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Debating the Doctrine of Military Intervention

Brig Gurmeet Kanwal (Retd.) is Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. Click here for details profile [+}
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  • September 13, 2013

    The ongoing struggle of people across the Arab world to get rid of military dictators and tyrannical monarchies has led to a new debate about the efficacy of the emerging doctrine of military intervention. The foremost question today is whether the international community should punish the Assad regime in Syria for using chemical weapons against its own people.

    In Libya, in 2011, the UN Security Council had approved the imposition of a ‘no-fly zone’, but had ruled out the deployment of a ‘foreign occupation force’. The western alliance launched air and missile strikes on Libya — ostensibly to protect the population against attacks from Gadhafi’s forces. However, the strikes were clearly designed to bring about a regime change.

    John Mackinlay of King’s College, London, has argued that in the “complex emergencies which increasingly threaten security in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and Africa, international response mechanisms have failed from the outset to take a realistic approach that reflected the needs of the crisis… due to vested interest, conservatism and a lack of vision beyond the narrow limitations of national and professional interest”. With some exceptions, most nations today agree to join an international intervention effort only when their own national interests are served by intervening and rarely where the cause is humanitarian. The world had failed to intervene to stop the genocide in Rwanda.

    John Hillen, a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a US think tank, has suggested the following criteria for future US military interventions: should defend national security interests; should not jeopardise the ability of the US to meet more important security commitments; should strive to achieve military goals that are clearly defined, decisive, attainable and sustainable; should enjoy Congressional and public support; and, the armed forces must be allowed to create the conditions for success.

    Notably, Hillen makes no reference to the need to abide by international law before deciding to intervene. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell had suggested very precise conditions for US intervention when he was Chairman, US Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1990. According to him, the following questions must be answered in the affirmative: “Is a vital national security interest threatened; do we have a clear attainable objective; have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed; have all other non-violent policy means been fully exhausted; is there a plausible exit strategy to avoid endless entanglement; have the consequences of our action been fully considered; is the action supported by the American people; and, do we have genuine broad international support?”

    In the case of Syria, President Obama would find it difficult to answer even half the above questions with a firm yes. Recent US interventions in Kosovo and Iraq have clearly established that the US-led ‘coalition of the willing’ chooses to intervene militarily purely to further perceived national interests. Clearly, when national interests are at stake, there are no qualms about circumventing international law. Such a muscular approach to the conduct of foreign policy is extremely damaging to international stability and is bound to encourage similar adventurism elsewhere in the world in the long run.

    The emerging doctrine of intervention is built around the ability of the international community, mainly the US-led western alliance, to impose its collective will in order to restore a deteriorating situation or to prevent a nascent conflict from burgeoning into full blown war with wider ramifications. The international community’s right to intervene may manifest itself in many ways. It may begin with a warning through a UNSC resolution. A military embargo and economic sanctions may follow. Where applicable, a no fly zone or even a naval blockade may be enforced. Failing all other means, the international community may sanction the use of military force. The overwhelming belief among members of the international community is that when this happens, it must first be approved by a UNSC resolution.

    Justifications for the right to intervene militarily, which are being increasingly propagated and are finding reluctant acceptance – at least among some countries in the western alliance – include: defence of democracy and the prevention of the excessive curtailment of a people's right to participate in decision making; prevention of severe violation of human rights of a people by a totalitarian regime; protection of minority groups from severe repression; prevention of acute environmental degradation; and, prevention of possible attempts to use, acquire or develop weapons of mass destruction.

    In addition to these situations justifying intervention, some of the following occurrences may also warrant a military response in the future, provided the proposal is unambiguously supported by a majority of the members of the UNSC: the persecution of a people due to religious affiliation; aiding and abetting of terrorists, narcotics smugglers and crime gangs by rogue regimes; the wilful repeated violation of World Trade Organisation (WTO) quotas and undercutting of tariffs through unfair trade practices; excessive interference with the production facilities, movement and sale of goods and the transfer of funds by transnational corporations (TNCs); plausible threat to paralyse or interfere with international communications, navigation, remote sensing and surveillance satellites and ground control facilities; interference with the internet and subversive attempts to infect its software; and, malicious intervention in and manipulation of the international banking system.

    However, regardless of the emerging contours of the doctrine of military intervention, it must remain a cardinal principle of international relations that the territorial integrity of each member state of the UN must be collectively guaranteed by all the other member states. The non-observance of this collective security imperative can only lead to anarchy and the rule of the jungle where might is right. This can be done only by strengthening the UN system to emerge as the sole arbiter of the need for intervention. Individual nation-states must not be permitted to assemble coalitions of the willing to intervene anywhere in the world to further their own necessarily narrow national interests.

    If Syria does not surrender its chemical weapons to the UN in a reasonable period of time, military strikes would be justified. Surgically precise missile and air strikes should be employed to achieve limited military objectives. Emphasis should be laid on the minimum use of force. Maximum efforts must be made to prevent collateral damage, with particular reference to civilian casualties and property.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.