"Humanitarian intervention, which is ruled out by realism and the morality of states, can only be justified by a cosmopolitan morality." Discuss.
War, Peace and International Ethics
Tutor: Mr. Barry Holden
“Humanitarian intervention, which is ruled out by realism and the morality of states, can only be justified by a cosmopolitan morality.” Discuss.
The concept of humanitarian intervention has been an issue in world politics ever since the Cold War. Since the Gulf War it has been argued that there is a need for increased thought about when humanitarian intervention is justifiable. One of the main arguments against the idea of humanitarian intervention is that it contradicts the concept of the sovereignty of states. The leading characteristic of the world political scene in recent centuries is the place of the sovereign as its chief component. By definition, denotes complete exclusion of other states from a state's domestic affairs. Intervention by other states into those affairs thus challenges the essential nature of a state and has consequently always been regarded as a hostile act. Nevertheless intervention has in practice been a common feature of international politics. This essay will discuss whether humanitarian intervention can be justified in relation to the morality of states, realism and cosmopolitan morality.
It is widely accepted that there is a clear overlap between human rights and the justification of humanitarian intervention. Most say that, where there is gross infringement of human rights, humanitarian intervention is justified. Humanitarian intervention is characterized typically by military intervention in order to diminish human suffering. It can be argued that military intervention is indeed less severe than economic sanctions, as sanctions can affect a larger number of people. Mason and Wheeler provide an excellent definition of humanitarian intervention:
“…Humanitarian intervention only occurs when one or more states intervene with military force, or the threat of such force, in a territory that is beyond their jurisdiction, where a weighty and non-instrumental part of their doing so is to end the suffering or oppression of some group who live in it. In order for intervention to count as humanitarian, at least part of the basic reason for intervening must be to end suffering or oppression, though there might be other reasons which also motivate, for example national interest.”
However, humanitarian intervention, as suggested by the title of this essay, is ruled out by the morality of states. But which should have greater priority, humanitarian intervention or the morality of states? To demonstrate the rule of the sovereignty of states, it is useful to cite J. S. Mill’s Liberty Principle. His view was that individuals should be free from regulations, that they should be able to do what they like as long as it only affects themselves. When it involves others, the individual is subject to regulation in the interest of preventing harm to others. Mill also constructed a liberal defence of intervention in cases where the destruction of the target population could be shown to the responsibility of the intervening power. However, the analogy between states and individuals can be pushed too far. Simply being a state involves acceptance of being a part of a body of rules. The most important moral rules become part of international law, which subsequently incorporates the morality of states. However, there is no international authority to enforce these rules, whereas a government has the authority within its state to enforce the rule against murder. One would hence be inclined to agree with Hobbes who upheld the view that where there is no regulation, there are no rules, not many people abide by rules which are totally unregulated. With regards to humanitarian intervention, if sovereign states are subject to international rules, and hence intervention in affairs within that state, how is the state sovereign? It is argued that the state remains internally sovereign, but this still rules out humanitarian intervention by the morality of states. The morality of states concludes that the states, like individuals, have a right of autonomy, which protects them from external moral criticism and political interference.
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Realism does not rule out intervention completely, but does rule out humanitarian intervention, as an outside state should not have any personal interest when employing humanitarian intervention. But this point is arguable, as there can be mixed motives in the use of humanitarian intervention. It is a widely held belief that, had there not been any oil in Kuwait, the international community would not have acted as decisively as they did. Yet international law dictates that a state cannot pursue actions which may benefit its citizens if these actions infringe upon the sovereignty of another state. There is, of course, the argument that over the ownership of natural resources. Why should natural resources remain exclusively for the benefit of the owner state? Surely it should be used to benefit the international community, especially poorer states, as we have obligations to human beings. One can also argue that it is often desirable for a state to be seen to act with humanitarian intervention, as it invariably provides a glow of self-importance. Of course, there is opposition to this as well, an example being the recent bombing of Iraq by the United States and Great Britain. The two allies class it as humanitarian intervention, yet other states have condemned it. In this case humanitarian intervention does not necessarily provide a glow of self-importance and self-interest.
The varying stances of realism have differing views on the topic of humanitarian intervention. Interpretive realism argues that states always pursue only their own national interest, national interest being the interest of the citizens of that state. Hence humanitarian intervention should never occur, as it needs a humanitarian motive. Prescriptive realists are of the view that humanitarian intervention is possible, but that it is not justifiable, as humanitarian reasons are not legitimate reasons for intervention. Given the costs of military intervention, the state should only use military force when it is required to further its own vital national interest. This is the only legitimate reason for humanitarian intervention, according to prescriptive realism.
Functional realism is of the opinion that the state should only pursue its national interest. If each state did this, it would produce the best consequences globally. This reverts back to Hobbes’ social contract tradition. Hobbes believed that, in order to gain security, each person agrees with others to obey the state, provided others enter into such a contract as well. Hence the state is authorised to pursue the interests of its citizens, but not the interests of citizens of other states. Hobbes says that the citizens subject themselves to the sovereign, in most cases, and that this is sufficient to constitute a binding contract. But hypothetical contracts are not binding, hence the impure forms of functional realism are more plausible. One of these impure forms is that citizens have obligations to aid those beyond their borders, therefore a legitimate government is entitled to fulfil these obligations. It is agreed that the state has obligations to its citizens, but when confronted with the needs of others it is dubious whether or not the government has obligations to aid them. This impure form of functional realism seems to drift towards the idea of cosmopolitan morality, in that the state boundaries are dissolved, and that everybody should aid each other purely because of the fact that we are all human beings.
Consequentialist realism is the most plausible of all the varying forms of realism. But it still does not prove that humanitarian intervention can be justified. Consequentialist realism states that states should pursue only their own national interests to produce the best consequences for all. It argues that states should only take their own interests into account when policy making. Consequentialist realism points out that people should be treated as equals, regardless of their race, nationality, sex of religion. This is an understandable point which leans towards cosmopolitan morality; an individual does not decide whether they are going to be born into an oppressive regime or not. Does this give others the right to discriminate against them?
The doctrine of cultural relativism “implies the inapplicability of moral judgments to beyond one’s own culture.” It argues that moral standards are relative to communities, and that there are no universal objective moral standards, that the standards are only applicable to these cultures. This leads to the subject of moral imperialism, the belief that one’s own moral standards are superior to those of other cultures, and that one tries to impose one’s own moral standards on these other cultures. Hence moral judgments are inapplicable to international relations as a whole. If there are no universally acceptable moral standards, no moral standards can be applied across the globe.
It is very difficult to decipher whether or not humanitarian intervention is in conflict with the doctrine of cultural relativism. If one supposes that humanitarian intervention is justified in one instance, for example that of Kosovo, it is not necessarily simply because of one culture imposing its views on another culture. It is very difficult to prove what is part of one culture and not of another, or indeed part of any culture at all. In the instance of Kosovo, the issue of culture was not clear-cut, as it was disputed whether or not Milosevic’s actions were part of Serbian or Yugoslav culture. In reality, the question of cultural relativism really should not be applied, because of the nature of humanitarian intervention, as it is widely accepted that intervention is justified for humanitarian reasons, especially in instances such as genocide and severe oppression, where the case is invariably clear-cut. Some are of the opinion that there should be a universal doctrine in relation to extreme cases such as genocide. But how does one decide whether or not to implement humanitarian intervention. If Russia ever invades China, it is doubtful whether Great Britain and the United States would intervene, risking the start of a major nuclear war for the world.
The idea of cosmopolitan morality argues that there are no differences between the varying state boundaries. Chris Brown, arguing from the standpoint of cosmopolitan morality, equates the world of today with that of the ancient Greek city states, saying that differences that previously mattered between the different individuals in different states no longer matter. The argument is that moral principles should not be affected by states and state boundaries. The differences between the ideals and the reality of sovereign states have been greatly affected by globalisation, and the emergence of the arguments for cosmopolitan morality. Globalisation has affected the key structures of state sovereignty. States are economically interdependent. They are at the mercy of global economic structures and perspectives. The fates of the states’ economies no longer rest in the hands of the states themselves, but in the hands of the international bodies. The international laws and treaties affect state sovereignty by regulating the behaviour of states. In essence, the world has been tied together ever tighter, and with the growth of communications with the internet, we are living in a world which is becoming increasingly culturally integrated. Our ideas are becoming global in the modern world. We are moving towards a situation where cosmopolitan morality challenges the morality of states.
However, many problems arise if state boundaries cease to exist. There would be moral obligations between individuals purely because they are human beings, and not because they are within a particular community, group, or part of one’s family. There would be the denial of the fact that individuals and states, or heads of states, are treated differently. A prime example of this recently would be the case of General Pinochet, who, it is argued, was not subject to moral rules because he was the head of state. The opposing view to cosmopolitan morality is the fact that there will always be over-riding obligations from parent to child and friend to friend. There are some communities that have special obligations to each other. This would lead to the argument that there is a special obligation between the state and its citizens, bringing us to the conclusion that cosmopolitan morality does not exist.
So can humanitarian intervention be justified at all, even by the ideal of cosmopolitan morality? Michael Walzer argues that it can be justified when “it is a response, with reasonable expectations of success, to acts that shock the moral conscience of mankind.” The government and the individuals of rich and powerful states, those who actually hold the power to make a difference, ought to help individuals no matter where they are. There is then the argument about distance, and how far one should go to help others, and if humanitarian is justified, how does one determine when intervention should or should not be used? Many argue that a government should look after its own people, and not intervene in the domestic affairs of other states when there are problems in one’s own state.
But there is no agreement on what is justice or oppression, and therefore no agreement on whether humanitarian intervention can be justified. Because of this humanitarian intervention would be likely to undermine the world order. It is viewed as a new form of imperialism which constitutes a threat to world order. In practice it is impossible to know whether or not intervention will even be successful. What will happen when the troops withdraw? The likelihood is that the same, or similar, oppression will occur again sometime in the future based on the fact that it is with in the culture or nature of that state; this points to the issue of cultural relativism. It seems likely that states will only intervene if it is in their national interest, it is accepted that no state will intervene if it is likely that they will fail in their task of ending the suffering of innocent individuals. No state can ever know if it will be successful, but one can make an educated guess when the situation presents itself on an ends-means basis.
Should humanitarian intervention be justified in any case? Should states be generally restricted in what they get up to within their borders? If one looks at it from a realistic point of view, we can see that humanitarian intervention is very costly to the intervening state. The cost of military tools and troops are of importance, but of equal significance, if not more significant, is the human cost in casualties. It is, therefore, easier to look at hypothetical instances rather than having to be faced with the ultimate decision. The fact that it is widely believed that humanitarian intervention is justified in response to the gross infringement of human rights gives a lot of weight to the argument for the inclusion of humanitarian intervention in international law. Precise laws are needed; what constitutes a human rights violation needs to be accurately pinpointed.
- Beitz C: Political Theory and International Relations (1979) Princeton University Press
- Elfstrom G: Contemporary Ethical Issues (1998) ABC Inc.
- Ellis A: Ethics and International Relations (1986) Manchester University Press
- Holden B: The Ethical Dimensions of Global Change (1996) Macmillan Press Limited
- Hoffman S: Ethics and the Politics of Humanitarian Intervention
- Vincent R: Human Rights and International Relations
- Walzer M: Just and Unjust Wars (1977) Harper Collins
By Mason and Wheeler for example.
Mason A, Wheeler N: Realist Objections to Humanitarian Intervention in Holden B: The Ethical Dimensions of Global Change (1996) Page 95
Mason A, Wheeler N: Realist Objections to Humanitarian Intervention in Holden B: The Ethical Dimensions of Global Change (1996) Page 98
Lecture handout 1st February 2001, Cultural Relativism
Walzer M: Just and Unjust Wars (1977) Page 107