The Ethics of Intervention

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U.S. Naval War College Professors Thomas Nichols and Nikolas Gvosdev debate the ethics of intervention.

As part of the world-wide observance of “Global Ethics Day” (October 16, 2014) sponsored by the Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, the U.S. Naval War College sponsored a debate on the “ethics of intervention” between Professors Thomas Nichols and Nikolas Gvosdev. Designed to bridge the gap between both the practical and theoretical considerations that face national security decision-makers when considering action, the goal was to help provide the audience with a discussion of ethics in a context relevant to the immediate and real concerns of international security policy.

The central question of the debate focused on the extent to which statesmen and military professionals should extrapolate guiding principles for the nation from ethical considerations that normally rule individuals in their personal actions. Can such considerations – such as the mandate to provide aid and assistance to others in need whenever possible – even be translated into state action? Or does a separate ethical standard guide the behavior of states, whose leaders have the responsibility to protect and safeguard the lives and well-being of their citizens, but who also command much greater capabilities to mobilize and utilize force? How should the morality of intentions – the desire to bring about a better condition via intervention – be balanced against the morality of results?

Several related questions emerged from this discussion. Should the first principle governing intervention be to akin to the Hippocratic oath to “do no harm,” or should it reflect the traditional just war requirement that action must at least “do more good than harm?” Must state action pass a greater test of intention and capability than individual action? Perhaps most important, because state action (specifically military intervention) does not come without cost and will inevitably lead to losses, what role does prudence play in making ethical decisions, including judgments about the likelihood of success of an action? Finally, at what point can a state ethically decide to cease further action based on the costs?

A key point in the discussion was whether the existence of a preventable evil requires action, if the action itself may bring about worse evils in its consequences, such as major casualties. (Put another way, what does “preventable” mean, if the costs of prevention are potentially very high?) If prudence means tolerating lesser evils for the sake of preventing greater ones, then what role does prudence play at such moments?

Statesmen, of course, always lack perfect information, and in every case, whether they act or not, must be prepared to accept the risks of their decisions: an intervention undertaken with the best of intentions might fail, or a bad situation allowed to “burn itself out” could have greater costs than imagined. The ethical dilemma arises from the reality that national security decision-makers cannot know with any certainty whether what will result from their action – or from their inaction.

The issue of prudence also led to a discussion of whether it is ethical to start an intervention on humanitarian grounds, but then fail to carry it out fully because it becomes burdensome or costly. This is the problem of the ethics of “partial action” taken not to ameliorate a situation but to provide the excuse of having “done something.” There was significant agreement that it might be better to accept the lesser evil of not acting at all rather than acting in a haphazard, inconsistent fashion, especially if it worsens rather than improves the situation.

The closing discussion revolved around whether or not traditional “just war” notions might be brought to bear as a guide for ethical interventionism. Violations of human rights or threats to human security that might motivate the intervention are indeed grave, but before the state can act, these traditional criteria force policymakers to consider several issues. Does the threat, for example, rise to a level that justifies the use of violence? Are there no other means of ending the problem before active military intervention? Does the use of force have any prospect of being effective? Is there is a reasonable probability that the intervention contemplated can achieve success on its own terms? And perhaps most important, what is the risk that the intervention will produce a situation worse than what motivated the initial calls to intervene in the first place?

An overly literal application of such criteria might eliminate many of the proposed and recently undertaken U.S. interventions; on the other hand, a using such questions as the foundation for debate could be useful as a touchstone for policymakers overwhelmed in the face of calls to action.


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Category: Blog, The Ethics of War and Peace

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