Reconceptualising ‘International Intervention’

‘International intervention’ is a fact of life – it is happening all around us, all of the time. Yet the term usually connotes military intervention, which happens a lot less. Why is there this disjunction between perception and reality – and does it matter?

These questions were considered at a conference, ‘Reconceptualising International Intervention’, held at the University of Surrey on 30 and 31 July. This was the first event in a three year, ESRC funded, seminar series that aims to take a holistic view of ‘international intervention’, examining the wide range of different activities that it comprises and attempting to understand them within a single, overarching, conceptual framework.

Why is this a worthwhile activity? Given that ‘intervention’ has acquired a meaning in international law, and that ‘the forcible or dictatorial interference by a State in the affairs of another State calculated to impose certain conduct or consequences on that other State’ (Oppenheim 1992) is an important subject of study in its own right, what is to be gained by broadening the definition to include activities as diverse as e.g. conflict mediation, international trade negotiations, and campaigns by international NGOs? Is this not likely to lead to a loss of focus, rather than to greater clarity?

The counterargument – and the underlying rationale for this conference – is that the appropriation of the term ‘intervention’ to describe the use of (usually military) force inevitably encourages a particular policy direction – or perhaps it is the other way round: the predilection of the powerful for the use of military force encourages us all to believe that intervention is necessarily about violence and coercion.

For this reason, the conference deliberately took as its starting point a more neutral definition of the term ‘intervention’, as per the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘The action of intervening, “stepping in”, or interfering in any affair, so as to affect its course or issue’ (although even the OED is obliged to add: ‘now freq. applied to the interference of a state or government in the domestic affairs or foreign relations of another country’ (OED 2014). Here the central notion is ‘interference’ without specifying the particular mode this can take. This emphasis on ‘interference’ also helps us focus on the risks – as well as the potential benefits – of intervening in complex systems.

Another reason to attempt a broader view of intervention is that the world is changing and so are our traditional assumptions about the use and utility of force in international relations. The concept of sovereignty is increasingly under scrutiny and, as one of our conference speakers argued, even the very term ‘international’ needs to be reframed. The faith in military intervention’s ability to solve deep-seated problems of world politics, which was prevalent in the two decades following the fall of the Berlin Wall, has receded following the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even the Libyan intervention of 2011 – claimed at the time by some as a triumph of ‘humanitarian intervention’ – is now seen to have had devastating unintended consequences. Meanwhile the terrible human suffering in Syria, Gaza, and the Central African Republic – to name only three – demonstrates the limitations of an approach to international intervention that relies excessively on military means; where this is beyond reach there appear to be no other effective tools in the toolbox – with dire consequences for ordinary people.

In other words, there is merit in developing a better understanding of the different kinds of international intervention that can take place and therefore of the various policy options available in any given situation. For example, this conference assessed the contemporary relevance of established global humanitarian norms, and also the merits of attempting to introduce new norms under the heading of ‘women, peace, and security’. It examined the use of power in global trade negotiations – for example, the requirement for Mexico to change its constitution in order to meet US conditions for the establishment of NAFTA. It considered the role of covert external action in harnessing the growing power of new social media to destabilise authoritarian regimes, e.g. in the Middle East. It scrutinised international NGO campaigns, e.g. to ban antipersonnel mines and cluster munitions, and asked whether they legitimised western military power. It analysed the role of peacemaking in foreign policy, and whether it served more the interests of peace or of the intervener. It acknowledged that even a neutral humanitarian organisation such as the ICRC could in certain circumstances choose to intervene more outspokenly through ‘denunciation’ of violations of international humanitarian law. It weighed the dangers, as well as the potential benefits, of new technologies that give outsiders the power to intervene remotely at less risk to themselves but with the potential loss of ‘ground truth’. It also covered more conventional ‘intervention’ topics such as the use of military power by NATO as well as Russia, attempts to operationalise normative concepts such as the ‘Responsibility to Protect’, the need for a better interface between civilian and military actors in so-called post-conflict ‘stabilisation’ operations, and the merits of US attempts to establish a global counterterrorism capability using a network of remotely piloted air systems (‘drones’).

This might seem to be a highly eclectic approach, but it demonstrated the value of taking a broad view of ‘international intervention’. For example, while it would clearly not be helpful to place all international trade under such a heading, attempts to use trade agreements to bring about change in another country’s governance can reasonably be included. So can public statements aimed at securing greater compliance with international law, or international campaigns designed to change it. Common to all these examples is the notion of ‘stepping in’, implying the possession of the power needed to change the course of events; this is as true for a surgeon wielding the knife in an operating theatre as for a major power seeking to change the behaviour of a minor one.

And yet this analogy also demonstrates that international intervention is not necessarily self-interested; ‘humanitarian intervention’ remains a worthy, if often overblown, aspiration and should not be dismissed merely because of the difficulties. Nor is intervention necessarily coercive; international development assistance with the goal of poverty eradication is delivered through programmes that are mutually agreed – at least in theory – just as the surgeon needs the advance consent of the patient. But to the extent that the balance and nature of power in the world is shifting, the nature and form of international intervention needs to be seen in a different light as well. Taking a holistic view of the full spectrum of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ power, rather than focusing exclusively on one end of it, would therefore seem to be necessary if we are to make progress as a global civilisation.


Oppenheim, LFL, (1992) ‘International Law’, Vol. 1, Ninth Edition, p430

Oxford English Dictionary (2014) online version (accessed 14 July 2014)