GENEVA – With France launching its third “humanitarian” military operation in as many years – this time in the Central African Republic – interventionism, which seemed discredited after the US invasion of Iraq, seems to have returned as an accepted norm in international affairs. Indeed, decades of relentless intervention have shifted the terms of debate, with recent operations justified by their achievability rather than their merit. To understand how this shift occurred is to see why, more often than not, such intervention has failed to attain its objectives.
As France’s recent actions demonstrate, intervention nowadays requires nothing more than a unilateral decree of humanitarian or counter-terrorism objectives, an atmosphere of urgency, and an ambiguous link to ongoing United Nations deliberations. A military operation might also be referred to the UN Security Council, but only after the fact, when the Council’s decision can no longer significantly affect events on the ground.
This is the upshot of an intellectual movement that began almost 35 years ago – and that has facilitated no fewer than a dozen interventions in just over two decades. In 1979, Jean-François Revel introduced the phrase “devoir d’ingérence” (duty to intervene); in 1980, Mario Bettati wrote of a “devoir d’assistance” (duty to assist); and, in 1988, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution referring to “humanitarian assistance.”
In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, led by Gareth Evans and Mohamed Sahnoun, codified the concept of humanitarian military expeditions under the so-called Responsibility to Protect doctrine. Despite disputes over R2P’s legal basis, the doctrine gained rapid recognition – not least because the various schools of interventionism united behind it.
It helped that, during the geopolitical interregnum of the 1990’s, humanitarian intervention had become the go-to solution for the world’s growing impatience with underdevelopment. A new typology in the social sciences developed practically overnight and became a staple of policymaking, with “fragile,” “weak,” “failed,” or “rogue” states signifying a danger that overshadowed any contextualized analysis of cause and effect.
At the end of this process, the question remains: What impact has intervention had on the countries that it is supposed to be helping?
Rooted in civil-society activism, humanitarian intervention has broken into the normative practice of international affairs during militarized transitions, such as those that followed the Cold War, the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the Arab Spring. But there is little evidence that intervention resolves the problems that inspire it.
This can be explained largely by the growing dissonance between the reasoning for intervention – namely, the undeniable underperformance of post-colonial states – and the remedies offered. In fact, military solutions have perpetuated the very flaws that they were meant to repair.
In a sense, the current wave of armed interventions – beginning with the United States-led operation in Iraq in 2003 – resembles the colonization of parts of Africa a century ago. In circumventing the Security Council and establishing a fictional link between the alleged presence of weapons of mass destruction and the need to “save” the Iraqi people, then-President George W. Bush’s administration introduced an updated model for remaking a third country unilaterally, dealing a heavy blow to international law in the process.
A decade later, US-liberated Iraq remains stuck in a low-intensity civil war, just as French-protected Mali is consumed by volatility and NATO-rescued Libya remains mired in chaos. Given this track record, why should anyone expect military intervention in the Central African Republic to play out any differently?
To be sure, local actors bear substantial responsibility for post-intervention breakdowns. But the intervention doctrine’s failure to resolve the issues of legitimacy, consistency, and purpose also plays a critical role. Indeed, the fact that fundamental questions – like who should intervene and to what end – remain unanswered mars both the theory and the practice of R2P. Was military intervention really necessary in Côte d’Ivoire, for example, to resolve what was essentially an electoral dispute?
Similarly, much like the misleading “ticking time bomb” scenario has served to rationalize torture, the “imminent massacre” argument is used to justify immediate intervention. But such logic vacillates in the face of realpolitik: the international community intervened, for example, when 2,000 Libyans might have been killed, but not when 115,000 Syrians actually were killed.
Both systemically and behaviorally, acceptance of interventionism is a sign of the times. The continuing failure of the post-colonial state, the threat posed by transnational armed groups, and the weakness of regional organizations obscure the nonchalance of major powers that now land troops with only a vague idea about what to do the morning after.
In fact, what happens next is that troubled countries’ neighbors enjoy a free geostrategic hand. In this way, normalized intervention may be taking the international order into a new era of naked power struggles.
It is time for world leaders to recognize that intervention is more than ineffective; it can be destructive. In the name of protecting humanity, irresponsible interventionism over the last three decades has weakened the very foundations of international affairs: sovereignty, legality, and responsibility.