Review: The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention

by Paul R. Pillar

Humanitarianism is the nicer of the main strains of thinking underlying military intervention inside other states, or the advocacy of such intervention. It offers a rationale that seems quite different from, say, American neoconservatism, in which intervention is seen as a means to export American values or to throw U.S. weight around. Humanitarian intervention is ostensibly altruistic, the declared objective being to save lives. And the champions of humanitarian intervention say that, far from being an American thing or the preserve of any one state, what they are championing is the expression of an international consensus. The doctrine involved is usually called the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P.

R2P is a major departure from the concept of inviolate sovereignty of states that dates back to the Peace of Westphalia in the 17th century. The assumption of a broad international consensus behind R2P underpins the idea that at times there is not only a right but also a responsibility to intervene in other countries to save lives. Nothing but a broad consensus would justify such a major departure from a centuries-old concept of sovereignty that itself underpins today’s international order. Acting on behalf of an international consensus also is a needed check on intervention that might claim to be associated with humane motives but instead has other, more parochial objectives.

Rajan Menon’s book, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, presents a richly documented and persuasive case that there really is no such consensus, despite claims to the contrary. Menon shows that there has been at least as much hypocrisy as altruism regarding the motives of governments that have participated in armed interventions in the name of humanitarianism. The objectives are often just as parochial as with interventions undertaken under some other banner. He also demonstrates how inconsistent the record of intervention has been in terms of where armed force has and has not been applied.

The term “conceit” in the title suggests that Menon’s case is fundamentally anti-interventionist, but his argument is more complex and thorough than that. The book does address well the ways in which humanitarian intervention can go wrong or give rise to unintended and untoward consequences. But the picture of inconsistency that Menon paints includes instances in which timely intervention could have saved lives but was never undertaken. His primary target is less the act of intervention itself than those who have promoted humanitarian intervention and claimed broader support for it in the international community than actually exists. Humanitarian interventionists, says Menon, “are intoxicated by the grandeur and moralism of their transformative program” and display “certitude, even hubris” that makes them unmindful both of the spottiness of their support and the repercussions of what they are promoting.

The book is a realist—in the descriptive sense—take on the subject. It presents an abundance of evidence that getting involved in an enterprise that bears the humanitarian label does not mean that governments stop applying hard-headed realist considerations such as their own national interests at stake and the costs and risks of intervening. The same considerations explain decisions not to intervene in situations in which the extent of human suffering would seem to call for intervention.

Menon’s argument that there is not much of a consensus about R2P within the international community—and he questions even applying the term “community” at the international level—includes a discussion of how watered-down and caveat-laden has been the treatment of R2P in multilateral bodies such as the United Nations General Assembly. Mostly, however, his argument consists of a detailed examination of individual cases of intervention and non-intervention, and the attitudes of major powers toward them. There is the long record of powers overlooking the inhumane practices of regimes with which they prefer to maintain good relations for other geopolitical reasons. There are the instances of non-humanitarian motives driving what gets billed as a humanitarian intervention (such as the concern in Europe and the United States that not intervening in the Bosnian war would damage the credibility of NATO). And there are repeated instances in which the decision to intervene or not to intervene was determined much less by the amount of human suffering than by whether the country that would be the target of the intervention was strong enough to resist, or was backed by a strong ally who could resist.

The book includes a thorough examination of the intervention by Western powers in Libya in 2011, as a case that vividly illustrates several of Menon’s broader points and that continues to have serious consequences today. Policy toward Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was inconsistent, changing not with a changing humanitarian situation but instead for other policy reasons. The intervention was more feasible there than in many other places with stronger humanitarian cases for action because Gaddafi was without foreign friends who would come to his aid. Most important to the subject of the book, the intervention-rationalizing claims that a regime-fomented wholesale slaughter of civilians would have occurred if the West had not acted simply do not hold up to scrutiny. The intervention was an exercise in regime change, falsely labeled as a humanitarian effort.

Among the recurring problems that have arisen under the banner of R2P is to provide, for rebel groups with otherwise no hope of winning a civil war, an incentive to provoke the regime into reactions forceful enough to trigger an external intervention—as happened with rebels in Kosovo opposing the Serbian government. Probably the biggest recurring problem is insufficient follow-through after an intervention, which in turn reflects less public support for costly overseas military endeavors than those who talk about an international consensus are willing to admit. As Menon observes, “Once the military aspects of intervention have ceased, the humanitarians have a tendency to congratulate themselves and walk away, as in Libya.”

The question remains whether a descriptive realist treatment of this subject should also mean prescriptive realism. In other words, for both empirical reasons and on principle, governments should apply the same sort of hardheaded cost-benefit calculations to military intervention that they apply to other foreign policy problems—rather than striving to act in the name of some altruistic international cause that, given the ubiquity of bloody domestic strife, is bound to mean more rather than fewer foreign interventions. Menon acknowledges that people are naturally going to ask why, despite all the inconsistency and hypocrisy, the “international community” shouldn’t still try to save at least some lives where it is practical to do so and the political and diplomatic stars happen to line up the right way. But he properly makes the point that the anti-realists can’t in effect adopt realism in bits and pieces in the places where the stars don’t happen to line up in a way that makes intervention politically and physically practical, and still pretend that they have a well-grounded philosophy and set of principles.

The question comes back to the lack of an international consensus, and how such a consensus is critical to the arguments of R2P aficionados. Without that consensus, there will always be significant distrust, often well-founded, of the motives of powers that intervene. There also will be the recurring problems of how the weak get targeted by interventions while the strong get excused, and how in internal conflicts the offenses to humanity are often not all on one side and absent from the other side.

In his conclusion Menon turns around the moral philosophizing of some of those who are more partial to R2P than he is. He particularly notes the positions of Michael Walzer, whose works on ethics and warfare have often made the point that exposing one’s own soldiers to certain dangers is sometimes the moral thing to do. Menon’s comment about this in the context of humanitarian intervention is appropriate. “It’s easy to agree” with Walzer, Menon says, “if one has never held a gun, much less been shot at. But the moral requirement that soldiers’ lives be risked during humanitarian interventions has for more serious implications for those sent to the battlefield than for the intellectuals who demand their deployment on ethical grounds.”

The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention is an excellent guide for policy-makers, and for anyone participating in the policy discussion, the next time a situation arises in which talk begins about using military force to save lives.

Photo: Rajan Menon

Paul R. Pillar is nonresident senior fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University and nonresident senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.  

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  1. I don’t think there really is such a thing as “humanitarian interventionism.” Rather, there is only interventionism, and the “humanitarian” part is an alternative excuse to intervene when the intervenor has worn out the excuse of “our national security.”

    If the “international community” (I agree with Menon and put the phrase in scare quotes) were serious about humanitarianism, there wouldn’t be so little of it on the domestic fronts of many states in that community. Moreover, if there were ever a nation in need of humanitarian intervention, it’s Palestine. But since Palestine’s abuser happens to be a pet of the state which is the biggest abuser of interventionism, Palestine hardly expect anything that could be legitimately labeled “humanitarian” – to wit, several illegally intercepted attempts by volunteers to deliver desperately needed food and supplies by ship to Gaza.

    PS I hope Samantha Power is reading Menon’s book.

  2. Delia, I concur wholeheartedly with your comment — esp. regarding pitiable Palestine and the execrable Samantha Power, whom I detest with every breath I take. Such a hypocritical, pretentious, sanctimonious bi*ch.

  3. But it does move the careers of the unknown incompetent faces . Gambling someone’s money is what bankers did .Gamblings someone’s else life is what the neofascist neonons and liberal interventionist do.

  4. I confess that I really don’t give even this much attention to rationales for shooting and bombing. I tend to reject them all out of hand.

    I’m prejudiced.

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