When is it right to intervene militarily?

Most of us like to think of ourselves as peace-loving but equally we like to feel that we care about injustice in the world and want to do something about it. Sometimes these values come into conflict and the right thing to do is to intervene with armed forces. This approach is sometimes called “liberal interventionism” and the concept was defended this week in a thoughtful speech by Jonathan Powell, former Chief of Staff to Tony Blair when the latter was Prime Minister. You can read an extract from his speech here.

Powell very briefly reviews Blair’s wars, of which there were four: Sierra Leone, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. Generally speaking the first three of these are judged to have been the right thing to do. Iraq is seen as ‘a war too far’ and certainly it it was executed in disastrous fashion by the United States, but this does not invalidate the case for “liberal intervention” although it may well weaken the resolve of the Western powers to carry out further such interventions in the future.

This is not an academic matter. Even now, as explained in this article, Kosovo and Bosnia (which I visited recently [my account here]) are in a terribly fragile state that might well require some military muscle behind efforts at diplomacy. Kosovo wants independence – as I explained in my “Forgotten World” series here – but, if it acts against the will of Serbia (backed by Russia), Serbia could back a breakaway by Serbs in Bosnia leading to the collapse of that state and possibly more bloodshed.

Of course, we do not have the moral right or the military resources to intervene everywhere that repression and war is threatened and, in his speech, Powell reminds us of the five conditions proposed by Blair to justify “liberal interventionism”:
1. We need to be sure of our case. War is a very imperfect instrument for righting wrongs, but armed force is sometimes the only way of replacing dictatorships.
2. Have we exhausted all diplomatic options? We should always give peace every chance.
3. Are there practical and sensible military options? Sending gunboats to Zimbabwe won’t work.
4. Are we prepared for the long term? We talk about exit strategies, but we cannot just walk away when a fight is over.
5. Do we have national interests engaged? That does not mean oil, but do we promote our own security better by protecting the rights of others in a particular situation?


  • Calvin Allen

    Interesting comments about the war in Kosovo, because this is one issue which has clearly not gone away. As you might have seen from the excellent International Crisis Group article in last Wednesday’s Guardian, Serbian President Kostunica has come out in open support of the Bosnian Serbs in Republika Srpska should Kosovo gain independence, such that the possibility of war in BiH again becomes very, very real. The results of the elections in Kosovo this weekend set the path of independence very clearly. You might also have a look at the Media Intelligence Agency’s weekly round-up of the news from a couple of weeks ago: http://www.miabalkan.com/Examiner%20110507.pdf clearly setting out the continuing tensions in the region.