Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Models of Humanitarian Intervention: Assessing the Past and Discerning the Future

Models of Humanitarian Intervention: Assessing the Past and Discerning the Future

We have been asked to consider four models of intervention. These are defined along a continuum consisting of (1) abstention, or no military intervention at all (Rwanda); (2) relief of the disaster without addressing its political causes (the policy of the Bush administration in Somalia); (3) relief of the disaster plus imposing a semblance of political order by securing in power a particular local and friendly political figure (Haiti and Sierra Leone); and (4) reconstruction of the entire political system of the afflicted country, along the lines of some sort of liberal, democratic, and even multicultural system (Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, and the policy of the Clinton administration in Somalia).

The Abstention Model

During the past decade, there have been at least eight cases where the humanitarian disaster has reached the level of either more than 100,000 violent deaths or more than 1 million refugees, but where neither the United States nor the United Nations has undertaken any military intervention to stop that disaster. The most famous, indeed infamous, case was Rwanda in 1994, but other cases that fit this definition have been Sudan, Burundi, Congo, Angola, Afghanistan, Chechnya, and Colombia (in each of which the humanitarian disaster is still going on today).

In most of these cases, no one in the executive branch of the U.S. government argued for U.S. military intervention nor did anyone in Congress do so. (Even the Black Congressional Caucus, which pressed for military intervention in Haiti in 1994, did not do so in regard to the far greater humanitarian disasters in Africa.) Within the general public, there was no call for military intervention. Indeed, not even the so-called humanitarian and human-rights organizations within the United States and their lobby in Washington called for intervention with U.S. military forces. Furthermore, with the important exception of Rwanda, virtually no one who is engaged in the current debate over humanitarian intervention is now condemning non- intervention by the United States in regard to these many cases of humanitarian disaster.

The normal policy, the default policy, in regard to humanitarian disasters has not been humanitarian intervention but rather humanitarian isolation, i.e., abstention. Abstention is also the safe policy, at least for policymakers. Abstention is very likely to be forgotten, even forgiven, by the usual advocates of humanitarian intervention — the humanitarian and human rights lobby which is principally located in Washington, the media, and academia— once the humanitarian disaster is over or, even if the disaster continues, once their restless attention moves on to some new, and more exciting, humanitarian disaster elsewhere.

The Relief Model

It might seem that intervention that was limited to securing the immediate relief of a humanitarian disaster— a famine, for example — would be a modest, sensible, and prudent way to undertake humanitarian intervention. Indeed, this is exactly what the Bush administration thought it was doing in Somalia in December 1992 and what the British and French governments thought they were doing in Bosnia a few months earlier. The later sorry course and shameful failure of the U.S. intervention in Somalia in 1993 and the U.N. intervention in Bosnia in 1993-1995 demonstrated, however, that the relief version of humanitarian intervention could easily become a disaster in itself.

The relief model is, in practice, an unstable equilibrium. However limited and moderate it might seem in concept, if in the real-world there are conflicting interests and warring parties and forcible entry into the afflicted country is required, a relief operation either must be expanded into relief plus or even beyond (as the Clinton administration tried and failed to do in Somalia), or it must be abandoned and become abstention (as the Clinton administration then did in Somalia and as the U.N. in effect did in Bosnia). By now, there is enough experience to indicate that relief alone is not a practical model for humanitarian intervention, if forcible entry into the afflicted country is required. Today, almost no one is arguing for this kind of intervention.

The Relief Plus Model

If sustained relief is not possible unless a semblance of political order is restored, then the next stage of humanitarian intervention is to select a local and friendly political leader and to put him into power. This is the model of relief plus. It is what the United States did in Haiti in 1994.

Indeed, this is what the United States has done on numerous occasions in the Caribbean and Central America over the past century. Examples have been Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua in the 1900s-1930s, the Dominican Republic in 1965, Grenada in 1983, and Panama in 1989. The United States has undertaken this kind of intervention so often and so regularly that it might be seen as “the American way of intervention.”

Relief plus thus is a very traditional, indeed classical, kind of intervention. It is also very feasible. Political order is restored relatively quickly and cheaply. The disaster which was produced by the disorder (or by an excessively-oppressive order) soon subsides, the intervention can be concluded, and the U.S. soldiers can be withdrawn.

This kind of military intervention, therefore, is quite effective at ending a humanitarian disaster. However, the new political regime which has been installed by U.S. military force can be almost as oppressive or disruptive as the old one, and fundamental humanitarian problems, such as widespread poverty and disease, remain. This has certainly been true of Haiti since 1994. It is normal in such cases that, a couple of years after the intervention has been concluded, many of its original advocates have become discouraged or perhaps even embarrassed. They avert their eyes from what is happening in the country and turn their attention elsewhere. The moral meaning of the intervention, which once seemed so clear and compelling, becomes confusing and ambiguous.

Humanitarian interventions on the model of relief plus are likely to continue to be undertaken by the United States from time to time, especially in the Caribbean and Central America. (One can readily conceive of one in Cuba in the aftermath of the death of Fidel Castro.) These interventions are also likely to be relatively effective in ending the humanitarian disaster (although not endemic humanitarian problems, like poverty and disease). Liberal advocates of humanitarian intervention, however, will not see these interventions as being humanitarian but as being merely the selfish pursuit of U.S. strategic and economic interests.

The Reconstruction Model

The most ambitious kind of humanitarian intervention, of course, is aimed at organizing the entire political system of a country, along the lines of some sort of liberal, democratic or even multicultural system — the famous “nation-building.” This is the model of reconstruction. The contemporary efforts are those of NATO and the U.N. in Bosnia and Kosovo and of the U.N. in East Timor. The classical examples are the American occupations of Germany, Austria, Italy, and Japan after the Second World War. The great success of the American occupations in the task of reconstruction has been an inspiration to advocates of nation-building for half a century, rather like the great success of the Marshall Plan has been an inspiration to advocates of economic development.

Discerning economic historians, however, have noted that the Marshall Plan was aimed at the REconstruction of the European economies after their destruction in the Second World War, not at their development upward to an entirely new economic stage. Similarly, discerning political historians should note that the American occupations were aimed at the REconstruction of the liberal-democratic political systems that had existed in Germany, Austria, Italy and Japan in the 1920s, before their destruction by Nazism, Fascism, or militarism in the interwar period.

This kind of reconstruction is not what is happening in Bosnia and Kosovo, nor can it ever happen there. These countries have never had a liberal-democratic political system in their entire history. What the United States and its NATO and U.N. allies have been attempting in Bosnia and Kosovo is not REconstruction but a NEW construction, which is a very different and more demanding task. It should be no surprise that very little political construction has actually occurred in Bosnia and Kosovo, certainly not construction toward a liberal, democratic, and multicultural political system.

In Bosnia and Kosovo, we see once again how the moral meaning of a humanitarian intervention can quickly change from certainty to ambiguity, after the passage of only a couple of years. In each case, the military intervention achieved an unambiguous and indisputable moral good of the highest importance: the stopping of the killing, at least killing on a large scale. But that is about the only moral aspect of the interventions and their aftermaths that remains unambiguous and undisputed. Once again, many of the original advocates of the interventions have become discouraged or even embarrassed (especially by the brutal and criminal behavior of Albanian gangs in Kosovo and now in Macedonia, but also by the intolerant and corrupt behavior of Muslim officials in Bosnia).

The reconstruction model is likely to prove as much or more disappointing, were it to be attempted someplace in most of the other regions of the world. Virtually no country in Africa, the Middle East, or Southeast Asia has the historical experiences or the social conditions that would enable the construction (it could hardly be the REconstruction) of a liberal or democratic political system. For the most part, the only regions that have some of the historical experiences or social conditions that are necessary for successful political reconstruction are Western and Central Europe (where humanitarian disasters are unlikely), East Asia, such as South Korea and Taiwan (where the strategic calculations would dwarf any humanitarian concerns), and perhaps Latin America (where, as we have seen, the more likely model for U.S. military intervention is relief plus, which is merely the selection and support of a local and friendly political leader).

Humanitarian Intervention: the Talk Versus the Walk

Given the generally unimpressive or discouraging experience of the United States with humanitarian intervention, why do some Americans — particularly the humanitarian and human rights lobby located in Washington, the media, and academia— continue to argue and agitate for it? There are a number of positive political, ideological, and moral reasons, and these have been presented by other authors. However, I think that the negative reason of sheer ignorance should not be underestimated. Very few of the usual advocates for humanitarian intervention have ever actually lived in the country where they want to intervene, at least for a period of more than three months. Virtually none of the advocates of humanitarian intervention have ever actually served in the U.S. military forces which they want to send into combat. Indeed, virtually none of them have any family members or even know any friends who have served in the military. In short, most advocates of humanitarian intervention simply do not know what they are talking about. For an advocate of a humanitarian intervention to be taken seriously, it ought to be a requirement that he or she has lived in the country at issue and has served in the U.S. military or at least has family or friends who have done so.

In conclusion, our assessment of the past experiences of the United States with the four models of humanitarian intervention gives rise to rather modest expectations for humanitarian intervention in the future. There will be further interventions on the model of relief, but these will largely be limited to evacuating citizens of the United States or perhaps other Western countries from the scene of the humanitarian disaster. There will be further interventions on the model of relief plus, but almost all of these will be in the Caribbean or Central America. There may be further interventions on the model of reconstruction, but these will be rare, and the local conditions that will enable a successful reconstruction will make each case virtually unique. Instead, the normal model for humanitarian intervention will be — and should be — abstention, or no U.S. military intervention at all.

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