Ethics & International Affairs Volume 18.2 (Fall 2004): Book Reviews: Ethics and Foreign Intervention [Full Text]

Sep 28, 2004

Steven P. Lee (reviewer)

Through the 1990s and into this decade, humanitarian intervention, the subject of this volume, has been a favored topic among those writing on the ethics of warfare. This collection is a valuable contribution to this body of work. The volume benefits not only from a strong group of contributors, but also from its late position in the ten-year-old debate. The basic arguments about humanitarian intervention are now better understood and developed than they were in earlier years, and the world has had more practical experience of actual cases of humanitarian intervention. Many of the essays acknowledge the importance of this practical experience. A number of them discuss the 1999 NATO war over Kosovo in the context of the theoretical considerations they present.

The essays vary in strength, but all are worthy of consideration. The editors divide them into four areas: the conceptual and normative terrain (essays by Stanley Hoffman and Chris Brown); just war perspectives and limits (Michael Blake, George R. Lucas, Henry Shue, and Erin Kelly); secession and international law (Tom Farer, Christine Chwaszcza, and Allen Buchanan); and the critique of interventionism (Richard W. Miller, Iris Marion Young, and C. A. J. Coady). But this division does not capture the richness of the array of issues discussed in the volume nor the complexity of the overlap in the way these issues are taken up in different of the essays.

Several of the authors observe that there is a rough consensus that humanitarian intervention is justified occasionally (as in the case of genocide) but not often. The threshold for the justification of humanitarian intervention is high, though not insurmountable. There is disagreement about precisely how high the threshold is; for example, as to whether human rights violations short of genocide can justify intervention. More importantly, there is disagreement about the best justification for the consensus claim, and it is only by settling this latter disagreement that we can settle the former. Miller claims that there are three principal approaches to justifying humanitarian intervention: one based on the idea of reciprocity among peoples, as presented by John Rawls; one based on the value of communal autonomy, as developed by Michael Walzer; and a third based on claims about a decline in the moral force of sovereignty, as explored by Stanley Hoffman, including in his essay in this volume. It is characteristic of the third approach to explain the high threshold of justification by pointing to the many negative consequences that tend to follow from the use of military force, even for humanitarian reasons (these consequences partly constituting the limited moral force remaining to sovereignty in the contemporary world). In this sense, the third approach is the one most commonly taken by these authors and others. Coady and Blake argue explicitly for this approach, in Blake's case through a criticism of the Rawlsian approach.

As discussed by several of the authors, a significant consequentialist drawback to permitting humanitarian intervention is the likelihood that major powers will abuse the permission by using a humanitarian rationale to cover pursuit of their own interests. For this reason, Miller argues for a distinction between the public rules that should regulate humanitarian intervention and the basis on which individuals should determine the justifiability of such intervention. Given that the public rules are subject to abuse, they should be more restrictive than morality would allow were abuse not a problem. This view is also discussed briefly by Farer.

One theme discussed by some of the authors, including Hoffman and Coady, is the contrast between humanitarian intervention understood as mere rescue (a quick in-and-out operation) and humanitarian intervention understood as involving a long-term military presence and efforts at "nation building." This relates to a topic of growing interest, especially given the Iraq war, of jus post bellum, the justice of actions taken in the aftermath of victory in a war. As Coady observes, while mere rescue is liable to be futile, given that it does nothing to change the dynamic of the underlying social problems leading to the humanitarian crisis, an extended military stay involving regime change and efforts at nation building, given the strength of nationalism and strong feelings for local self-determination, is liable to lead to the problems of colonialism.

Let me mention briefly some other themes. One of these, considered in different ways by Shue, Lucas, and Kelly, is the nature of the jus in bello requirements applicable to a humanitarian intervener. A second theme, discussed by Buchanan, Farer, and Chwaszcza, is the relation between humanitarian intervention and the morality of secession. A third theme, explored especially by Lucas and Coady, is the adequacy of just war theory when applied to humanitarian wars. A fourth theme, discussed especially by Brown, is the question of whether states that intervene selectively, as all interveners do, are morally at fault for doing so. Additionally, there is discussion, especially in the essays by Young and Coady, of the role of coercive approaches short of military force, such as diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions. The justification of coercion may not necessarily be a justification of military force. This relates to another topic discussed by several authors: the role of the just war last-resort criterion in assessing the justifiability of humanitarian intervention.

In their helpful introduction to the volume, the editors ask a crucial question: Is the frequent practice of humanitarian intervention in the 1990s the beginning of a long-term trend or a historical aberration? Unfortunately, these essays were probably written too close to 9/11 to have the perspective needed to answer this question. Coady notes that after 9/11, humanitarian intervention may be replaced with punitive or retributive intervention. The public rationale for the Iraq war is at least partly humanitarian, and, indeed, the overthrow of that regime represented a humanitarian advance. But whether the war can be justified on humanitarian grounds is an open question. More to the point, does the "war against terrorism" and the current administration's "preemptive strategy" indicate that we should not expect the United States in the future to take on wars that are primarily rather than incidentally humanitarian? If so, then we may indeed come to see the 1990s' focus on humanitarian intervention as an aberration.

-STEVEN P. LEE, Ethics Center, United States Naval Academy; and Philosophy Department, Hobart and William Smith Colleges

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