Military Intervention

Charles (Chip) Hauss

August 2003

A generation ago, the terms "military intervention" and "conflict resolution" would almost never have been uttered in the same breath. The field of conflict resolution has its roots in the peace movements that dotted the 20th century, most of whose members found the use of force abhorrent. Militaries have intervened in the domestic affairs of other countries time and time again, but rarely have they done so in an attempt to end a complex emergency or intractable conflict -- until recently.

What Is Military Intervention?

There are many forms of military intervention. Until the last decade or so, military force was used most often to achieve a state's geopolitical goals of protecting and/or enhancing its territory, population, and other critical resources.

It was rare for states or international organizations (IOs) to use force for "humanitarian" purposes in the intractable conflicts that are often euphemistically called "complex emergencies." Even less common was the use of armed forces in operations that were intended to resolve the conflict once and for all. At most, lightly armed troops were used in peacekeeping operations once a ceasefire had already been reached.

Since the close of the cold war, military intervention for humanitarian ends and conflict resolution has increased dramatically. This can include the use of troops in traditionally unconventional ways such as disaster relief, for example, when the United States sent troops to help Hondurans recover from a devastating hurricane in the 1990s. Far more common and far more controversial is the use of combat troops to help end the fighting in an intractable conflict, troops which typically stay on in a far more active peacemaking capacity than tradition "blue helmet" peacekeepers did.

Why Military Intervention Is Important -- and Controversial

There is no doubt that the use of force by the international community in such places as Kosovo and Somalia was an important part of the development of peacebuilding in the 1990s. There is also little doubt that the failure to intervene effectively in Rwanda, Chechnya, and elsewhere made intractable conflicts worse than they otherwise would have been. Finally, there is little doubt that the international community has a lot to learn about how to conduct such operations.

In short, there are four central questions here.

  • First, why does military intervention occur in some cases but not others?
    • To begin with, intervention by outside forces is all but completely ruled out when one of the world's major powers opposes such intervention, as is the case with the Russians in Chechnya.
    • At the same time, in order to intervene, the major powers -- whose military resources are almost always needed in any significant deployment -- have to agree either that there are overwhelming humanitarian needs or that intervention is necessary to protect their own interests. The United States, for example, decided against intervening on those grounds in most of the major sub-Saharan crises from 1993 on.
    • Finally, the potential interveners have to conclude that their intervention is likely to succeed, especially following the debacle in Somalia in 1993.
  • That leads to the second question: what determines whether an intervention will succeed or fail? Success, of course, is relative. Most interventions, however, have at least one common goal -- ending the short-term crisis. Interventions in such different places as Kosovo and East Timor have helped end humanitarian disasters in which the stronger side in a dispute viciously abused the human rights (and worse) of their weaker adversaries.
  • Third, there is the very open question about whether an intervention can be turned into an operation that can later lead to stable peace. That is especially problematic when the intervention involves outsiders coming in to promote the interests of the weaker side of an asymmetrical conflict.
  • Implicit in the first three questions is a fourth, about the relationship between states whose military forces intervene and the NGOs who have long provided relief and other aid to civilians caught up in the fighting. As put forth most forcefully by the journalist David Rieff, many of those NGOs have abandoned their traditional and, in his eyes, vital political neutrality in order to get the funds and the influence that cooperation with states provide, thereby diluting their own long-term impact.[1]

What Average Citizens Can Do

Mari Fitzduff believes the military can learn new roles, if trainers understand their culture.

This is one of those aspects of intractable conflict that average citizens can contribute little to, at least directly. That said, there does need to be a debate about what intervention policy should be in the countries that provide the most foreign aid and that also provide the most troops for military intervention. Unfortunately, very few people currently pay much attention to foreign policy in general, let alone the politics of the third world, where many intractable conflicts occur these days.

The debate, of course, needs to be about far more than just military intervention. The world has seen two major upheavals in barely a decade -- the end of the cold war and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Each should be leading us to question previously unquestioned assumptions about foreign policy, including the role of the military and the relationship between states and NGOs.

What States Can Do

On one level, this is obvious. There can be no military intervention unless states commit their troops. On another level, what states can do and should do is anything but obvious. One does not have to go as far as Rieff with his wholesale condemnation of contemporary humanitarian action to realize that we have entered a new period in international relations in which national sovereignty matters less than it used to and it is harder to define what a state's national interests or humanitarian obligations are. One of the consequences of the rapid and sweeping change is that the handful of major powers have all had a hard time determining what their role should be in dealing with intractable conflicts. In some cases -- as in Rwanda -- their uncertainty has had tragic consequences.

What the International Community Can Do

The very use of the term "international community" is a sign of how much things have changed in a few short years. The term could not have been used during the cold war when the superpower rivalry meant that no real community could exist that included "East" and "West." And, as Rieff properly points out, there really is no such thing as the international community today other than the United Nations and other relatively weak institutions.

Nonetheless, it is probably the case that the greatest potential for using military force as part of the resolution of intractable conflict lies at the international level. As the debates about the War on Terrorism or the possible acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by Iraq and North Korea attests, when a single state like the United States intervenes, it invariably is accused of pursuing its own parochial or selfish interests.

On the other hand, if the intervention is authorized by the United Nations and involves a multinational force, it invariably has more legitimacy. What's more, it is harder to be critical of the links between the NGOs and the United Nations and other international organizations, since they have long worked hand-in-hand on development and other projects.

It is in this context that support for permanent international forces has grown. The most important of these are the calls for the creation of a permanent United Nations peacekeeping force. This is particularly important because once a humanitarian crisis breaks out, the United Nations then has to solicit troops from member states, which can delay their deployment by months. Once they are deployed, it is hard to coordinate the action of troops who have never worked with each other before.

It is unlikely that such a force will be created anytime soon. There simply is too much opposition from the major powers, especially the United States. However, by the end of 2003, the European Union will have a rapid-reaction force of about 60,000 troops which will be prepared to deploy anywhere within 2,500 miles of Brussels and remain in place for as long as a year without any troop rotation.

[1] David Rieff, A Bed for the Night. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002).

Use the following to cite this article:
Hauss, Charles (Chip). "Military Intervention." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: August 2003 <>.

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