Does Military Intervention Work?

OXFORD – Because peacekeeping initiatives in post-conflict countries are expensive and complex, and because the war in Iraq has undermined rich nations’ belief in their likely success, a dispassionate look at the use of military intervention is timely. A new study for the Copenhagen Consensus project that includes the first ever cost-benefit analysis of United Nations peacekeeping initiatives concludes that military might is an important tool for reducing bloodshed around the world.

Iraq is a misleading guide to the effectiveness of such initiatives. Unlike the vast majority of conflicts, its civil war was sparked by an international war. The far more typical scenario is political violence within a small, low-income, low-growth nation burdened with strong ethnic divisions. 

Dealing with these structurally dangerous countries is clearly one of our generation’s most pressing security challenges. There is good reason to think that trouble will escalate.  Half of all civil wars are post-conflict relapses, and recent negotiated peace settlements have left many countries unstable. The commodity boom and discovery of mineral resources in fragile states have sown seeds of discord, while the spread of democracy in low-income countries – perhaps surprisingly – increases the statistical likelihood of political violence.

Some believe that countries in conflict should be left to sort themselves out. But compassion and self-interest dictate against this approach. Modern civil wars are horrific. They overwhelmingly affect civilians in the poorest and most desperate environments on Earth. Rich nations don’t fall victim to political violence, but do bear some of its costs. After all, broken societies are havens for illegality, whether drug trafficking or training of terrorists.