Intervention and Nonintervention

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Intervention and Nonintervention

Doris A. Graber

Analysis of the intervention and nonintervention theories and practices of the United States requires examination of four distinct facets of the issue. They are the theory underlying the use of intervention in international relations, the policy doctrines proclaimed by the United States regarding intervention, the international law regarding the legality of intervention, and the actual practice of intervention adopted by the United States.


The theory of intervention is based on the concept of state sovereignty, which was incorporated into the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia that ended the Thirty Years' War to prevent rulers from meddling in the affairs of their neighbors at the risk of provoking wars. Sovereignty of a state means that it is entitled to exercise absolute control over its territory and people and can choose to govern its realm as it chooses. In a world of sovereign states, where no overarching governmental unit exists, nobody has the right to interfere with the state's activities unless the interference has been explicitly authorized by the state. In other words, by virtue of its sovereignty, every state, no matter how small and weak or large and powerful, has the legal right to be free from intervention by other states.

The problem with this theory is that it is based on an unrealistic assumption: namely, that all states are completely independent actors who are not affected by what other states do and whose activities do not affect other states. Nonintervention is an impossibility for political units sharing the same world, particularly when they exist in close physical proximity. National borders, which demarcate the state's sphere of control, have become increasingly porous, especially in the modern age of surveillance satellites and the Internet. The fact that international law acknowledges that states have the right of self-defense to protect their sovereignty has always been an implicit acknowledgment that intrusions on state sovereignty should be expected.


Throughout modern history, the principle of non-intervention, tempered by the right of self-defense, has been cherished, especially by small and weak nations that lacked the strength to resist intrusions by stronger rivals. The United States, which started its political life as a small and weak nation, was no exception. Its vocal support of the principles of noninterventionthe nonintervention doctrinehas served three major purposes throughout the years, aside from its use as a guideline for policy. First, it was meant to deter European interventions directed against the United States and its neighbors. President George Washington, in his Farewell Address to the nation, repeated a mantra common to the Founders. The United States would not intervene in Europe's affairs in return for reciprocity by European powers. Accordingly, it would object to interventions by other powers because it considered nonintervention as the normal rule to be applied by the world community.

Second, the doctrine was intended to inform the American people that pressures on their government for a policy of intervention were likely to be rejected on principle, even when Americans were eager to help European colonies in Latin America to become independent states. Expectations were that repeated proclamations of the nonintervention policy would deter interventions that the country could ill afford to undertake.

Third, once the principle had become venerable and established as right and moral conduct, it became useful as a psychological tool of politics. Many undesirable international activities could be readily condemned by labeling them as "intervention." Desired interventions could be excused by denying that they constituted interventions. Alternatively, the United States could claim that a particular intervention was within the scope of interventions permitted under the hallowed nonintervention doctrine. Putting policies within a framework of "moral" and "immoral" actions is particularly important for a democratic country where political leaders depend on the support of elected government officials and public opinion. It is easier to secure support when policies can be defended as moral principles, rather than as complex bargaining schemes or maneuvers in political power games.

All three purposes appeared to be particularly well served during the early years of the nation. It is therefore not surprising that American presidents, starting with George Washington, almost routinely advocated nonintervention. During the decades when the country was most vulnerable to foreign intervention and ill-equipped to intervene individually or collectively in faraway Europe, the doctrine was credited with keeping European powers from intervening in the affairs of the United States as a reward for American nonintervention in Europe's liberation struggles. The doctrine permitted American leaders to refuse most requests for political as well as humanitarian interventions. The successes claimed for the doctrine strengthened faith in its value.

At first, the doctrine was generally expressed in absolute terms to give it the strongest possible impact. This formulation was never viewed as a renunciation of the presumably inalienable right of every country to use intervention to protect its vital interests. Rather, the doctrine was avowed for its practical usefulness for American policy needs. That the nonintervention doctrine involved legal considerations under international law was not stressed until 1842, when Secretary of State Daniel Webster alluded to its grounding in the legal doctrine of sovereign rights.

Because the absolute formulation of the doctrine was literally interpreted by many people, it grew embarrassing when the United States engaged in numerous interventions in the Western Hemisphere. Therefore, American statesmen reformulated the doctrine so that it would specify the exceptional conditions under which intervention would be permitted. The ebb and flow of efforts to spell out the limits of nonintervention, without abandoning the nonintervention doctrine as a general principle, constitute the major aspects of doctrinal developments over the ensuing decades.

President James Buchanan's inaugural address in 1857 is an early example of reformulation. He declared it to be the nation's policy never to interfere in the domestic concerns of other nations "unless this shall be imperatively required by the great law of self-preservation." He did not specify the occasions when the law of self-preservation might apply and the ways in which such occasions could be identified. Buchanan also contended that the nonintervention doctrine did not preclude the duty of preventive intervention. When, as happened in Mexico in 1859, a Western Hemisphere country was afflicted by internal unrest that spilled over its borders, it was the duty of the United States to intervene to stop the unrest and thereby prevent intervention by other powers. Congress did not accept this argument at that time. But when the argument was revived and amplified during the closing decades of the nineteenth century, it became an accepted clarification of the scope of the nonintervention doctrine.

Officially, a number of major clarifications were labeled corollaries to the Monroe Doctrine, which had become an icon for the nonintervention principle. Linking interventionist policies to this icon served to maintain the aura that the non-intervention doctrine remained absolute. For example, the Olney Corollary of 1895 asserted the right of the United States to intervene in any conflict between an American and non-American power that endangered the security of the United States. Under the Roosevelt Corollary of 1904, the United States claimed an even broader right and duty to act as policeman of the Western Hemisphere. If any nation in the hemisphere permitted conditions on its territory that might invite intervention by another country, then it was incumbent on the United States to intervene to remedy these conditions and forestall intervention by others. The United States must assume this obligation because the Monroe Doctrine prevented other powers from exercising their right of intervention in troubled Western Hemisphere countries.

Many American political leaders were dissatisfied with the doctrinal and practical consequences of the Roosevelt Corollary. In an attempt to adhere more closely to the spirit of nonintervention, President William Howard Taft sought to control internal political affairs in other nations through economic, rather than military, pressures. Since the nonintervention doctrine did not prohibit intervention for the protection of nationals, his administration encouraged American business interests to settle in potentially unstable neighboring countries. Presumably, they would help the country to stabilize its economy and prevent political turmoil. If the presence of American businesses failed to prevent unrest, the United States could then send protective missions as part of its right to protect its citizens abroad. In this manner it could control the politics of unstable countries without violating restraints commanded by the nonintervention doctrine.

During the presidency of Woodrow Wilson, the nonintervention doctrine received yet another interpretation. Wilson's claim that the United States must discourage dictatorships or unconstitutional governments in Latin America by refusing to recognize them was accompanied by strong professions that such interventions accorded with the principles embodied in the established doctrine of nonintervention. Destruction of unpopular governments, Wilson argued, freed foreign nations from undue restraints on their sovereign right to opt for democratic rulers. Rather than serving as a tool for coercing these nations into unwanted action, intervention thus became a tool to enable their people to exercise their will. While Wilson expanded the scope of the right of intervention on one hand, he also laid the groundwork for subsequent contractions of the right. His stress on the sovereign rights of states to determine their own fates, regardless of size, led to a series of international agreements that proclaimed the nonintervention principle as a prescription of international law except for individual or collective self-defense. Such agreements became part of the Covenant of the League of Nations (1918) and later the United Nations Charter (1945).

Nations of the Western Hemisphere went even further than the rest of the international community. Through a series of agreements and declarations springing from successive inter-American conferences in the 1930s, Western Hemisphere countries, including the United States, adopted a principle of absolute nonintervention by individual countries within the Western Hemisphere. Individual countries retained the right to protect the personal security of their citizens. Beyond that, only collective intervention by the combined forces of Western Hemisphere countries would remain lawful.

The United States was willing to bind itself to such absolute declarations of nonintervention because it believed that the collective intervention arrangements made in the Western Hemisphere and on the broader international scene provided a viable alternative to intervention by individual countries. At the same time, a series of presidential declarations emphasized more strongly than had been done in the early years that nonintervention pledges did not mean an abandonment of the right of self-defense when there was no effective collective action. Whenever possible, the United States also tried to conclude mutual defense and economic assistance treaties to provide a legal basis for coming to the aid of selected countries when counterintervention was needed to resist a communist takeover.

In addition, the United States explicitly asserted a right of counterintervention against illegal interventions by other powers. Protection from intervention was a privilege earned by deserving countries; it was not an absolute right. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, declared that the nonintervention principle applied only to nations that respected the rights of others. The United States, as a powerful member of the community of nations, had a right and duty to intervene in order to prevent or stop illegal interventions directed against countries that lacked the power or will to resist such interventions.

The dangers that would give rise to interventions were identified explicitly but broadly in the 1930s and 1940s. During that period, American political leaders believed that the efforts of the Axis powers to expand their control over Europe and Asia endangered peace and warranted intervention. American leaders soughtsometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfullyto have these concerns incorporated into multinational declarations to indicate that nonintervention pledges did not apply to power plays by the Axis powers. The idea that mutual nonintervention pledges by the United States and the Axis powers might be a better way to protect the United States was rejected by the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Following the defeat of the Axis powers in World War II, communism was viewed as the main danger to the national integrity and security of the United States and the world. In the Truman Doctrine, proclaimed in 1947, the United States declared broadly that either unilateral or collective intervention was justified to protect any country in the world from falling under communist rule. The peace and security of the United States and the world were at stake. The Eisenhower Doctrine, proclaimed in 1957, pinpointed some of the areas where intervention might be expected. Specifically, the political integrity of Middle Eastern nations was declared to be vital to world peace and American interests. If nations in the Middle East were threatened by overt armed aggression by communist forces, the United States would come to their aid if they requested help.

The 1970s saw a retrenchment in overt interventions against communist expansion. Accordingly, it seemed appropriate once more to redefine the scope of the nonintervention doctrine to conform to the prevailing official interpretation of the limits set by the policy. The Nixon Doctrine of 1970 expressed the principle that the United States did not consider it an obligation to protect other countries against communist intervention unless it had determined, in specific cases, that American security interests were involved. Even then, intervention was not the sole duty of the United States but was an obligation shared by all countries opposed to the overthrow of noncommunist governments by communist contenders. President Jimmy Carter deemed the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 a major threat to the West's oil lifeline. He responded in 1980 with the Carter Doctrine, declaring with unusual specificity that attempts by any foreign power to gain control over the Persian Gulf region would be considered a threat to the vital interests of the United States. It would be repelled, using military force if necessary. Five years later, in 1985, President Ronald Reagan once more pledged support for a policy of unilateral armed intervention in Third World countries if this became necessary to overthrow Marxist-Leninist regimes. The policy was to be applied selectively anywhere in the world where people were fighting against communism. In practice, it was implemented mostly in Central America.

The Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan doctrines did not pinpoint the conditions that might trigger a specific intervention. However, high-level military leaders often laid out the policy in somewhat more detail. For instance, General Colin Powell, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the administration of George H. W. Bush (19891993), declared that military interventions should be undertaken only when a number of conditions were met. Most importantly, the political objectives of the intervention had to be clearly defined and the gains and risks and likely outcomes had to be adequately assessed. Based on these assessments, it should be clear that the objectives of the intervention could be reached through military means at a defensible cost. Finally, nonviolent alternative policies, if suitable, had been tried first and failed.

Many observers argued that the various and sundry doctrines and statements by military leaders should not be viewed as blueprints for action. Rather, like the previously proclaimed nonintervention principles, they were tailored primarily for psychological impact. They were intended to discourage intervention-minded leaders and to give moral support to nations fearing communist attacks. It was hoped that policy pronouncements would obviate the need for remedial action. If action became necessary, the pronouncements could be characterized as prior warnings that legitimized subsequent actions.

Thus, the nonintervention doctrine has ebbed and flowed in its more than 200-year history. It has gone from an absolute expression, tempered by the implicit exception that interventions for vital purposes were permissible, to an emphasis on a broad range of exceptions to the doctrine, which left it little more than an empty shell. Then it was reformulated in absolute terms, tempered by statements of exceptions stressing that collective or unilateral intervention would still be used by the United States to protect vital security interests. But the absolutism abated again in the wake of major international threats posed by upheavals in Europe and Asia and evidence that collective interventions were difficult to orchestrate.

By the early twenty-first century, the policy implications of the doctrine were that the United States, like all sovereign states, claimed the right to protect its security by all means within its powerincluding interventionwhenever its leaders believed that this security was seriously endangered. Despite American capacity to intervene freely in the politics of most small nations, however, intervention would be used sparingly, primarily when conditions existed that potentially threatened the security of the United States and its allies and when all other means to resolve the problems failed. The pledges of nonintervention made in the twentieth century indicated the areas where intervention was most likely to occur and the conditions most likely to provoke it. They served as a rough guide to the government in its choice of policy options.


Definition and General Rules As defined by international lawyers, intervention is unsolicited interference by one state in the affairs of another; nonintervention is the avoidance of such interference. Intervention may be directed against a single state or factions within it, or it may involve interference with the interactions among a group of states. It may take the form of military action or economic or political pressures. These pressures force states to act in a manner prescribed or foreordained by the intervening state. Alternatively, the intervening state may use its own agents to carry out the policies that it desires. States yield because they fear military coercion or nonmilitary punitive actions or because they cannot stop the intervening state's agents or activities.

Although the elements of intervention can be readily outlined, they are hard to identify in specific political situations. Most relations among states contain elements of coercion whenever interacting parties feel constrained to make some concessions to each others' wishes. It is difficult to determine at what point pressure becomes coercive enough to be considered an intervention because consent was unwilling and therefore deemed void. For instance, when a country desperately needs economic aid from the United States or international agencies whose policies the U.S. controls, is it intervention to make aid contingent on privatizing that country's banking system? Normal intercourse among states merges almost imperceptibly into interventionist practices. In a community of nations that is comprised of states of varying powers and degrees of interdependence, nations lacking in economic and political resources are most likely to experience interventionist pressures. The world community has not yet agreed on the borderline between the right of the stronger power to insist on its terms, and the right of the weaker power to conduct its affairs free from coercion. At the other end of the spectrum of coercion, it has at times been difficult to determine when interventions become outright warfare.

A second problem arises from the interdependence of nations in the community of nations, which makes the complete independence envisaged by the concept of sovereignty a legal fiction, rather than a viable reality. In a community of interdependent nations, the domestic or foreign policies of state A frequently have a direct effect on the affairs of state B. When the United States closes its borders to Mexican farm laborers hired for seasonal work in the United States, the Mexican economy suffers. There is disagreement about whether intervention has taken place when the actions of Aand even inactionsseriously affect B but have not been primarily designed to affect B. If, as many international lawyers contend, intent to intervene is essential to establish the fact of intervention, the difficulty of proving intent seriously impedes accurate findings. For instance, the United States stopped the exportation of scrap metal to Japan prior to World War II, giving U.S. national defense needs as the reason. Japan claimed that the measure was intended to force a change in its military policies. It was difficult to prove at the time which claim was correct.

A third problem is tied to the question of responsibility of a state for the actions of its nationals. Citizens of country A, enraged about the treatment of religious minorities, revolutionaries, or foreign business establishments in country B, may openly or covertly interfere in the politics of country B to change policies that they think are offensive. It remains unsettled whether and under what circumstances their government becomes implicated by their activities. For example, Americans who were outraged by the racial policies of a South African government controlled by whites who were an ethnic minority pressured various American enterprises in the 1980s and 1990s to withdraw their investments from South Africa unless racial policies were changed. The withdrawals caused major economic dislocations and contributed to the ultimate fall of the minority government.

The problem of accurate identification of interventionist actions was of minor significance in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, because most interventions by the major European powers in the affairs of weak states were then deemed permissible self-defense actions under international law. In fact, rulers in Europe considered intervention a moral duty to uphold their common culture and to protect the political status quo. When the status quo was threatened by the French Revolution, the major European powers pledged support of interventions that would uphold the existing balance of power and maintain established governments.

Numerous interventions took place for these causes. For example, Prussia, Austria, and Russia intervened in Spain, Naples, and Piedmont in 1820 to suppress revolution against the established governments. Similarly, from 1827 to 1832, during the Greek war of independence, Britain, France, and Russia repeatedly intervened in the internal affairs of Greece and Turkey to maintain the balance of power in the Middle East. Other interventions were designed to protect religious groups and minorities, especially when they had ties to the intervening country. Despite high regard for the principle of state sovereignty, international law and practice in the nineteenth century sanctioned a broad right of intervention to protect the interests of nations strong enough to exercise this right to maintain the political status quo.

In the twentieth century, international developments changed the concept of unquestioned legality of all interventions, raising the problem of defining the nature of legal and illegal interventions. The decline of autocratic monarchies and the rise of democratically controlled nations in the wake of the French Revolution had weakened the idea of a community of nations jointly responsible for preserving the existing political landscape. Democratic and autocratic governments had little in common except the reciprocal fear that one was determined to destroy the other. They did not share the sense of kinship and personal moral obligation that had united the crowned heads of Europe. Nor did they agree about the most advantageous policies for Europe and the aims worthy of individual or collective intervention.

Fearing each other, European states wanted to make sure that they would be able to conduct their affairs unhindered by other nations. They therefore looked to the theory of state sovereignty and to claims of an inherent freedom of self-determination as foundations for legal restraints that would protect them from unbridled interventionism by other members of the international community. Gradually, the efforts of small nations, supported by larger countries opposed to interventions to sustain absolute governments in Europe, undermined the concept of an unlimited right of intervention. The notion of a duty of intervention to prevent politically harmful changes was replaced by the concept of a duty of nonintervention subject only to a small number of exceptions.

By the middle of the twentieth century, changing legal philosophies, buttressed by a number of specific resolutions and multilateral treaties, including the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States (1933) and the United Nations Charter (1945), had made it a general rule of international law that states may not interfere in matters customarily deemed to be the exclusive purview of another state. A state's internal affairs and its relations with third parties are inviolable. Article 2, paragraph 7 of the UN Charter states that "Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state."

While nonintervention is the general rule, it is still limited by a right of intervention in cases where the current or imminent actions of one state endanger vital concerns of another state or of the community of nations. The clamor of small states for a total prohibition of all interventions has never been heeded. Accordingly, Article 2, paragraph 7 of the charter also provides that the nonintervention principle "shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII." Under Chapter VII, states retain the right of coercive action, including the use of military force, to protect international peace and security.

In fact, there has been a partial swing back to the notion that intervention may be a duty to assure the right of people everywhere to be governed democratically and to be protected from violations of their basic rights as human beings. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, laid out the scope of these rights. They include bans on genocide and war crimes. The declaration urges member nations to secure "universal and effective recognition and observance" of these rights. Subsequently, the 1951 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide spelled out in detail that actions such as killing members of national, ethnic, racial, or religious groups, or harming them bodily or mentally, or preventing them from having children, constitutes genocide. The Nuremberg Tribunal, set up to try German war criminals after World War II, established the principle that political leaders and their minions are personally responsible for atrocities they commit as part of their official duties. In the 1990s, international criminal tribunals were set up to try individuals accused of crimes against humanity in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. The activities of these tribunals demonstrate that individual responsibility for crimes against humanity can be enforced to some degree under existing international laws. The 1998 Rome Statute for creating an International Criminal Court, which was signed by 120 countries within two years of its adoption, is further evidence that the world community concurs that human rights should be protected under international law.

In 1999, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged UN members to devise and pursue more effective policies to stop egregious human rights violations. He acknowledged that some nations might oppose humanitarian interventions as violations of state sovereignty. He countered this contention by arguing that the moral duty of the world community to stop human rights violations trumped an offending state's rights to sovereignty. In line with such widespread sentiments, which nonetheless lack the force of law, the United States has been criticized by political leaders at home and abroad for neglecting its "duty" to prevent or stop genocide, irrespective of its own interests. The issue arose in the Balkans, in Uganda, and in Indonesia when civil strife led to "ethnic cleansing" policies because ruling factions in these states or regions committed atrocities designed to kill or otherwise eliminate undesired minorities from their lands.

Application Problems The general rule that states may intervene in the affairs of other states to protect their own vital interests has been difficult to apply because there is no agreement on the definition of "vital interests." Are the interests that may be protected limited to matters of military security, or do they include major economic and social stakes? Must the danger be imminent or is there a right of preventive intervention? Is it a vital right to protect the property of one's citizens from physical harm in states where effective government has collapsed? Who determines that vital interests are endangered and that intervention is needed to protect them? What is an equitable balance between the safeguarding of vital interests of the intervening state and those of the state subject to intervention? If a state violates the human or political rights of individuals within its borders, or if its actions endanger international peace, do members of the international community have the duty to interfere to enforce the norms of the international community? May they intervene on behalf of established governments under attack by revolutionary forces within their own borders? The answers to these questions remain highly controversial.

These problems are further clouded by vociferous statements of political activists who invoke moral and ethical norms. They claim that interventions on behalf of "good" causes, as they define them, are legal and a moral duty, while interventions for "bad" causes are illegal, unethical, and immoral. Good causes range from aiding persecuted individuals to the duty to provide peoples with good governments to the obligation to stop civil wars or bring about the victory of the allegedly more virtuous side.

A second area of controversy concerns the means of intervention. There is substantial consensus that illegal intervention has occurred when a state dispatches armed forces to the territory of another. The Covenant of the League of Nations (1918), the Kellogg-Briand Pact (1928), and the United Nations Charter (1945) are examples of international agreements outlawing such armed interventions. There is far less agreement about the legality of the vast array of nonmilitary pressures by which states can affect the affairs of other states. These include economic pressures, such as an offer or withdrawal of loans, trade, or aid, including military supplies; political pressures, such as granting recognition to an acceptable government to bolster its power, and withholding of recognition from an unacceptable government in hopes of toppling it; and psychological pressures, such as expressing support for one side in a revolution, denouncing the policies of another state, or excluding it from international meetings. There is a good deal of disagreement about which of such economic, political, and psychological pressures are legitimate exercises of a state's right to conduct its affairs with others as it pleases or undue interferences in the affairs of another state.

A third area of dispute involves the validity of consent to intervention. Many legal experts contend that intervention is legal if it is carried out pursuant to treaty rights or in response to an invitation by an incumbent government. Others dispute the legality of such interventions because treaties granting the right to intervention and requests for intervention frequently spring from duress or are initiated by unrepresentative governments eager to keep themselves in power. Whether these factors invalidate the consent expressed in the treaty or invitation is a controversial legal question. For example, when Colombia refused the request of President Theodore Roosevelt's administration to allow the United States to build a canal in Panama, then a part of Colombia, an uprising leading to Panama's independence was engineered with U.S. support. The pro-independence forces then requested U.S. aid in resisting Colombia's efforts to prevent the secession. The United States complied, ignoring Colombia's objections that the rebels lacked legitimacy and the right to request foreign aid. Once independent, Panama granted the United States the canal rights that its parent state had refused.

A related problem involves the right of collective intervention. For example, member states of the United Nations have agreed in principle to collective interventions. Is this tantamount to automatic approval of interventions by the United Nations in a member country that has violated UN rules and demands? Can a nonmember of the United Nations validly argue that collective intervention directed against it is illegal because it has not given prior consent? For example, could Iraq contend that the UN coalition cobbled together by the Bush administration in 19901991 amounted to illegal intervention when Iraq claimed that its incursions into neighboring Kuwait were legitimate because part of the region legally belonged to Iraq? Moreover, Iraq claimed that the government of Kuwait was ruling the country against the objections of the Kuwaiti population.

The official position of the United States on legality and illegality of interventions has generally leaned toward a fairly broad construction of the right of intervention. Presidents and secretaries of state have argued since the end of World War I that international law permits states to retain the right to determine which of their national interests may be protected through intervention and the occasions when intervention is required. Likewise, the United States contends that states retain the right to intervene individually when collective intervention machinery fails to operate efficiently. At the same time, the United States has narrowed the scope of American interests defined as vital enough to justify protection through intervention. Examples of circumstances claimed as justifying intervention include the establishment of Soviet missile sites in Cuba in 1962 and aid to the corrupt but noncommunist government of Vietnam in the 1960s when communist forces attempted to wrest power from the regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem.

The determination of what constitutes legal intervention has been further complicated by the fact that it is deemed derogatory to charge a government with the practice of intervention. For many of the world's governments and people, interventions are policies pursued by international bullies and oppressors, while nonintervention is the hallmark of virtuous nations. These evaluative connotations tempt intervening governments to avoid the label of "intervention" even when their actions are lawful. Instead, they use deceptive names, such as "interposition" or "police action." Similarly, they may misrepresent illegal interventions as legal activities by using deceptive names or spurious legal justifications. The countries that are the targets of interventions may give the false taint of illegality to them by attaching the intervention label to them. Such misuses of political terms make it difficult to ascertain prevailing views within the community of nations on the precise nature of intervention and the criteria by which one can judge whether intervention has occurred and is legal or illegal.


If one were to draw a curve charting the number of American interventions over a 200-year span, it would begin at a fairly low point, reach a peak roughly at the center, then move sharply downward and rebound after World War II. The curve would show several lesser fluctuations during the years of ascent and descent. The major rationale for this ebb and flow of interventionism is the change in perceptions about the security of U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.

The United States has intervened in the affairs of other nations, or seriously considered intervening, primarily to prevent or foil anticipated attempts by powers on other continents to gain a foothold in the Western Hemisphere from which they might mount an attack on the United States. It has also intervened to maintain power balances among nations in Europe and Asia so that no single nation or combination of nations might become strong enough in these regions to launch an assault on the Western Hemisphere from abroad. Occasionally, the United States has also intervened to establish American strategic and economic bases abroad in order to protect its vital connecting routes to other parts of the world.

When challenges to hegemony were deemed minor, or when interventions were urged for goals not clearly involving the protection of hegemonic interests, the United States has generally shunned intervention. A major exception has been the policy of intervening on behalf of U.S. citizens abroad whenever their lives and property were threatened by political events in a weak foreign country. American statesmen have generally viewed the protective aspects of such actions as paramount and the interventionist aspects as strictly subordinate. Protective interventions, if limited to safeguard Americans, were ordinarily not counted in the record of interventions, at least not by American officials. Of course, the target country often viewed the matter differently.

Humanitarian interventions are another exception. They are viewed primarily as attempts to help suffering human beings whose lives are endangered, rather than as attempts to challenge or interfere with the political situation in the states where these individuals happen to live. In fact, the United States has resisted protecting people from violation of many of their economic and social rights stipulated in human rights conventions, claiming that such interventions would constitute illegal interference.

The argument that infringements of state sovereignty to achieve humanitarian goals are nonpolitical becomes more difficult to sustain when humanitarian crises are precipitated by political events, as was true in the 1990s for starvation relief in Somalia or rescue of Muslims in Bosnia and Kosovo from annihilation. States where humanitarian interventions are taking place generally condemn them. They consider all actions taken by a foreign power on their soil against their expressed wishes as intervention, regardless of the motivation for the action. This is why intervening states, including the United States, often supplement the humanitarian argument by claiming that the action is also undertaken because their vital interests are at stake or because extreme human suffering brings instability that endangers international peace.

While protection of the security of the United States has been the major reason for considering interventions as policy options, additional concerns have influenced specific policy decisions. Foremost, particularly in the early years of the country, was the question of capability to intervene effectively. Intervention usually requires substantial military, economic, and political resources. When the United States lacked such resources or was already using them to their fullest extent, it could not spare them for interventions.

The balance between political gains and political disadvantages derived from the intervention is also important. Intervention by one state may spur counterintervention by another. It may alienate the government and people of the state against which it is undertaken. It may antagonize other members of the community of nations. The chances that it will accomplish the objectives for which it was undertaken may be slim. All these factors are weighed in determining whether a particular intervention is advisable.

Policies of intervention, like other foreign policies, also tend to become entangled with events on the domestic political scene. Political competition for the allocation of human and material resources for various goals may lead to strong opposition to spending resources for a particular intervention. In the years before the Civil War, many interventions were appraised within the context of the proslavery-antislavery dispute. Later, the intervention policy became entangled in the debate over the merits of imperialist expansion. Differences in the appraisal of individual situations also are important. Political leaders often disagreed about whether hegemonic interests were really involved in a particular situation and whether intervention was likely to produce the anticipated results. Considering the high economic and political stakes involved in most decisions to intervene or to abstain, heated debates have been the rule. Political partisanship has also played a part in opposing or supporting particular interventions even though the policy of intervention and nonintervention has never carried a party label. Periods of plentiful and of scarce interventions have been unrelated to the partisan orientation of the government.

Public opinion within the United States has also had a discernible impact on foreign policy choices. When the public mood leaned toward isolationism and concentration on domestic problems, interventions were chosen less frequently than when the public mood was expansionist or imbued with the idea that the United States, as a world power, must involve itself fully with external affairs. Such swings in public opinion have been common, often based on reactions to the success or failure of the most recent foreign policies and on the country's economic strength.

The history of U.S. intervention and nonintervention policies can be divided into four periods. The first, in which the stress on nonintervention was greatest, encompasses roughly the first century of the nation's existence. Then followed an interlude of unabashed interventionism during the closing decades of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century. This period ended with the Great Depression years of the 1930s. Third, there were the frustrating decades leading up to World War II, followed by the Cold War era of confrontation between communist and noncommunist power blocs. Hopes for meeting dangers to the national interest through collective interventions turned to dust in the Cold War era. Despite a desire to abandon unilateral interventions, the United States felt compelled to intervene repeatedly to safeguard its national security when American leaders deemed it endangered by the policies of authoritarian governments in various parts of the world. Finally, the end of the Cold War and collapse of the Soviet Union ushered in a new era. Humanitarian interventions in ethnic conflicts and interventions to aid countries in creating democratic governments became fairly common interventionist activities, usually after prolonged and heated verbal battles in the halls of government.

The First Century During the first century of the nation's history, numerous interventions were undertaken to consolidate control over the American mainland and adjacent regions. Territories held by European countries or in danger of being taken over by a European country were acquired or kept from passing under the control of a European rival or changing hands from a weaker to a stronger European ruler. Several major interventions to acquire Spanish Florida and minor meddling in Texas and California are examples. However, while the country was still weak compared to strong European powers, and during the turmoil of the Civil War and Reconstruction, interventions were undertaken only if the outcome seemed highly promising and few dire consequences appeared in the offing. For instance, intervention to acquire Canada was ruled out because of fear that it might bring war with Britain. Diplomatic activities to acquire Cuba were kept short of intervention lest they embroil the country in war with Spain and its allies. Likewise, intervention to annex the Dominican Republic was scotched by Congress.

Intervention was also considered repeatedly during this period in order to keep European powers from intervening in the affairs of independent Western Hemisphere states. But few of these plans bore fruit. Internal weakness kept the United States from pursuing its policies through intervention on a number of occasions when, at a later period, it would have intervened. For example, the United States did not stop interventions by France in Mexico and Haiti to collect debts, nor did it halt incursions by Britain into Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Argentina. Verbal protests were made repeatedly. The United States objected to France's intervention in Mexico to support a monarchy, to Spain's intervention in Peru and annexation of the Dominican Republic, and to Britain's acquisition of parts of Honduras.

The United States also attempted to strengthen American influence in areas threatened by European intervention by expressing a strong interest in the fate of these regions. But the United States could do little more. Powerful influences in Congress and among the public opposed preventive interventions that various presidents had suggested to restore public order in Mexico and the Caribbean area or to overturn military dictatorships and thereby forestall corrective measures by European powers. The United States even kept largely aloof from the efforts of European colonies in the Western Hemisphere to free themselves from control by their mother countries.

Interventions by the United States in revolutions outside the Western Hemisphere were also kept to a minimum, although many revolutions were taking place in Europe to replace absolute monarchies with democratic governments. Two centuries later, the support of democratic factions and countries against absolute governments of a different sort would be deemed sound reason for intervention by the United States, but that time had not yet arrived.

The United States did intervene in China, Japan, and Korea to coerce them to grant trade privileges to American merchants, beginning with a government trade mission in 1844 headed by Commissioner Caleb Cushing. At the time, such missions were the usual practice when foreign nations wanted to trade with Asian countries. The eagerness of the United States to have its citizens participate in the spoils of trade in the Far East was explained as much by strategic as by economic considerations. American leaders feared that the European powers would divide the Far East, particularly China, into spheres of influence from which other powers would be excluded. Land bases in China would give them control over the shipping lanes of the Pacific Ocean. The United States, unless it supported retention of control by the weak Asiatic powers or secured spheres of interest of its own, would be deprived of Pacific outposts to protect its access routes to Asia. The United States therefore pursued a twopronged policy in the area: it protested against increased domination by European powers, and it intervened to acquire trade privileges for itself and to lay the foundations for ultimate acquisition of a number of naval bases in the Pacific.

The Imperial Period The heady philosophy of the interventionist phase of American foreign policy is epitomized by Secretary of State Richard Olney's claim in 1895 that the United States had become master of the American continent "practically invulnerable as against any or all other powers." Consequently, "its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition." Within the next decade the United States would satisfy all its remaining territorial ambitions, largely through interventions and war with Spain. Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Guam came under its control, as well as Hawaii and Samoa. Nonetheless, even during this period, reluctance to intervene did not disappear entirely. For instance, President Grover Cleveland's administration resisted pleas for intervention in Cuba although intermittent civil strife on the island was deemed hazardous to American security.

From the standpoint of intervention policy, the most crucial territorial acquisition during this period was the Panama Canal Zone. It was acquired through interventionist policies that assured that the Panama region would break away successfully from Colombia and would grant ample concessions to the United States for construction and protection of an isthmian canal. The United States regarded the canal as a lifeline permitting its naval units to shuttle rapidly between the East and West coasts to guard against dangers emanating from Europe or Asia. To protect this vital route, the United States appointed itself policeman of the Western Hemisphere who must and did intervene frequently to restore political order in the small countries near the canal. American political leaders assumed that political unrest automatically spelled danger to the canal area, warranting intervention. No specific proof was required in a particular situation that an attack on the canal was imminent. In a number of Caribbean countries, the United States even secured treaty rights of automatic intervention in case of unrest. The most famous advance authorization for intervention was the Platt Amendment to the Cuban constitution, which was in force for more than thirty years.

In areas farther from the canal, interventions were undertaken with more restraint. During this period, Mexico was a source of great concern to American policymakers because of constant internal turmoil, a succession of brutal dictatorial governments, and serious attacks on American citizens and their property in Mexico. The United States used a number of pressures, particularly economic sanctions and arms embargoes, to control turmoil in Mexico, but refrained from full-scale military intervention despite domestic pressures.

During the interventionist period the United States protested more strongly than ever before against European incursions into the affairs of the hemisphere. Boundary difficulties between Venezuela and Britain in the 1880s provide a good example. The United States intervened in the dispute, contending that it had a general right to interpose in any conflict in which the political or territorial integrity of an American state was threatened by a non-American power. It claimed that it could insist on arbitration and the enforcement of the arbitration award, even if one of the parties opposed the award.

By nonrecognition of an undesirable government, the United States also intervened repeatedly, although not consistently, to overthrow authoritarian regimes, particularly military dictatorships that had come to power in Latin America. Regimes that had ascended through unconstitutional means and represented authoritarian philosophies were deemed potential sources of instability. They might produce internal unrest, encouraging foreign intervention that would threaten the hegemonic interests of the United States. It was hoped that nonrecognition would make it so difficult for the unrecognized government to conduct its political and economic affairs that it would be weakened and overthrown by democratic forces. While potential danger to the security of the Western Hemisphere usually was the motivating force for nonrecognition, at times the policy was used on purely ideological grounds. Several instances occurred during the Woodrow Wilson administration because President Wilson was loathe to recognize governments that had come to power by force or ruled undemocratically.

Major challenges to the international balance of power continued in Asia during this period. European nations and Japan were establishing spheres of interest at the expense of China. More assiduously than before, the United States aimed to prevent this by means of an Open Door policy for China. This involved securing pledges by European nations and Japan to refrain from closing any part of China to access by other powers. The United States protested whenever other powers violated the policy, which it regarded as a guarantee of China's territorial integrity and independence. When protests failed, the United States did not usually attempt stronger pressures for fear that they might lead to war.

The United States did intervene in the Russo-Japanese War (19041905) to prevent Russia and Japan from encroaching on China's sovereignty. Later it refused to recognize damaging concessions extorted by Japan from China in the vain hope that this would produce a policy change on Japan's part. The United States also continued to engage in intervention designed to strengthen China economically and politically and to assure an American presence in the area to checkmate European power plays.

The peak of interventionism, if one judges by the frequency of interventions and the number of countries involved, was reached during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Besides numerous interventions in the Western Hemisphere and Asia, this phase included U.S. intervention in World War I on behalf of the anti-German coalition. Ultimately, intervention led to full-scale American participation in the war.

In the postwar years, the number of interventions declined. The weakness of European powers after World War I was one major factor. They no longer presented a real threat to the hegemony of the United States in the Western Hemisphere. No European power was strong enough to assume control over Europe or the tottering Chinese empire. Another major factor was the realization that many goals that the United States had tried to accomplish in the course of interventions in the Western Hemisphere could not be achieved through intervention. For instance, it had been impossible to lay the groundwork for politically stable, economically sound, and democratically governed states in the Caribbean area, despite lengthy U.S. military interventions. Attempts to establish economic influence abroad and to use it for political purposes (known as dollar diplomacy) had also largely failed.

Lastly, interventions had aroused a great deal of opposition from other countries, particularly the nations of the Western Hemisphere, and from groups within the United States. The policy was attacked on legal, moral, and practical grounds as improper coercion of the weak by the strong for the selfish aims of the strong. Behind such charges lay a changing climate of world opinion that placed greater emphasis on the sovereign rights of small nations and condemned coercive diplomacy, particularly the use of military force, to achieve national objectives.

The Collective Security Phase The dominant feature of American intervention and nonintervention policies after the end of the openly interventionist years was the desire to make interventionsparticularly those involving the use of military forcecollective enterprises of the world community or regional groupings. Dangers to the vital interests of the international community that would justify protection through intervention were to be carefully defined in advance. The United States hoped that they would encompass all the circumstances that had hitherto tempted it into individual interventions. In addition, the United States expected to influence the policies of other countries through conditions attached to its economic and military aid policies. It did not consider such conditions interventionist. Rather, they were deemed the right of the donor to dictate the terms of a grant.

Unfortunately, the goals set for conditional aid policies were rarely achieved. The stipulated conditions often proved impossible to implement or failed to produce the desired results because of unstable internal conditions in the recipient nations. Fraud and corruption were major problems worldwide. In many cases, the conditions attached to the aid were flouted. Occasionally, the prospective recipient refused the aid because the conditions were deemed interventionist, destabilizing, or insulting.

The goals set for collective interventions fared somewhat better, but also fell short on many occasions. Prolonged negotiations over many years made it possible to organize a moderately effective collective intervention system in the Western Hemisphere. Spurred on by the United States and its supporters, the system was activated repeatedly to curb Axis and communist influence in Latin America. Strong objections by countries such as pro-Axis Argentina and Chile and procommunist Cuba, Guatemala, and their supporters were overruled. But efforts to use the system failed frequently when the goal was to control major political problems endemic to Western Hemisphere countries.

On the wider international level, the League of Nations Covenant, and the United Nations Charter and interpretive resolutions thereafter, also contained provisions for collective intervention to protect the vital interests of members of the community of nations. But agreement could rarely be reached on the kinds of menaces to which this machinery should respond. Nations could not even agree during international gatherings or when faced with specific situations on what sets of circumstances should be considered threats to world peace.

The weaknesses of the collective intervention machinery encouraged the United States to continue to determine unilaterally whether its security was menaced by particular international developments. When protective interventions seemed necessary, it would then try to initiate collective action. If this failed, or if the collective machinery could not be put into operation quickly and decisively enough to halt the danger, the United States claimed and continued to exercise a right of unilateral intervention.

Two major dangers, similar in nature, roused the United States to a large number of verbal, economic, political, and military interventions during this and the preceding period. The first was the attempt of right-wing authoritarian regimes in Europe, and later in the Far East as well, to destroy the balance of power in Europe and Asia and to establish their own hegemony. The United States first intervened in World War II in Europe and Asia by verbal attacks and warnings directed against the dictators. It tried to engender and support policies by neutral powers that would be harmful to the dictators' aims, and it gave economic and military aid to the dictators' enemies. Along with other countries in the Western Hemisphere, it interfered with the rights of belligerent powers to conduct hostilities on the high seas surrounding the Americas in a band 300 to 1,000 miles wide. To protect the hemisphere from Axis footholds, the territorial status of European possessions in the Americas was declared frozen in 1940. Inter-American machinery was established to administer the possessions of subjugated European countries. All of these verbal, political, and economic interventions failed to halt Axis advances. The United States then entered the war in 1941 in response to Axis war declarations and attacks on U.S. territories.

The victory of the Allied powers in World War II ended the menace to American security created by rightist totalitarian imperialism in Europe and Japanese empire building in Asia. New challenges to hemispheric safety soon arose from attempts by the Soviet Union and other communist powers to spread their ideology and political and even territorial control over a widening circle of countries in Europe, Asia, and other parts of the world. American leaders believed that the United States had a legal right to intervene to halt communist advances because its own survival as a democratic country was deemed at stake. Every addition to the communist coalition diminished the potential of the United States to defend itself successfully against communist subversion and military aggression.

Interventions by the United States to halt or prevent the spread of communist control throughout the world explain most of its far-flung operations during the latter four-fifths of the twentieth century. In almost every case in which the United States had identified a situation as potential or actual communist intervention, it tried to work through collective action. These efforts failed frequently because other countries disagreed that communist intervention was imminent or because they feared the consequences of the spread of communism less. Moreover, struggles by national liberation movements to free their countries from foreign control or domestic tyranny and corruption had often become so entwined with insurgency by procommunist forces that it was hard to fight communism without destroying liberation and reform movements. When the United States intervened unilaterally, claiming to act in the name of collectively approved principles to maintain established governments in power, its reputation as a champion of popular, honest government often suffered serious damage at home and abroad.

The United States intervened to prevent the ascendancy of communist governments in Eastern Europe by means of a policy of nonrecognition and economic pressures. It tried to checkmate Soviet influence in places like Iran, Turkey, and Greece. It aided anticommunist nations in the Middle East, particularly the new state of Israel, as well as pro-Western Jordan and Lebanon in their struggles against covert and overt attacks by Soviet-supported Arab nations. The United States sent aid and rescue missions to assist anticommunist forces in the Congo and, to a lesser extent, Angola. It used a number of interventionist tactics to bring about black majority rule in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa, and Namibia, in hopes of preventing racial warfare in southern Africa that might provide a cover for further expansion of Soviet influence in the area. It also used such tactics to keep Soviet influence in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf at bay.

To strengthen noncommunist governments faced with strong domestic opposition from communist parties, and to support governments fighting against communist insurgents, the United States intervened in widely scattered parts of the globe, such as Central and Western Europe, the Far East, and Latin America. In the Far East, intervention was used to prevent the expansion of communist control over much of Southeast Asia, particularly South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, and over South Korea. In Korea, the United States intervened unilaterally in 1950 until a United Nations force could take over. The bulk of military power that was made available to the United Nations for collective intervention had to be furnished by the United States because other powers gave only verbal support. The Korean intervention and other interventions undertaken to stop the advances of communism made it clear that gains won on the battlefield could not be maintained without permanently stationing noncommunist military forces in areas coveted by communist powers.

The most protracted and costly intervention to halt the advance of communist-controlled forces occurred in Vietnam. There the United States and a number of its allies attempted to support noncommunist governments against attacks by procommunist forces eager to reunite North Vietnam and South Vietnam under a communist government. The fierce controversy over the legality and wisdom of the Vietnam intervention led to serious political cleavages within the United States and within the international community. Opponents of the intervention claimed that the situation involved a domestic struggle between procommunist and anticommunist Vietnamese that did not seriously involve U.S. security interests. Proponents disagreed and their views prevailed. The United States finally withdrew its military forces from Vietnam in 1973. Economic and military aid to the South Vietnamese government was discontinued in 1975. By that time, communist forces had assumed full control of the country and further resistance to the spread of communism in Southeast Asia appeared hopeless.

In many instances, it is easy to refute charges of illegal interventionism by the United States because American policymakers based their actions on treaty rights providing for joint defense against communist attacks or on requests for help by anticommunist governments in various nations. But, as indicated earlier, the moral and even legal validity of these arrangements is often challenged when the agreements were concluded under circumstances that made it practically impossible for one party to decline or when the moral authority of the government to agree to intervention is questionable. A more solid, legal defense for anticommunist interventions is the claim to a right of counterintervention. The United States acted in most instances in response to proved, presumed, or anticipated interventions by communist forces that were intervening around the world to guide politics to their advantage. It can be argued that, akin to the right of self-defense, there exists a right of preventive or curative counterintervention.

While it may seem at first glance that the United States missed no opportunity to intervene against the spread of communism, this was not the case. Many possibilities for intervention were bypassed because the threat of advancing communist influence was comparatively limited, because the costs of intervention, including likely counterinterventions, seemed too high, or because the United States realized that it could not muster sufficient strength in faraway places to engage in effective intervention.

A situation involving all three of these contingencies occurred on mainland China. The United States had initially given some aid to the forces of General Chiang Kai-shek to assist him in wresting control of North China from the communist forces in that country. When it became clear that only massive military involvement would save the Chinese mainland from communist control, U.S. policymakers in the period following World War II, in a highly contested policy judgment, decided against such a major commitment. But limited aid to Chiang Kai-shek, who had retreated to the island of Formosa, continued. Similarly, despite explicit declarations and implicit threats, interventions on behalf of noncommunist factions in Eastern European countries to help them shed communist control never materialized. Insurgents in East Germany in 1953, Poland and Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968 received no official help.

Nor did the United States intervene in most instances when left-or right-wing dictatorships came to power in Latin America in the period after World War II, or when governments expropriated the assets of large American businesses without adequate compensation. For example, it failed to intervene in Bolivia in 1952 when a coup d'état supported by Argentina's pro-fascist Juan Perón regime put a radical regime into power. It nationalized the tin mines that supplied tin to the United States and failed to compensate U.S. business interests for losses suffered through expropriations. Major exceptions to this hands-off policy occurred generally only in areas close to the American mainland and the access routes to the Panama Canal. For instance, the United States intervened to topple a left-wing anti-American government in Guatemala in 1954 by aiding exile forces attempting military invasion of their homeland.

The United States also helped to plan and execute an invasion by anti-Castro Cuban refugees in 1961 who wanted to overthrow the communist government of Premier Fidel Castro in Cuba. The attack failed and the tactics of the United States were widely condemned as illegal. Few such charges were made a year later when the United States intervened in Cuban-Soviet relations by demanding removal of Soviet missiles stationed in Cuba. In the Cuban missile crisis, most Latin American states and most noncommunist members of the world community concurred that the security of the United States was sufficiently endangered by Soviet missiles ninety miles from its territory to justify intervention. Subsequently, the inter-American community acted jointly to exclude Cuba from the inter-American system and to embargo the shipment of arms and other goods to Cuba. This fell short of the collective break in diplomatic relations favored by the United States in response to Cuba's publicized plans to subvert other Latin American governments, if necessary by guerrilla violence and civil war. Venezuela, Colombia, and Bolivia had been singled out as primary targets. When the dominance of the United States over hemispheric relations declined in the 1970s, restrictions against Cuba were lifted one by one.

Another major intervention against a Latin American government was the attempt to forestall a leftist takeover in the Dominican Republic. More than 30,000 U.S. troops were dispatched in 1965 to stop fighting between forces that President Lyndon Johnson deemed procommunist and anticommunist. Ultimately, a right-wing regime prevailed. Although the United States managed to involve the inter-American collective intervention machinery, participation by the Organization of American States did little to erase the bitterness within the United States, Latin America, and other parts of the globe about the initial failure of the United States to abide by its pledge to abstain from unilateral military intervention. Many observers doubted that the Dominican situation had presented a sufficiently serious threat to the security of the United States to warrant major preventive measures.

After costly, often fruitless interventions had soured American policymakers on benefits to be reaped from intervention, a renewed retreat from overt interventionism began in 1969. It was hastened by a policy of détente and bargaining between the United States, the Soviet Union, and mainland China that helped to reduce the climate of mutual fear that had spawned interventions earlier. The ascent of communist-controlled or communist-influenced governments was no longer deemed an ipso facto threat to the security of the noncommunist world. The United States reduced its interventions and military commitments in Asia. It tried to lessen occasions for intervention in the Middle East by pacifying the area and resuming more normal relations with countries that had drawn their support from the Soviet Union. It also took a more aloof stance toward the tumultuous politics of Latin America. Moreover, to avoid the onus of charges of interventionism, a number of interventions were conducted as covert enterprises. The activities of the Central Intelligence Agency, which contributed to the overthrow of the Marxist government of President Salvador Allende Gossens in Chile in 1973, are examples of the types of actions that were undertaken covertly to weaken governments and policies deemed hostile and dangerous to the United States.

However, increased reluctance to engage in interventions and decreased concern about the dangers posed by the ascendancy of Marxist governments in various parts of the world should not be construed as a complete retreat from the use of collective or unilateral intervention to protect the security of the United States from damage caused by attempts to spread communism. For instance, the United States invaded Grenada, a Caribbean island, in 1983 on the grounds that the Fidel Castro's communist government in nearby Cuba had designs on the island.

Overall, the more restrained approach to anticommunist interventionism was gradually counterbalanced by increased interventionism on behalf of humanitarian and civil rights causes. President Jimmy Carter, following policies reminiscent of the Woodrow Wilson presidency, proclaimed in 1977 that the United States would intervene on behalf of persecuted peoples anywhere in the world where states were denying human or civil rights to their citizens on account of race, religion, or political persuasion. Numerous such interventions took place. However, they were neither prompt nor consistent. In a haphazard pattern, influenced by a multiplicity of political and logistical factors, humanitarian interventions were carried out promptly or sluggishly in some situations but forgone in others involving equal or greater human catastrophes.

The PostCold War Decades During the Cold War era, most interventions could be defended as counterinterventions that were needed to implement the policy of containment designed to stop the spread of communism. Following the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union in 1991, different rationales came to the fore. The new potential dangers to U.S. interests came primarily from an epidemic of violent internal conflicts and human rights violations in formerly communist nations and in developing countries throughout the globe. To justify intervention under these circumstances, U.S. presidents used three major rationales. Most commonly, presidents contended that these upheavals endangered world peace and security in general and hence the security of the United States. This argument served two purposes. It was useful in justifying collective interventions under the United Nations Charter and it weakened complaints by domestic critics in the United States, especially in the Senate, who denied that the country's national security was imperiled and therefore charged that the United States had no business undertaking these foreign interventions.

The second major rationale was the evolving consensus that humanitarian interventions are a moral duty as well as a requirement in the wake of the various human rights declarations. However, this argument has never been considered strong enough to silence influential critics of intervention. Hence, it is usually accompanied by claims that the human rights violations, besides endangering vulnerable populations, also constitute a threat to peace.

The final major rationalealso usually buttressed by individual or collective self-defense argumentsis the claim that the United States is a world power that must protect the world from major misbehavior by members of the international community. The argument was clearly articulated by President Bill Clinton in his Farewell Address to the nation in 2001. He declared that "America cannot and must not disengage itself from the world. If we want the world to embody our shared values, then we must assume shared responsibility." Clinton's plea resembles to a surprising extent the claims made by President Theodore Roosevelt a century earlier. The Roosevelt Corollary that pictured the United States as the world's policeman was never accepted by the rest of the international community. Its modern version is likely to be equally unpopular, especially among small nations that are the most likely targets of intervention.

The argument that international peace and security are endangered by political unrest in a foreign country was used by Clinton's predecessor, President George H. W. Bush, to displace General Manuel Noriega, who headed the government of Panama in 1990 when the country was in turmoil and there were rampant violations of the human rights of Noriega's enemies. Economic sanctions, such as freezing Panamanian assets in the United States and revoking Panama's most-favored-nation trade status, had failed to drive the general from office. As in so many other interventions, the brunt of the suffering produced by these economic sanctions was borne by the poorest segments of the population while the leaders of the country continued to prosper and lead lives of luxury.

On 17 December 1989, President Bush ordered Operation Just Cause to replace Noriega by military force. American troops landed on 20 December. The officially stated "just causes" for the intervention were protection of American lives and property in Panama at a time of internal political unrest, restoration of democracy, the security of the Panama Canal, and brutalities and illegal drug trafficking ascribed to Noriega and his cronies. It remains a matter of controversy whether these were the actual motives or merely cover-ups for more mundane political objectives of the Bush administration. Among other reasons, President Bush, like many of his predecessors and like his successor, President Clinton, may have felt that the "leader of the free world" could not risk his international image by allowing a tin-pot dictator in a tiny country to defy his demands.

The argument that internal domestic conditions in a small country threatened world peace seemed spurious to devotees of nonintervention in the United States and abroad. Accordingly, the Panama intervention led to charges of unlawful intervention by the United States. On 29 December 1989, the UN General Assembly condemned the intervention by a vote of 75 to 20 and demanded that the United States remove its troops from Panama. Likewise, the Organization of American States condemned the intervention unanimously, even though many members detested Noriega and his actions. In defense of its actions, the United States cited the self-defense provisions of the UN and OAS charters, without specifying in what way Panama constituted a major threat to U.S. security. U.S. representatives also argued that the survival of democratic nations was at stake and that all available peaceful means of displacing Noriega had been tried and failed. There was no solid proof for these claims or for the claim that American citizens or the Panama Canal were in imminent danger of suffering major harm. However, public opinion polls by the CBS television network indicated that most Panamanians approved of the intervention and were happy that it had led to the removal of Noriega from government power and from the country.

A less political, and initially less controversial, intervention took place in Somalia in 1992. It began as a purely humanitarian venture to provide starvation relief and stop human rights abuses in that African country. No strategic, economic, or drug trafficking issues were involved, and Somalian leaders had not seized territory illegally. However, the country was in the throes of a civil war without an effective government in place. Proponents of the intervention argued therefore that it made no sense for foreign powers to ask anyone's permission to enter the country. The United Nations, with strong member support, had approved the mission after it had become impossible for relief agencies to function in the war-torn country. The United States then dispatched 37,000 troops to Somalia to keep food relief supplies out of the reach of the feuding warlords and distribute it to the starving population. The initial plans called for completing the mission within five months.

But, as often happens in unstable areas, the various UN forces involved in the mission, including the American contingents, soon became embroiled in the civil war, changing the nature of the venture in unforeseen and unplanned ways. It had become obvious that effective delivery of aid to the people required bringing about at least some semblance of political order. In the wake of political efforts to pacify the countrywhich turned out to be futileSomali soldiers attacked the relief teams, inflicting heavy casualties. Eighteen U.S. soldiers were among the dead. After some hesitation, President Clinton withdrew U.S. forces in October 1993, in the wake of the killings. Pictures of the corpse of an American soldier dragged along the streets of Somalia's capital city had outraged the American public and led to angry recriminations in Congress about the wisdom of undertaking the mission.

The Somalia intervention, besides souring the U.S. government's taste for humanitarian interventions, gave rise to the belief that ample television coverage of human disasters throughout the world can arouse the anger and compassion of the American public. In turn, the public may then pressure the national government to intervene to stop human suffering. This putative phenomenon was dubbed "the CNN effect." As evidence that such an effect had spawned the initial intervention in Somalia, scholars pointed out that graphic pictures and reports about atrocities, starvation, and devastation in Somalia had been widely aired on CNN television. Pressure groups, so it was alleged, had then forced the government, against its better judgment, to airlift relief supplies and later send U.S. troops to Somalia. Other scholars denied this sequence of events and contended that relief plans for Somalia antedated the CNN publicity by more than a year. They claimed that government officials, including members of Congress who had visited Somalia, had inspired the action.

It is impossible to prove that the pressure by government officials would have been sufficient to lead to the decision to interveneand to withdraw when the bodies of dead soldiers were shownif the decision had not been supported by media-induced public pressure. Hence, media buffs continue to believe that the CNN effect exists. They argue that graphic coverage of human suffering is an important determinant of whether or not a particular disaster will generate U.S. intervention. In general, public-opinion polls show that the American public supports purely humanitarian interventions by a substantial margin, especially if there are no American casualties. The same holds true when the public becomes convinced that the intervention seeks to subdue an aggressor eager to attack the United States, injure its vital interests, or damage its citizens. The public is far less supportive of interventions that seem designed to change another country's politics when there appears to be no immediate threat to vital U.S. interests.

Many interventions that involve important humanitarian concerns serve multiple purposes, of course. For example, the intervention in Haiti in 1994 combined humanitarian and democracy-building objectives with an exceptionally strong emphasis on restoring democracy to a country where a democratic election had been aborted. Because of Haiti's proximity to the U.S. mainland, large refugee flows into Florida were quite likely. Rumors suggested that more than 300,000 Haitians were eager to leave their country, most of them heading for the United States. Similarly, the 19891990 Panama intervention, besides stopping humanitarian outrages and supporting democracy in Panama, became a cog in U.S. efforts to stop the inflow of dangerous recreational drugs into the United States.

The policy of intervention to support democratic governments was originally part of the policy of containment of communism. If a country had a strong democratic government, presumably it would not succumb to an authoritarian ideology. After the Cold War ended, supporting or even creating democracies was viewed as an aid to international peace on the dubious assumption that democratic countries rarely go to war with other democratically governed states. Hence, the United States could argue that its intervention in Haiti was justified under the UN Charter to maintain world peace. The claim was bolstered by the fact that the United Nations had officially sanctioned the intervention.

As if to underline the importance of sponsoring the growth of democratic institutions worldwide, the U.S. State Department created a Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Affairs during the Clinton years. The bureau's mission was defined as promotion of democracy throughout the world and formulation of human rights policies, including those relating to labor issues. In addition, the Clinton administration, like several of its predecessors, used the granting or withholding of economic resources as a weapon in the fight to democratize the nations of the world.

It has always been easier to claim concerns about the security of the United States as reasons for intervention when the location of the trouble is close to America's shores. This is the U.S. "sphere of influence," designated as its prime concern and fief since the days of the Monroe Doctrine. Reluctance to become entangled in conflicts outside of the Western Hemisphere, especially when international organizations are available with authority to handle such situations, explains why the United States initially tried to avoid intervention in the civil strife in Bosnia that entailed major human rights violations. But the combined pull of a number of motiveshumanitarian concerns, the importance of U.S. support for NATO involvement in the Balkan situation, and the desire to maintain U.S. influence in European affairsfinally persuaded the Clinton administration in 1995 to join its NATO partners in air strikes to try to end ground fighting in Bosnia.

Overall, when U.S. policymakers weigh the options in situations where intervention is under consideration in the postCold War world, several factors seem to weigh especially heavily in favor of becoming involved. They are the location of the trouble spot, the relative size and power of the country in question, the degree of defiance of U.S. requests displayed by the local rulers, and the chances of a successful outcome. Given these criteria, Western Hemisphere locations, especially if they are close to the United States, are most likely to elicit intervention, provided the country is small and headed by an arrogant, democracy-defying ruler, and provided the United States is ready and willing to commit sufficient resources to carry the intervention through to a successful conclusion.

Other important factors are the magnitude and viciousness of human rights violations, the effectiveness of mass media in depicting them to large audiences, the impact of unrest on American citizens in the country in question, and the likeli-hood that an exodus of refugees will seek asylum in the United States or allied nations. While absence of most of these conditions explains why the United States abstained from intervention in numerous major human rights tragedies in the postCold War era, U.S. policies have not been entirely consistent. The complex international and domestic environment that surrounds foreign policy decisions has always made it impossible to predict specific political actions with certainty.

A number of the interventions mentioned thus far are examples of cooperation between the United Nations and the United States. When interventions have been undertaken under UN auspices, the organization has repeatedly encouraged one nation to take charge of a collective intervention enterprise. For example, it entrusted the United States with major responsibilities for the conduct of UN interventions in the Persian Gulf War, in Somalia, and in Haiti. In such cases, the leading country is expected to take control of the operation and to foot most of its expenses. Other UN members contribute personnel and material resources.

The Gulf War of 1991 is the best example of the United States working effectively with the United Nations to implement a policy that seemed in its own as well as in the collective interest. When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in 1990, destabilizing the balance of power in the Middle East and threatening the uninterrupted flow of oil, the UN Security Council condemned the aggression and imposed economic sanctions. When these measures failed to persuade Hussein to withdraw his troops, President George H. W. Bush threatened U.S. military intervention. The U.S. position was legitimized and strengthened by a Security Council resolution that authorized "all necessary means," including the use of military force, to get Saddam out of Kuwait. Operation Desert Storm, which was launched in 1991 with full control by the U.S. military, thus became a UN operation supported by a coalition of twenty-seven nations. The drawback to the collaborative arrangement was that U.S. freedom of action in the military operations and the peace settlement that followed the brief span of hostilities was limited by political pressures to include coalition members in decision making and make concessions to their wishes.

Initially, the U.S. foreign policy establishment was bullish about the usefulness of interventions conducted within the UN framework. But the euphoria about collective action was short-lived. Disillusionment set in during subsequent crises in Somalia and Bosnia when disagreements between U.S. and UN policymakers hampered the United States in structuring and executing the missions. It was difficult, for example, to make threats of military intervention credible when the United States could not act without first securing UN approval.

Problems incurred in orchestrating interventions in the Balkans with the help of members of both the United Nations and the North Atlantic Treaty Association (NATO) were blamed for delaying subsequent U.S. intervention until after massive killing and ethnic cleansing had already occurred. Similarly, the failure of the Somalia intervention allegedly scotched all plans for intervention in the Rwanda genocides, which were the next major humanitarian crisis in Africa. Observers of U.S. diplomacy therefore believe that Americans have little patience with policies, especially when they involve military force, when these policies do not produce quick successes. Failed policies become a barrier to future action in the same vein. Like most generalizations, this is only partly true. The slogan "No More Vietnams" after the failed Vietnam War presumably precluded future military interventions but only for a while.

Still, in light of these policies of self-restraint whenever obstacles occur, it seems unlikely that the United States will make ample use of its proclaimed duty to act as the world's chief law enforcement power. This is especially true because the experiences of the Bush and Clinton administrations with a number of interventions have made it clear that interventions carry high personnel costs. Airpower alone, even if massively deployed, will not generally displace violent governments or end brutal civil wars. But fighting on the ground risks large numbers of casualties. Such losses are both humanly and politically extraordinarily painful. Many members of Congress are very unwilling to become mired in interventions and resist them with all of the means at their disposal. Their opposition, often via claims that the 1973 War Powers Act has been violated, is a potent political deterrent to interventions, especially when they seem problematic for other reasons as well. High on the list of deterrents is the difficulty of coordinating multinational ventures that involve widely diverse nations and public-as well as private-sector organizations.

Opponents of policies involving military intervention often recommend economic sanctions as an alternative to constrain international troublemakers. Unfortunately, the occasions when such policies have worked are few. The breakdown of apartheid policies in South Africa is often cited as a most conspicuous success. However, even in that situation, it remains controversial what the precise influence of economic sanctions was, compared to other factors in the breakdown of apartheid. Unfortunately, failures of even prolonged sanctions are easier to demonstrate, such as the defiance of sanctions by Fidel Castro's Cuba and by the despotic rulers of Haiti, Panama, Somalia, and Bosnia, where interventions followed failed sanctions. Another galling example of the impotence of sanctions was the political survival and prospering of Iraq's Saddam Hussein in the face of massive sanctions imposed by the international community and maintained for more than a decade.


How does this record of numerous American interventions over two hundred years of national history square with the claim that the United States has always upheld the principle of nonintervention? How does it accord with the frequent declarations that nonintervention is the official policy of the United States? The answers require putting intervention policies into the perspective of available options, and also discussing the role that political doctrines play in the conduct of foreign affairs.

Countries, like individuals, rarely act with total consistency. Champions of peace do go to war; a preference for free trade may yield to protectionism when circumstances make protectionism highly advantageous. One generally characterizes a country's policies by prevailing trends within the policy and within the international community. As discussed, in the case of American intervention policies, the large numbers of interventions are matched by an even larger number of occasions when the United States eschewed intervention, although it was a viable and potentially beneficial policy alternative. This was particularly true during the first century of the nation's existence when it first proclaimed that nonintervention would be its preferred policy. Whether it will again become true in the twenty-first century remains an open question in the wake of many disappointing results of intervention policies, the high costs of such ventures, and competing domestic claims on available national resources. One thing is clear however: choices of intervention and nonintervention in particular situations will always be controversial. Proponents will claim that they are necessary and legal while opponents will argue the reverse.

Throughout American history, whenever intervention was the preferred policy choice, it has always been pictured as a last, undesired option. Nonintervention has been hailed even when the country's practices were clearly interventions. One may call this hypocrisy and denounce it. Or one may recognize that the belief in a country's right to freedom and independence from outside interference runs strong. After all, that was the legacy left to Americans in 1796 when President George Washington warned that "History and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government." Therefore, "it must be unwise for us to implicate ourselves in the ordinary vicissitudes of [other nations'] politics."


Brown, Michael E., ed. The International Dimensions of Internal Conflict. Cambridge, Mass., 1996. Claims that deadly internal conflicts threaten dozens of countries and major regions around the world.

Brune, Lester H. The United States and Post-Cold War Interventions: Bush and Clinton in Somalia, Haiti and Bosnia, 19921998. Claremont, Calif., 1998. Presents fairly detailed chronologies of events in these three interventions.

Bull, Hedley, ed. Intervention in World Politics. Oxford and New York, 1984. Based on a series of 1983 lectures at Oxford University about sovereignty and international relations and law.

Chayes, Antonia Handler, and Abram Chayes. Planning for Intervention: International Cooperation in Conflict Management. The Hague and Boston, 1999. Offers a new strategy for the world community's handling of intervention into internal state conflicts.

Chopra, Jarat, and Thomas G. Weiss. "Sovereignty Is No Longer Sacrosanct: Codifying Humanitarian Intervention." Ethics and International Affairs 6 (1992).

Clarke, Walter, and Jeffrey Herbst, eds. Learning from Somalia: The Lessons of Armed Humanitarian Intervention. Boulder, Colo., 1997. Deals with peacemaking problems, such as rebuilding the economy, and with the relationship between the military and nongovernmental organizations.

Franck, Thomas. "The Emerging Right to Democratic Governance." American Journal of International Law 86 (1992). Discusses an international trend toward considering democracy a legal right that entails international legal obligations.

Freedman, Lawrence, ed. Strategic Coercion: Concepts and Cases. Oxford and New York, 1998. Argues for a reappraisal of the role of strategic coercion by drawing on the experiences of countries other than the United States.

Freedman, Lawrence, and Efraim Karsh. The Gulf Conflict 19901991: Diplomacy and War in the New World Order. Princeton, N.J., 1993.

Frenderschub, Helmut. "Between Universalism and Collective Security: Authorisation for the Use of Force by the UN Security Council." European Journal of International Law 5 (1994).

Gilboa, Eytan. "The Panama Invasion Revisited: Lessons for the Use of Force in the Post Cold War Era." Political Science Quarterly 110 (19951996).

Goodpaster, Andrew J. When Diplomacy Is Not Enough: Managing Multinational Interventions. New York, 1996. Analyzes the difficult problems encountered when interventions involve multiple governmental and nongovernmental organizations.

Haass, Richard N. Intervention: The Use of American Military Force in the PostCold War World. Washington, D.C., 1994. Discusses U.S. intervention in Haiti, Bosnia, and Iraq and nonintervention in genocide activities in Central Africa.

Hippel, Karin von. Democracy by Force: U.S. Military Intervention in the PostCold War World. Cambridge and New York, 2000. Focuses on U.S. interventions that were followed by nation-building efforts in Panama, Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia.

Hoffman, Stanley. "The Politics and Ethics of Military Intervention." Survival 37 (winter 19951996).

Joes, Anthony James, ed. Saving Democracies: U.S. Intervention in Threatened Democratic States. Westport, Conn., 1999. Covers multiple interventions over much of the twentieth century.

Kanter, Arnold, and Linton F. Brooks, eds. U.S. Intervention Policy for the PostCold War World: New Challenges and New Responses. New York, 1994.

Lepgold, Joseph, and Thomas G. Weiss, eds. Collective Conflict Management and Changing World Politics. Albany, N.Y., 1998. Examines the prospects for collective management of international conflict in the postCold War.

Livingston, Steven, and Todd Eachus. "Humanitarian Crisis and U.S. Foreign Policy: Somalia and the CNN Effect Reconsidered." Political Communication 12 (1995): 413429.

Mansfield, Edward D., and Jack Snyder. "Democratization and the Danger of War." International Security 20 (summer 1995).

Maynes, Charles William. "Relearning Intervention." Foreign Policy (spring 1995).

Moore, John Norton. Law and the Grenada Mission. Charlottesville, Va., and Washington, D.C., 1984.

Murphy, Sean D. Humanitarian Intervention: The United Nations in an Evolving World Order. Philadelphia, 1996. Analyzes the law as it applies to humanitarian interventions, especially when the United Nations becomes involved.

Pasic, Amir, and Thomas G. Weiss. "The Politics of Rescue: Yugoslavia's Wars and the Humanitarian Impulse." Ethics and International Affairs 11 (1997).

Robinson, William I. Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, U.S. Intervention, and Hegemony. Cambridge and New York, 1996. Provides a view of intervention policies from a less conventional perspective.

Sassen, Saskia. Losing Control?: Sovereignty in an Age of Globalization. New York, 1996.

Weiss, Thomas G. Military-Civilian Interactions: Intervening in Humanitarian Crises. Lanham, Md., 1999.

Zartman, I. William, ed. Collapsed States: The Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority. Boulder, Colo., 1995. Case studies of problems in African states.

See also Blockades; Collective Security; Containment; Covert Operations; Doctrines; Economic Policy and Theory; Embargoes and Sanctions; Human Rights; Humanitarian Intervention and Relief; Imperialism; International Law; The National Interest; Oil; Protection of American Citizens Abroad; Recognition; Revolution; The Vietnam War .


"Because the world is more connected every day in every way, America's security and prosperity require us to continue to lead in the world. At this remarkable moment in history, more people live in freedom than ever before. Our alliances are stronger than ever. People all around the world look to America to be a force for peace and prosperity, freedom and security. The global economy is giving more of our own people and millions around the world the chance to work and live and raise their families with dignity. But the forces of integration that have created these good opportunities also make us more subject to global forces of destruction, to terrorism, organized crime and narcotics trafficking, the spread of deadly weapons and disease, the degradation of the global environment. The expansion of trade hasn't fully closed the gap between those of us who live on the cutting edge of the global economy and the billions around the world who live on the knife's edge of survival. This global gap requires more than compassion. It requires action. Global poverty is a powder keg that could be ignited by our indifference.

"In his first inaugural address, Thomas Jefferson warned of entangling alliances. But in our times, America cannot and must not disentangle itself from the world. If we want the world to embody our shared values, then we must assume a shared responsibility. If the wars of the twentieth century, especially the recent ones in Kosovo and Bosnia, have taught us anything, it is that we achieve our aims by defending our values and leading the forces of freedom and peace. We must embrace boldly and resolutely that duty to lead, to stand with our allies in word and deed, and to put a human face on the global economy so that expanded trade benefits all peoples in all nations, lifting lives and hopes all across the world."