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Is Humanitarian War the Exception?

April 4, 2011

Tags Global EconomyWar and Foreign Policy

Many people who otherwise oppose war in general terms make an exception for a so-called humanitarian war, such as the war in Libya. The idea is that this kind of war is waged for disinterested, altruistic reasons. These people are in urgent need of a Hazlittesque analysis of humanitarian intervention.

"Humanitarian intervention" refers to a state using military force against another state when the chief publicly declared aim of that military action is ending human-rights violations being perpetrated by the state against which it is directed.

The reasons why humanitarian intervention is an extremely bad idea are many. Some are obvious, but many more are less immediately apparent, albeit no less harmful. They include

  • Humanitarian intervention is funded by taxation, which is theft.

  • The cover of humanitarian intervention can allow a state to launch a war under pretenses that have nothing to do with the true aim of the war.

  • Military action will result in innocents being killed or injured and their property damaged or polluted.

  • War psychosis in the intervening country can be used to prop up the power of that country's rulers and scale down the civil liberties of its subjects.

  • At any given point in time, numerous states are involved in violations of human rights, so the principle of humanitarian intervention taken to its logical conclusion is a recipe for endless war.

  • Humanitarian intervention sends out a signal to the downtrodden around the world that instead of fighting for their rights themselves, they should campaign for an intervention by a foreign power.

  • Humanitarian intervention can serve to convince the public of the positive aspects of adventuristic foreign policy, of militarism, and of disregard for the principle of national sovereignty. It can serve to rehabilitate the idea of imperialism and to build up moral capital for empire, which can then be expended launching wars of other kinds.

These less obvious negative aspects of humanitarian intervention are connected to the way in which the intervention changes the dynamics of the conflict with which it interferes:

  • The group on whose behalf intervention may be launched receives incentives to shift resources away from waging a regular or irregular war and toward waging a propaganda war to bring about or broaden the extent of intervention on its behalf. It receives incentives to exaggerate the extent of crimes committed against it, to fabricate atrocities that did not take place, and to carry out false-flag attacks targeting its own people.

  • The group on whose behalf intervention has been launched receives incentives to refuse to settle for terms they might have settled for before the intervention; they are now incentivized to hold out for a better deal secured by the might of the intervening power. This prolongs the crisis.

  • If the side against which the humanitarian intervention has been launched believes itself to be innocent or largely innocent of what it is being accused, or if it believes the other side to be no less guilty, it will conclude that it is being targeted for reasons unconnected to its human-rights record and that therefore there is no point to worrying about appearances. This is conducive to an increase in the level of human-rights violations.

  • Humanitarian intervention advances the war aims of the underdog in the conflict. However, the mere fact that one side is apparently weaker is no guarantee that their war aims are more just than the war aims of the side that is stronger. Likewise, the fact that people who identify with one side in the war have in general suffered more than the people on the other side is not sufficient reason to expect that their war aims are more just than the war aims of the side whose people have suffered less.

Rarely considered are the effects that stem from the fact that, for the intervening power, military intervention quickly becomes a matter of prestige. The intervening power must be able to credibly claim a military triumph.

  • Because calling off military action is therefore an impossibility, once intervention has commenced there is no incentive for the side finding itself under attack to improve its behavior: this would not actually make a reduction in the intervention any more likely.

  • Once a power begins military action or irreversibly dedicates to it, it becomes important for it to shore up public support for it and to demonstrate its necessity. It therefore has no real incentive to act in ways that would lessen the level of human-rights violations; it has, on the contrary, the incentive to provoke them. It also has an incentive to accept all accusations leveled against its selected target at face value and to make up its own.

  • The intervening power will not necessarily hesitate to commit criminal acts of its own if it judges they will make its aim of military victory more likely.

  • In order to minimize the fallout stemming from human-rights violations of its own, the intervening power has an incentive to attempt to co-opt the media with a view to control the flow of information and to dehumanize the people associated with the side intervention has been launched against, thus draining the public of the capacity for pity and sympathy for people injured by its military.

Finally, there are negative effects of humanitarian intervention that endure long after its military aspect has concluded:

  • Humanitarian intervention is often followed by a long-lasting foreign military presence in the areas subjected to the military intervention and their reduction to a quasi-colonial status.

  • The increase in the level of violence associated with the onset of military intervention by foreigners often makes postconflict normalization of relations between the previously warring sides more difficult.

  • The intervening power continues to have a stake in upholding its wartime propaganda and continues to manipulate the historical record, which frustrates the search for historical truth.

  • The weight lent to its side of the story by the intervention of a powerful, disinterested foreign power on its behalf assures the side on whose behalf the intervention had taken place of the absolute accuracy of its views, making any level of convergence of views on the past conflict by the previously warring sides a virtual impossibility.

  • The effect of wartime propaganda for the sake of first bringing about and then propping up a military intervention transforms the members of the nationality against which the intervention had taken place into pariahs for decades to come.

When deciding on the merits of ostensibly humanitarian military interventionism, what needs to be considered is not merely the stated aim of governments, but the reality of the situation and all likely effects of such action.


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