The lethal folly of humanitarian interventionism

James David Hodgson and Philip Cunliffe discuss Western powers' routine violation of state sovereignty.

Philip Cunliffe and James David Hodgson

Topics Long-reads World

It has become a commonplace that the liberal or ‘rules-based’ international order is coming under unprecedented pressure from Trump’s America, the rising power of China, and the threat of Russia. Add in the crises of the European Union, and conflict in the Middle East, and some even think it may be in terminal decline.

In his intriguing new book Cosmopolitan Dystopia, Philip Cunliffe, a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Kent, takes a radically different approach. He argues that the challenges facing the liberal international order come not from authoritarian powers like Russia and China, but from the liberal internationalists themselves. Specifically, from the willingness of such internationalists (or, in Cunliffe’s language, ‘cosmopolitans’) to use the military power of Western states to intervene in the affairs of other countries for humanitarian purposes. Such interventions have, according to Cunliffe, produced a cosmopolitan dystopia of perpetual warfare and human carnage, particularly in the shattered states of the Middle East and North Africa. ‘Perhaps for the first time in modern history’, he writes, ‘we have the status-quo powers undermining the status quo; this was the effect of liberal and humanitarian intervention’.

I caught up with Cunliffe over email.

James David Hodgson: The argument at the heart of Cosmopolitan Dystopia is that liberal internationalists have destabilised the international liberal order themselves, through their persistent transgression of the boundaries of sovereign states in the cause of humanitarian intervention (that is, coercive interference in the internal affairs of a state for humanitarian purposes). If I read Cosmopolitan Dystopia correctly, this willingness to transgress the boundaries of the state came about through a humanitarian suspicion of the power of the centralised state. That is, liberals became more concerned about what the institution of the state could do to people than what it could do for people. This suspicion was normalised (though not caused) by the globalisation of the ideology of human rights, which provided the moral grounds for intervening when states were seen to violate the human rights of their citizens.

Moreover, you argue that the sovereign state system has therefore been transformed through the normalisation of humanitarian emergencies. When states fail to safeguard their citizens’ human rights, then intervention becomes justified. This ties into the so-called ‘responsibility to protect’ doctrine, which you argue is not merely a matter of international law but a fully-fledged theory of international order. Rather than producing more liberal and humane states, however, it has inaugurated an era of permanent warfare as well as imperial failure, with the US failing to remodel societies in the Middle East and elsewhere. On this argument, the road to hell is indeed paved with good intentions.

Smoke rises from explosions during the first few minutes of an air attack on Baghdad, Iraq, 21 March 2003.
Smoke rises from explosions during the first few minutes of an air attack on Baghdad, Iraq, 21 March 2003.

I found these arguments surprising on several counts. In political philosophy, international politics tends to be filed into two boxes: global justice, which focuses on questions of economic redistribution from the global north to south, and just-war theory, which examines the conditions under which wars can be waged ‘morally’. Both literatures, in my view, have an air of unreality about them: for the most part they ignore questions studied by international-relations scholars, and tend to proceed as if international politics was a matter of empirical data to be fed into pre-existing normative models in order to extend or refine those models.

Nevertheless, what these theories do well is to remind us of the role of contingency in human affairs. For example, many people think with some plausibility that the world might have been a very different place if Al Gore rather than George W Bush had won the 2000 US presidential election. (Though this is controversial; see Frank P Harvey’s Explaining the Iraq War: Counterfactual Theory, Logic and Evidence (2012).) My point here is there may be a danger in assigning too much weight to structural or discursive forces that determine our current pattern of destructive behaviour. Our choices may be path-dependent, but they are not predetermined. Otherwise it’s difficult to see how we might break out of that pattern (if we can). Overall, I found the central thesis of Cosmopolitan Dystopia that the liberal world is eroding from within to be persuasive, but less so that that erosion is inevitable. In any case, I was left wondering, what comes next? What will the post-liberal international order look like?

My second point is motivated by your claim that the human-rights regime, with its justifications for intervention based on the relief of human suffering, was a manifestation of the so-called ‘liberalism of fear’, championed by political theorist Judith Shklar and others. That was striking to me, as Shklar’s work has only recently been revived in political-theory circles after decades of neglect; I certainly wouldn’t have credited it, even partially, with the birth of the human-rights industry! In the same section, you quote Keynes’ dictum that ‘Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back’. Yet you also take international-relations theorists to task for ‘the implicit belief that politics can be contained within definitions devised in the library and the seminar room’. This position seems to be somewhat ambiguous; are ideas like human rights merely the rhetorical camouflage for something else – the pursuit of national self-interest, say – or are they inherently dangerous? If the latter, was Keynes correct that academic writers are more powerful than is commonly supposed?

Philip Cunliffe: Thank you very much for such thoughtful and stimulating comments. The analysis I offer in the book is of some of the political theories, forms, institutions and structures that have been instrumental to perpetuating the cosmopolitan dystopia of permanent war; I do not mean to suggest that these theories, ideas and so on in themselves drive the necessity of permanent war. If there is any necessity to the series of recurrent Western military interventions of recent years, I suspect it lies in the ‘Minotaur’ structure of unipolar globalisation that I allude to at the start of the book. This is the idea that maintaining the dollar as a global reserve currency, and financing the US deficit, requires a theatre of permanent war. It is a racket, effectively, in which other countries prop up the US economy – the ‘tribute’ paid to the US Minotaur at the centre of the labyrinth, as per the old Greek legend – in return for the provision of US security, which then requires demonstration of its necessity through recurrent military intervention. But this system doesn’t decide where any particular war might happen. My focus, as I said, is to think about the political and constitutional aspects of this international order. As an account of unipolarity, US foreign policy or US trade deficits would be insufficient, as I argue in the preface.

All that said, I think the intervention in Iraq was probably more likely than most. This is because Iraq was already under a de facto ‘air occupation’, in the words of historian Andrew Bacevich, since the end of the Gulf War, with the country carved up by no-fly zones, subject to constant raids and bombardments, with a de facto protectorate in the northern Kurdish region of the country, as well as being subjected to the cruel and comprehensive United Nations (UN) sanctions regime. This siege regime set the stage for escalation at some point, so more war in Iraq was more likely to happen than elsewhere. Moreover, as I argue in the book, the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 was in many ways a dress rehearsal for Iraq in 2003, not least because it proceeded without authorisation from the UN Security Council and was justified on humanitarian terms. Finally, I would also flip the counter-factual: it seems to me that, contrary to many fantasy liberal accounts, an Al Gore administration would have more readily mounted military interventions than the Bush administration. A Democratic victory in the 2000 elections would have been seen as a ratification of the Clinton era, and thus Gore would have perpetuated the Clintonite foreign policy of humanitarian intervention and nation-building pioneered in Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor.

A state that claims to stand for global humanity ultimately stands for no one

In fact, during the election campaign of 2000, it was George W Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleeza Rice, who famously wrote, ‘the 82nd Airborne wasn’t intended to take children to kindergarten’ – a criticism of what was seen as wasteful expenditure of US military power in Bosnia under Clinton. The neo-isolationist instincts of the first Bush administration were overturned by the terror attacks of September 2001, and the Bush administration’s responses to these attacks, in which the US ended up embroiled in Afghanistan long after al-Qaeda had been eliminated. This indicates just how deeply entrenched interventionist impulses were in Western states.

With regards to what comes next after cosmopolitan dystopia, it’s difficult to say as it’s a time of flux, made more opaque by the Covid-19 pandemic. There seem to be contradictory tendencies at work here. On the one hand, there is growing scepticism of the Forever War among intellectuals, historians and theorists (for instance, the establishment of the Quincy Institute in the US, jointly funded by the Koch brothers and George Soros, is explicitly aimed at revising the militarisation of US foreign policy). This tendency manifests itself in criticisms of US grand strategy, poor military planning and foreign-policy errors. To my mind, this overlooks the importance of the degradation of sovereignty in helping to produce the era of permanent war. It is this latter point that I wanted to thrust into the debate in Cosmopolitan Dystopia: the degradation of sovereignty makes military intervention and strategic coercion an always ready option. Overcoming cosmopolitan dystopia thus requires restoring the belief in the desirability, capacity and will to collective self-government embodied in the principle of sovereignty. Sovereignty is vital not just to preserve political autonomy in the developing world but also within industrialised nations, by helping to delineate political responsibility clearly, and thus helping ensure political accountability.

Who is responsible to whom? The global defence of human rights always provided a ready means for Western governments to suppress not only the independence of formerly colonised countries, but also the claims of their own citizens. Sovereignty, by contrast, disciplines states to limit themselves to defending their own citizens’ interests. A state that claims to stand for global humanity ultimately stands for no one. Although President Trump has thus far shown himself less war-prone than his predecessors, he has clearly inherited the exceptionalist vision of the US as the indispensable nation, to whom the rules do not apply – witness his assassination of the Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, in Baghdad last year, a grave violation of Iraqi sovereignty as much as it was an attack on Iran. This indicates that the Trump administration refuses the curbs on its power implicit in the reciprocal structures of sovereign equality.

There are other forces at work, too. On one hand, the growing influence and political strength of national populists seems to cut against the imperial adventurism of previous years – the polling evidence suggests that veterans and military families in the US, especially in states that are vital to winning the electoral college, are strongly supportive of Trump’s attempts to withdraw from Afghanistan and his scepticism of America’s forever wars. On the other hand, the infrastructure, diplomacy and ideas of the forever war and cosmopolitan dystopia could be easily passed on as the legacy for a new era of geopolitical rivalry with China, thus perpetuating an era of globalised tension and conflict. The caveat here is that China is a nuclear-armed state that is rich and strong enough to repulse and resist the kinds of military interventions that characterised the forever war, which were taken up against much weaker developing nations.

With respect to my arguments concerning the liberalism of fear, this was not intended to suggest a direct link between the liberals of the early Cold War period and the late / post-Cold War period. Rather it was intended to draw attention to the postwar exhaustion of liberalism and its counter-utopian inflection, which human rights necessarily had to partake in. This exhausted liberalism could not offer a redemptive vision of liberty, only protection from the worst kind of evils. That said, there are some links – notably Michael Ignatieff, for instance, one of the leading theorists of the new humanitarian imperialism, and one who also invoked Judith Shklar.

I do indeed charge IR theorists with having more influence than they imagined, a result, I argue, of the nominalism that creeps into their theories from particular strains of theorising that overestimates the significance of discourse in social life (in this case, constructivism). Boosted above mere power political considerations, due to the unipolar distribution of global power, IR theorists began to imagine that they could be directly political, by transforming discourse for the better, and that the simple rhetorical pressure for consistency would drive Western states to become more systematic and less hypocritical in their application of human rights and humanitarian standards around the world. It never occurred to these same theorists that other states, less favourable to Western liberalism, might avail themselves of these interventionist discourses, too – authoritarian challengers, and not least cosmopolitan jihadists. As I suggest in the book, the discourse of Islamic State strongly resonated with cosmopolitan themes: the self-appointed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi channelled cosmopolitan political theory when he claimed to have superseded the nation-state system of the Middle East.

A boy passes an oil field set on fire by retreating ISIS fighters in Qayyarah, Iraq, on 21 October 2016.
A boy passes an oil field set on fire by retreating ISIS fighters in Qayyarah, Iraq, on 21 October 2016.

JDH: You argue that the era of humanitarian intervention has also been an era of permanent warfare (the ‘forever war’), and that the desire to expand the scope of rights beyond the nation state has had disastrous implications. Where intervention in the affairs of one sovereign state by another would once have been considered exceptional, the exception has become the new norm. The US, in particular, has shown little to no respect for the sovereignty of other states.

While accepting these arguments for the desirability of reciprocal sovereignty as the essential pillar of a more decent international order – and how the rhetoric of ‘humanitarian’ intervention unhelpfully stacks the deck in favour of such interventions – I am curious if you believe there are ever any circumstances under which intervention can be justified, or is ‘legitimate intervention’ always an oxymoron?

I have in mind three examples. Firstly, in the case of a genocide when a state is murdering a significant portion of its own subjects. This, many would argue, seems to render state sovereignty inert as it can only be enjoyed when its bearers are alive. Secondly, in the case of an aggressor state that invades the territory of another state. Ought there be a norm that the only, or one of the few, justifications for violating state’s boundaries is when that state itself did not respect the boundaries of others?

Thirdly, the case of post-colonial obligations. The case often cited as an exemplar here is British intervention in Sierra Leone, which you mention in Cosmopolitan Dystopia. One could make the case that the apparent success of Tony Blair’s ‘ethical foreign policy’ helped to pave the road to Iraq and Libya. But one could equally argue for such interventions as necessary reparations by Western powers that exploited colonial subjects and left them without viable state institutions. This is not about undermining state sovereignty, then, but actualising the conditions for state sovereignty.

These examples are idealised, of course. But they do, perhaps, specify the exceptions which prove the rule of non-intervention: namely, that there are a very limited number of cases in which intervention can ever be justified, and perhaps not even then. Or, in your view, is the only way to kick the interventionist habit to go cold turkey completely?

Related to these issues is the changing nature of warfare in the modern world, and though you do not address it directly, it is a key feature of the state of permanent warfare you diagnose. I am thinking especially of the proliferation of drone warfare, inaugurated under George W Bush and perfected under Barack Obama, which, through minimising military casualties, has gone some way towards sanitising warfare in the eyes of Western publics. Such practices have rendered warfare (and its attendant civilian casualties, euphemistically labelled as ‘collateral damage’) tolerable, and in doing so have normalised it. Would it be better, in a sense, if the misadventures of Western states involved the greater popular mobilisation through armed service, perhaps through the draft, as we would be more conscious of the acts ostensibly perpetrated on our behalf?

PC: Arguments for intervention are intrinsically exceptionalist, and as I argue in the book, this is what makes them so insidious: recurrent exceptions have resulted in permanent war and cosmopolitan dystopia. This is the result of the normalising of the exception, the routinisation of recurrent military interventions, each of which was offered as an exception to the rule. That is why we have to be clear about the kinds of exceptionalism that are open to us when considering these questions, and I try to lay out the different kinds of political exceptionalism in the third chapter. It is ‘existential exceptionalism’ that I identify as the most dangerous form of exceptionalism, based as it is on the belief that exceptional circumstances are to be welcomed as constitutive of new forms of more meaningful political identity; in this case, more profound forms of humanitarian solidarity that must be manifested in wars for human rights and democracy. The attempt abstractly to specify circumstances under which intervention may be legitimate is already to normalise the exception. It seeks to formalise and embed exceptionalist claims into the concrete practice and institutions of our extant political order.

It is essential to revive the ideal of self-government, which is embedded in the principle of sovereignty

For this reason, I find it not only futile but also positively dangerous to undertake these exercises – such ostensibly abstract hypotheticals are indeed the very basis of the ‘responsibility to protect’, which has led inexorably to the militarisation of crisis and paternalist conceptions of political power. I do not believe that these political problems could be resolved by different forms of militarisation that bore greater social costs, as you suggest above, in the hope that this would discourage frivolous interventions and permanent war. The problem is a political, not a technical one, and thus necessitates a political answer. To my mind, the central political problem is that of restoring the ideal of self-government, which is embedded in the principle of sovereignty.

JDH: The idea of sovereignty is deeply entwined with debates about the future of the European Union. As a founding member of The Full Brexit, a group of scholars and activists making the case for Brexit from the left, you’ve had much to say on these matters. Can you see the UK, post-Brexit, deepening its own sovereignty and adopting the kind of non-interventionist foreign policy you advocate, particularly given the diminished state of the Labour Party? Moreover, what do you think is the future for the EU itself? Do you agree, for example, with Wolfgang Streeck that the EU is a ‘liberal empire’ and that Brexit has sown the seeds of terminal imbalance?

PC: Unfortunately, I doubt that British governments will use the opportunity of Brexit to adopt a policy of non-interventionism; the desperate desire of the current Tory government to embroil itself in East Asia does not bode well. Moreover, the legacy of Blairism and its permanent wars requires a new imperial infrastructure: it was under the Blair and Brown Labour administrations that Britain pursued the construction of a second aircraft carrier, which in turn requires new bases capable of hosting ships of that scale – hence Britain’s increasingly tight relationship with Oman, an absolutist monarchy in the Middle East, in order to maintain access to the port of Duqm. It’s also worth remembering that former Tory prime minister David Cameron entered office sneering at Labour’s war in Iraq, and then repeated the whole disastrous cycle in Libya when he supported NATO bombing there.

While future governments may be more circumspect about nation-building and grandiloquent military adventurism on the Blairite scale, I fear that they are still committed to an exceptionalist politics that does not see sovereignty as a reciprocal compact, as well as smaller scale adventurism: special forces, drones, bombing raids, and so on.

As for the EU, while it certainly has imperial characteristics in its relations with smaller and weaker neighbours – especially on its periphery in Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, the Balkans, Libya – it is on the whole more a parasitic political system, an outgrowth on the surface of European states, whose internal democratic life has crumbled away. The EU is unviable and beyond meaningful reform, as the past 10 years of crisis have consistently proved. However, by the same token the EU is also resilient, and what the years of crisis prove, I think, is that it will likely rot from the inside out rather than collapse all at once, even were Italy to withdraw from the Eurozone. What we will see is the transformation of the EU into a web of more transactional, multilateral arrangements between a core of European states – perhaps the northern tier of the Eurozone after Italy withdraws – in which the grand visions of supranationalism gradually fade away as they become increasingly redundant and illegitimate. In the end, the EU may well become like the Holy Roman Empire, corroded from within by rivalries of sovereign states until it is simply wiped from the map of Europe without much fanfare.

James David Hodgson received a PhD in Political Theory from the University of York.

Philip Cunliffe is senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Kent

Cosmopolitan Dystopia: International Intervention and the Failure of the West, by Philip Cunliffe, is published by Manchester University Press. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).)

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James Barber

29th July 2020 at 1:42 am

Philip Cunliffe’s refusal to answer the question of whether there can ever be any circumstances under which intervention can be justified, even genocide, violation of state boundaries or a request for assistance as in Sierra Leone, demonstrates that his thesis is one of intellectual and moral cowardice. If it had guided our predecessors then the Nazis would still be ruling Europe, the fascists North Africa, the Imperial Japanese Army South East Asia and the Kim dynasty South Korea. All previous empires have existed in a state of perpetual warfare. The US is remarkably restrained by the standards of its predecessors; since the early 70s it has confined its military interventions to authoritarian states whose leaders by definition have no legitimacy whatsoever. By contrast the forthcoming Chinese Empire will have as a principal objective the overthrow or subjugation of all democratically-elected governments, whose very existence is a reproach to its leader who, if he considers Philip Cunliffe’s thesis at all, will regard it as suitable for peoples stupid or selfish enough to adopt it.

Andrew Levens

26th July 2020 at 6:25 pm

So it’s not really about liberalism. That’s just an excuse. As usual it’s all about money. Perpetual war is necessary to prop up the dollar. Thank you PC for explaining this. And we end up with expensive aircraft carriers of absolutely no use in defending our own shores. I had no idea they were a legacy of the Blair/Brown era.

Jennie Jones

26th July 2020 at 3:57 pm

Many thanks for this JDH (and sp!ked). I’ve been thinking along these lines for a good many years, certainly since Libya. After Iraq, I couldn’t believe what Cameron and Sarkozy hatched between them and ever since I’ve constantly been wondering why I’m so out of step with others. Good to know I’m not alone! I’ve just bought the book.

Bros Bro

26th July 2020 at 1:19 pm

Due to a combination of modern technology and an arrogant conviction (despite ample evidence to the contrary) that it”s “values” are superior to the rest of the world, the inhumanity with which western Philosophical Liberals have either directly or indirectly killed, maimed, tortured, starved, (through sanctions) displayed double standards and violated the very principles it pretends to champion, is unparalleled throughout human history.

Ellen Whitaker

25th July 2020 at 6:01 pm

Isn’t China also a “‘rules-based’ international order?”

Anyway, this article is over my head, in relation to my knowledge of international affairs and international relations. But I remember that, initially, the Obama administration was reluctant to get involved in Libya. I also remember the rising drumbeat of international pressure in the press, from many different sources, urging the U.S. to get involved, in most cases for the “best” of reasons. I clearly remember thinking at time, that the U.S. wouldn’t be able to resist the pressure, and would get involved. Which, of course, is what happened.

John Glasspool

25th July 2020 at 5:51 pm

Let’s not forget; the first Gulf War was about oil. Saddam Hussein was just stupid to invade Kuwait. Now, we’re in a new world. The USA has no need to import the stuff. We will, in the medium term future see the end of the Petroleum Age. (Other than perhaps using oil for pharmaceuticals and chemicals.) If the situation were moved forward to now, I doubt there would be a war.
The average Arab doesn’t really care much about democracy; it’s not a concept that they have had for c 3000 years of history, unlike parts of Europe. We Europeans find this odd. Every so often they had internecine civil wars/palace coups etc. It was ever thus. It’s a good argument for a one-party state in some African countries; it avoids tribalism.
But it’s been a mot interesting conversation to read. Perhaps if we Europeans paid for our own defence, and the USA became more isolationist, it would be better all round? Time will tell, but that time might be several hundred years before we know. However, I, for one, am grateful for US intervention in Europe in the past; sonst hätten wir alle deutsch sprechen müssen.

Andrew Levens

26th July 2020 at 6:40 pm

The americans intervened in europe in WW2 after Hitler declared war on them. If he had not done that, they would probably have concentrated on Japan. Bad decision on his part.


25th July 2020 at 9:52 am

The English occupation of Scotland has proved disastrous over the last three hundred years. Let’s put an end to illegal interventions by well-intentioned but ultimately destructive foreign powers.

Andrew Levens

26th July 2020 at 6:28 pm

English occupation of Scotland? I recall when Scotland used to vote Labour and the english were ruled by scots ministers. Thank heaven SNP have put a stop to that. Keep it up Nicola!

Michel Houllebeq

25th July 2020 at 12:21 am

Hungary, unfortunately, does not have the current military power but possibly Russia could Intervene in the UK to stop our current spread of homegrown jihadists of immigrant origin. Makes more sense than us invading foreign places losing mainly indigenous white working-class white men in the process.

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