A Forced Pretence: How the Justification for Intervention has Changed

The world has changed immeasurably since World War Two; large-scale interstate conflict has become an anathema, particularly in the west and developed parts of Asia. Not only this, but it comes in line with developed international norms and laws which have to be followed, exemplified in the laws surrounding war. There is no longer legitimacy in invading or occupying somewhere merely because it suits a state’s interests. Instead, what has emerged is an international system in which states will still intervene militarily for their own interests, but are now required to at least attempt to justify these under new international normative values. This can clearly be seen in a few, very recent, case studies; Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Rwanda and The Crimea.

Afghanistan and Iraq, together, are examples of the Bush administration’s post-9/11 foreign policy. Afghanistan was legally justified as self-defence in the fight against Al-Qaeda; however, as the conflict drew on and became guerrilla based, the US and UK became entrapped in a war of attrition and PR and increasingly had to look to normative justifications for their continued presence. Terrorism prevention remained, but as terrorism from Islamism only seemed to increase in the West, humanitarian concerns and regional stability justifications came into play. Whatever the initial reason for invasion, they could not merely stay under it, or claim it was for their interests. This highlights the changing international ideology; war and occupation require international justification with international normative principles.

Iraq has a similarly tenuous links with ideological principles and is a key example of states intervening for their own interests while justifying it under international norms. Whether one deems it legal or not, Bush and Blair saw the invasion as an opportunity to promote democracy in the Middle East. They believed, with highly flawed logic, that when successful it would have a domino effect, removing the environment for international Islamic terrorism to thrive. Not once does Blair’s speech to parliament before the invasion mention humanitarian concerns, but only a strong concern for WMD (despite very hypocritical standards on this). Later on, concerns surrounding Hussein’s use of gas and other atrocities came into play, as the international community (including long-standing allies like Germany) refused to support the action without more normative principles to justify their presence. Again, we see a conflict ultimately undertaken for a state’s interest alongside a use of international norms in order to justify it.

The development of this is seen in the Syrian crisis: after the perceived failure, illegality and criticism of the Iraq War, the ideological shift and need for legitimate justification of force has become all the more acute. The UN played a much stronger role in legitimising any intervention, loosening export sanctions and other such aspects of the conflict. Despite Obama’s ‘red line’ on chemical weapons, he still struggled to intervene militarily without the support of his allies – particularly the UK, whose parliament was opposed – in stark contrast to Iraq where close allies were shunned. Again, states only intervened when in their interests, although under normative principles. For example, even Russia has used the guise of ISIS and fighting Islamic terrorism to justify intervening militarily, despite their actions conveniently propping up a strong regional ally and helping them to gain a both a foothold on the Mediterranean and advanced airbases in the Middle East. Russia was not able to intervene for its own interests until it had a legitimate façade it could use to justify it. Without ISIS, the Russians would have struggled to sell their intervention to the international community, as international ideology increasingly dictates the requirement for intervention to be justified morally.

Outside the immediate sphere of the US it is evident that this has truly become an international norm, not just one affecting the West. Kenya’s invasion of Somalia in 2011 was justified under the grounds of self-defence against Al-Shabaab, on evidence that was somewhat questionable. The legal justification was the UN’s charter. However, under the surface, there are likely motives to set up a semi-independent client state in the south of Somalia called Jubaland in order to stop the flow of refugees into their north-eastern provinces, secure the oil off the coast of Somalia and control trade across the border. These would not be deemed legitimate reasons for a military invasion under international law, which forced Kenya to use a slightly tenuous self-defence argument. Again, we see a truly international norm developing here.

It is finally worth examining two examples which highlight the need for states to have vested interests in order to intervene and the effects of a lack of normative justification: Rwanda and Crimea. The Rwandan genocide is one of the worst humanitarian events since the holocaust; an estimated 800,000 people were systematically slaughtered. However, the international community stood by and did virtually nothing, except for a half-hearted attempt by the French to intervene after mounting domestic pressure. States lacked interest in assisting Rwanda because they saw no economic gains and no security threat to themselves. Despite international clamour about humanitarian justifications or other normative principles, state interventions are fundamentally selective.

Crimea demonstrates that when intervention is justified without these international norms, the actor receives widespread criticism. Russia’s intervention in the Crimea saw a backlash including diplomatic complaint, international sanctions causing currency inflation and calls of illegality. Within the current international order, if a state intervenes for its own interest, without looking to international normative principles to justify it, the state is heavily penalised.

Evidently, international ideology has fundamentally shifted in recent decades, but the reasons for states intervening has remained. States are now required to at least pretend their intervention is justifiable under international normative principles if they want to intervene for their own interests. However, this does not mean states will always intervene, even when the principles they appeal to are most at stake: states still fundamentally require self-interested motivations to commit themselves to an intervention.

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