Western military intervention has been a defining feature of the post-Cold War security environment. However, the idea of intervention is now in decline because of the failure in Iraq and the challenges in Afghanistan and Libya. This decline is exacerbated by the return of great power rivalry, which competes with failing states for attention and resources. Nevertheless, the United States will still feel compelled to intervene if its real red lines are breached—imminent mass atrocities that could be prevented, and the creation of safe havens for anti-American terrorists. The result will be half-hearted interventions that address the near term threat, but which do not provide for post-conflict stabilization or nation-building. Thus, the demand for UN stabilization missions will remain strong.
For almost a quarter of a century, the world has debated whether and how major states, especially the United States, should use military power to prevent mass atrocities, reverse the spread of weapons of mass destruction, or promote democracy. Since the early 1990s, the United States has led interventions in one form or another in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and now Syria (excluding cases where the United States has been invited in by a government, as was the case in Colombia). Britain and France have also intervened military in Sierra Leone and Mali, respectively, and played a significant role in several other interventions. The United Nations has supported intervention in some instances, but certainly not in all, and some of its failures to intervene, including in Rwanda in 1994 and Darfur in 2003, will remain a dark chapter in the organization’s history.
Intervention is a controversial issue. The countries that lead interventions worry about becoming embroiled in conflicts where they have few vital interests and where there may be a high price in blood and treasure. The BRICS worry that interventions that occur in the name of an international norm may be a fig leaf for America’s real intentions of regime change and the spread of U.S. influence. Some developing countries fear that they could be the next target of an intervention. And yet, few countries argue that intervention is never required. The dangers of weak and rogue states are obvious to all. It is for this reason that in 2005 the United Nations adopted the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, which stated that sovereignty implies not only rights but also responsibilities, and that if sovereign states do not live up to the responsibilities they have to their citizens and are unwilling or unable to protect them, then the international community has an obligation to act.
The West Falls Out of Love with Intervention
The pendulum in the debate has now firmly swung against intervention for two reasons. The first is that western publics and governments have intervention fatigue after Iraq and Afghanistan. While the public often supports the early stages of intervention, it has become deeply skeptical about the ability of western powers to succeed over the long term. It perceives the local challenges as too complex and difficult. This skepticism is exacerbated by the sense that the West can no longer afford lengthy and costly commitments in far-away places. Meanwhile, western governments doubt their capacity to plan for the day after and increasingly acknowledge that the failure to stabilize a country after military action can result in the failure of the overall intervention mission.
The second reason is that intervention is no longer the only, or even the most important, military challenge facing western governments. The United States and its allies now must tackle the serious problem of revisionist great powers—Russia in Eastern Europe and China in East Asia. While both are very different in many respects, they are each seeking to increase their influence in their region and reduce the role of the U.S.-centric alliance system. The great power challenge will consume many resources for balancing strategies that would otherwise be dedicated to the weak/fragile state and intervention issue.
Some may argue that a revival of great power rivalry will lead to an increase in overseas interventions, in a similar way as witnessed during the Cold War. The public perceived interventions then as a part of the struggle between the superpowers. The United States and the Soviet Union intervened to aid their allies against the other side, often at great cost (e.g. the Korean War, Vietnam, and Afghanistan). However, in the next two decades we will likely see the disaggregation of intervention and great power rivalry. The United States is unlikely to see intervention in civil wars as a tool with which it can balance against China and/or Russia. This is partly because the great power struggle lacks an ideological component, and also because one of the lessons of the Cold War is that the interventions were a distraction from the primary objective.
But, Intervention Will Continue Without Stabilizers
President Obama offered a revealing glimpse into the “day after dilemma” in an interview with Tom Friedman. According to Friedman, Obama said:
“I’ll give you an example of a lesson I had to learn that still has ramifications to this day. And that is our participation in the coalition that overthrew Qaddafi in Libya. I absolutely believed that it was the right thing to do. … Had we not intervened, it’s likely that Libya would be Syria. … And so there would be more death, more disruption, more destruction. But what is also true is that I think we [and] our European partners underestimated the need to come in full force if you’re going to do this. Then it’s the day after Qaddafi is gone, when everybody is feeling good and everybody is holding up posters saying, ‘Thank you, America.’ At that moment, there has to be a much more aggressive effort to rebuild societies that didn’t have any civic traditions. … So that’s a lesson that I now apply every time I ask the question, ‘Should we intervene, militarily? Do we have an answer [for] the day after?’
At first glance it looks as if Obama is saying that the United States should have stayed to rebuild Libya. But, another interpretation is also possible—that the United States cannot and should not seek to rebuild broken nations like Libya and therefore should not intervene in the first place, even though it could end up like Syria. If long term nation-building remains off the table, U.S. presidents will face a dilemma—they can be part of an operation that will have some initial success but end in failure, or they can stand aside from a failure in the short and long term. As long as the United States is unable to invest the resources necessary for stabilization, some form of failure is all but assured.
It is for this reason that policymakers will seek to avoid or limit intervention most of the time. There will be little appetite to fix the tool of intervention by expanding its scope and scale. However, resistance to particular interventions will be quickly eroded in a crisis when short term threats loom large. If there is an imminent risk of an act of genocide and the United States can avert it, the president and America’s allies will be under enormous pressure to act. If an anti-American terrorist group makes major gains and secures a safe haven, they will also be under immense pressure to intervene. Public support will likely be forthcoming in the short term if the president makes a compelling case. An instructive example in this regard is the fate of the Yazidis on Mount Sinjar. Prior to that crisis, there was very little appetite to intervene in Iraq and few Americans had even heard of the Yazidis. And yet, once the threat crystalized, public opinion shifted quickly in both the United States and in Europe. A similar dynamic occurred with Qaddafi’s imminent threat to Benghazi in 2012.
The West would like to reduce the frequency and scale of military interventions, but it will get dragged into them in response to real threats. Governments will respond to this reality by seeking to limit their commitment and role—to narrow the mission. Even though they recognize the need for post-conflict stabilization, they will not want to undertake this part of the mission themselves. Instead, they will seek to shift responsibility to others—to the United Nations, other international or regional organizations, and nations willing to provide civilian assistance and peacekeeping forces.