of why the specific issue of humanitarian intervention forces us to reconsider fundamental themes of international relations, an examination of the legal and moral debates surrounding humanitarian intervention, an overview of guidelines which might inform our judgment about supporting humanitarian intervention, and a concluding reflection about the moral and political challenge before us.

A New World Order (Disorder)?

Today we find ourselves in a new global situation, but how best to describe that situation and determine the suitable response are matters under review. Part of our unease regarding foreign policy is that many of the old signposts and historical lessons which guided our thinking seem to have disappeared along with the Kremlin's Politburo.

Yale historian Gaddis Smith suggests that in foreign policy we have had a "half-century of certainty-through-analogy."(1) Starting with Truman and continuing to Reagan, every president "invoked a rolling sequence of historical analogies. The United States must never again dismantle its armed forces as it did after 1918, never again be a party to appeasement; Americans must strive to carry out the vision of Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt"(2) The Berlin airlift, the Korean war, the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam conflict all were part of the "towering scaffold of analogy"(3) from which American presidents viewed the world. For Smith, Nazi Germany, then imperial Japan, and finally Soviet Communism offered American leaders an "overriding purpose: to prevail against a perceived threat to the very survival of the United States.... Difficulty lay only in settling on the most effective means," but it was no trouble to define a purpose or to muster the will to act.(4) Smith maintains that the end of the bipolar world has left the U.S. unsure of how to think about international affairs.

As a result of the fundamental changes in the world and the search for new frameworks to rethink affairs, what one finds throughout the literature are attempts at developing new paradigms for understanding events and guiding policy makers. In many cases the proposed paradigms suggest some modification of the Realpolitik that marked U.S. foreign policy since World War II. The decline of superpower competition has led to the belief that realism ought to be tempered with an idealism which grants broader influence to human rights, collective security arrangements, development assistance, and environmental protection in the formulation of policy goals. At the same time commentators recommend caution concerning the speed with which, and the degree to which, realist assumptions are revised.(5)

An Old Issue, A New Context

Foreign interventions are hardly a new item on the agenda of international relations. But even old problems require reexamination when the global context shifts dramatically. Properly speaking, intervention is a species of interference. In the modem world no state can expect to be free of interference even in domestic affairs. The interconnectedness of economic life seen in practices of trade, capital investment, and monetary policy, along with institutions like transnational corporations, all make the isolation of a domestic economy from other national economies unlikely. In a similar fashion there are bonds between peoples that cross national boundaries. Human beings have multiple loyalties, e.g. religious, ethnic, class, ideological ties, that prevent states from enveloping citizens in a territorial cocoon. Problems of the environment, refugees, or drug trafficking require that nations act in concert. All these factors point out the futility of any state's ambition to avoid outside interference in its domestic affairs.

Intervention can be defined as "dictatorial interference in the internal affairs of another state involving the use or threat of force, or substantially debilitating economic coercion. …

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