by Benjamin A. Valentino
The United States should not stop trying to promote its values abroad, even when its national security is not at risk.
It just needs a different strategy.
Washington should replace its focus on military intervention with a humanitarian foreign policy centered on saving lives by funding public health programs in the developing world, aiding victims of natural disasters, and assisting refugees fleeing violent conflict. Abandoning humanitarian intervention in most cases would not mean leaving victims of genocide and repression to their fate. Indeed, such a strategy could actually save far more people, at a far lower price.
THE INTERVENTION CONSENSUS
As the Cold War ended, many foreign policy analysts predicted that the United States would return to isolationism. Without the need to counter the Soviet Union, it was argued, Americans would naturally turn inward. It hardly needs saying that these predictions have not been borne out. Throughout the 1990s, the United States continued to play the leading role in global affairs, maintaining military bases around the world and regularly intervening with military force. The 9/11 attacks only reinforced this pattern. Politicians from both parties today regard the deployment of military forces as a routine part of international relations.
It was not always this way. Although isolationism among conservatives went virtually extinct in the 1950s, during the Cold War, and especially after Vietnam, liberals almost always opposed the use of military force, even for humanitarian purposes. But after the Soviet Union collapsed, many on the left began to embrace the idea that the vast military capabilities assembled to check its influence could now be used to save lives rather than destroy them. The evaporation of Soviet power also made it easier to use those forces, lifting one of the most important constraints on the deployment of U.S. troops abroad. The astonishing success of the U.S. military in the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91, meanwhile, convinced many people that Americans had finally lost their aversion to intervention abroad, kicking the "Vietnam syndrome" once and for all. The costs of using force appeared to have fallen dramatically.
The end of the Cold War also touched off a bloody civil war in Yugoslavia, the first major conflict in Europe in almost 50 years. Although the United States had few national security interests at stake there, the brutal nature of the fighting prompted many calls for intervention, mostly from the left. These calls did not move President
Prominent Democrats also called on the United States to use military force to end the mass killings in Darfur, Sudan. In 2007, then Senator
TALLYING THE COSTS
Proponents of such interventions usually make their case in terms of the United States' moral responsibilities. Yet perhaps the most important costs incurred by military interventions have been moral ones. On the ground, the ethical clarity that advocates of human rights have associated with such actions -- saving innocent lives -- has almost always been blurred by a much more complicated reality.
To begin with, aiding defenseless civilians has usually meant empowering armed factions claiming to represent these victims, groups that are frequently responsible for major human rights abuses of their own. Although advocates of humanitarian intervention in the 1990s frequently compared the atrocities of that period to the Holocaust, the moral calculus of intervening in these conflicts was inevitably more problematic. The Tutsi victims of Hutu génocidaires in Rwanda and the Bosnian Muslim and Kosovar Albanian victims of Serbian paramilitaries in the former Yugoslavia were just as innocent as the Jewish victims of the Nazis during World War II. But the choice to aid these groups also entailed supporting the less than upstanding armed factions on their side.
In Bosnia, for example, the United States eventually backed Croatian and Bosnian Muslim forces in an effort to block further aggression by Serbian President
Similarly, after the
Another set of moral costs stems not from the unsavory behavior of the groups being protected but from the unavoidable consequences of military intervention. Even if the ends of such actions could be unambiguously humanitarian, the means never are. Using force to save lives usually involves taking lives, including innocent ones. The most advanced precision-guided weapons still have not eliminated collateral damage altogether. Many Americans remember the 18 U.S. soldiers who died in Somalia in 1993 in the "Black Hawk down" incident. Far fewer know that U.S. and UN troops killed at least 500 Somalis on that day and as many as 1,500 during the rest of the mission -- more than half of them women and children.
In Kosovo, in addition to between 700 and several thousand Serbian military deaths,
Although military interventions are calculated to increase the costs of human rights abuses for those who commit them, perhaps interventions' most perverse consequence has been the way they have sometimes actually done the opposite. If perpetrators simply blame the victims for the setbacks and suffering inflicted by the intervention, the incentives to retaliate against victim groups, and possibly even popular support for such retaliation, may rise. Foreign military interventions can change victims from being viewed as a nuisance into being seen as powerful and traitorous enemies, potentially capable of exacting revenge, seizing power, or breaking away from the state. Under these conditions, even moderates are more likely to support harsh measures to meet such threats. And with most humanitarian missions relying on airpower to avoid casualties, potential victims have little protection from retaliation.
In Kosovo, for example, the
The prospect of foreign military intervention also may encourage victims to rise up -- a perilous course of action if the intervening forces are not equipped to protect them or if the intervention arrives too late or not at all. Perhaps the most clear-cut example of this perverse dynamic occurred in the aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. During the war, Bush said the Iraqis should "take matters into their own hands and force
Another set of costs associated with humanitarian interventions are political. The United States' humanitarian interventions have won the country few new friends and worsened its relations with several powerful nations. The United States' long-term security depends on good relations with China and Russia, perhaps more than any other countries, but U.S.-sponsored interventions have led to increasing distrust between Washington and these nations. Both countries face serious secessionist threats and strongly opposed U.S. intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo out of fear of setting an unwelcome precedent. The accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, which killed three Chinese citizens, resulted in major demonstrations outside the U.S. embassy in Beijing and an acute deterioration of relations between the two countries that lasted almost a year. Conflict with Russia over Kosovo continues to this day.
The political strains have not been limited to relations with potential U.S. adversaries. Brazil and India, two of the United States' most important democratic allies in the developing world, also opposed the intervention in Kosovo and have refused to recognize its independence. More recently, both countries sided with China and Russia and condemned the intervention in Libya, arguing that
A less tangible political cost of these interventions has been their corrosive effect on the authority of international organizations such as the UN. In regard to Kosovo, the threat that China and Russia would veto a resolution to intervene in the
Perhaps the most frequently ignored costs of humanitarian interventions, however, have been what economists call opportunity costs -- the forgone opportunities to which the resources for a military mission might have been put. These costs are considerable, since military intervention is a particularly expensive way to save lives.
Each of the more than 220 Tomahawk missiles fired by the U.S. military into Libya, for example, cost around
The lesson that many human rights advocates have drawn from these calculations is not that intervention is too costly but that it is no substitute for prevention. A careful study commissioned by the
What is more, the record of low-cost preventive missions has been at least as bad as the record of interventions reacting to atrocities. One of the most tragic aspects of the genocides in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Darfur was that international peacekeepers were present during some of the worst episodes of violence, such as the slaughter of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995, which was witnessed by 400 UN peacekeepers. The problem in these cases was not that no one was sent to prevent the violence; it was that the forces that were deployed were not given the resources or the mandates to stop the violence breaking out around them. In some cases, they could not even protect themselves. More robust preventive deployments might have been more effective, but they would not have been cheap.
MORE FOR THE MONEY
To be sure,
International public health programs are almost certainly the most cost-effective way to save lives abroad.
The lifesaving potential of such public health programs is enormous. Indeed, because of intensive vaccination initiatives, measles deaths have dropped by almost 80 percent since 2000, probably saving well over four million lives in the last ten years. And of course, vaccinating children for measles did not require killing anyone, violating international laws, or damaging important relationships with powerful countries.
A second way that the United States can save lives without the use of force is through disaster-relief efforts.
A third set of strategies focuses on aiding potential victims of violent conflict and repression, including genocide and mass killing. Although using military forces to halt perpetrators and protect victims on the ground is usually very expensive, it is possible to assist victims of violent conflict at much lower cost by helping them escape to safer areas. Large refugee flows are rightly seen a humanitarian emergency in themselves, but refugees of violence are also survivors of violence. In practice, measures designed to help victims reach safety across international borders and to care for refugee populations once they arrive have probably saved more lives from conflict than any other form of international intervention.
History provides numerous examples that illustrate the potential of providing safe havens for refugees. Although the Nazis clamped down on emigration after World War II began, between 1933 and 1939 Germany actively encouraged it, a process that ultimately resulted in the exodus of approximately 70 percent of Germany's Jews. Had Western nations put up fewer barriers to Jewish immigration or actively sought to assist Jewish emigration, they would surely have saved many more lives. The ability of potential victims to escape likely played an even greater role in limiting the toll from repressive governments during the Cold War. Following the communist takeover in North Korea, for example, more than one million people, around ten percent of the population living above the 38th parallel, made their way to the South between 1945 and 1947. Had they been unable to flee, many would surely have been labeled enemies of the state and executed or sent to the North Korean gulag. Similarly, roughly 3.5 million Chinese refugees, mostly supporters of
The first order of business, then, should be for outside powers to keep their borders open to victims fleeing violence. The large numbers of refugees who managed to escape the bloodshed in North Korea, China, and Kosovo were able to do so only because they could flee across open borders into neighboring states. Many victims are not so fortunate. For example, Iraqi Kurdish refugees attempting to flee the crackdown following the Gulf War initially faced closed borders as they tried to go to Iran and Turkey. Diplomatic pressure and economic assistance from the United States and
Even when neighboring states are willing to open their doors, perpetrators often try to block victims' escape. Such was the case in Rwanda, where Hutu génocidaires set up roadblocks to prevent Tutsis from crossing into Burundi, Congo, Tanzania, and Uganda. In cases like these, the use of limited military force may make sense. In Rwanda, a relatively small military intervention, perhaps with airpower alone, could have destroyed roadblocks and secured key escape routes, helping tens of thousands reach safety. By one estimate, this strategy might have saved 75,000 lives.
The international community should also ensure the survival of refugees once they reach their destinations. The conditions awaiting most refugees of mass violence seldom provide much better odds of survival than do those faced by victims who remain behind. Not only are food, water, and shelter in short supply, but refugees are also frequently subject to violence and thievery at the hands of other refugees or local populations. Few refugees would survive for long without substantial external assistance. As a result, when the options for potential refugees are unattractive, many will prefer to stay and fight, even when their chances of success are slim. When refugees can expect more hospitable conditions across the border, however, more will choose to flee and more will survive when they arrive.
Proponents of humanitarian intervention may object that the calculus laid out here understates its effectiveness by neglecting the other U.S. interests that these military missions serve. Even the most ardent advocates of intervention in such places as Kosovo, Sudan, or Libya, however, usually concede that the United States' safety was never directly threatened by the crises there. At the same time, helping refugees and saving lives through public health programs and disaster relief also serve a variety of secondary U.S. interests -- improving relations with other countries, promoting economic development, and increasing regional stability. A full accounting cannot neglect these benefits, either.
Some may also protest that the United States cannot give up on humanitarian intervention since it is the only country with the capability to project power around the globe. This may be true, but it would be a relevant concern only if other countries or nongovernmental organizations were already devoting sufficient resources to nonmilitary forms of humanitarian aid. The millions of easily preventable deaths that still occur every year are evidence that much more is needed. Still others may assert that the United States has a special responsibility to oppose governments that are engaged in massive human rights violations, even at much greater cost, because doing so sends a message that the world will not tolerate crimes against humanity and despotism. But that message need not be sent with bombs. A stronger message, in fact, should be sent to governments that fail to provide even inexpensive health care or essential services to save the lives of their own citizens. Finally, some will argue that the United States does not need to choose between military intervention and humanitarian aid since it can afford both. This is correct, but given the number of people who could benefit from increased humanitarian aid, the country will have to vaccinate many more children and assist many more refugees before military intervention begins to look affordable in comparison.
The strategies suggested here are not without their own dilemmas, of course. Large refugee populations can foster instability if the refugees attempt to fight their way home or fall into conflict with local populations. And humanitarians have learned the hard way that relief aid and medical supplies can be hijacked by corrupt governments or violent rebel groups. Fortunately, these problems are less severe than the problems of military intervention, and there are ways to mitigate them, even if they cannot be eliminated altogether. The provision of humanitarian aid should be more closely monitored, the aid should be linked to other forms of aid that recipients desire, and the aid should be targeted to those countries and local groups that demonstrate that they can use it most effectively. Strategies to assist refugees must be combined with diplomatic coercion and tough economic sanctions designed to end the conflicts that forced the refugees out in the first place. With defenseless victims out of harm's way, international pressure on perpetrators would be much less likely to provoke further crackdowns.
As with most of the choices in international relations, these strategies are simply the best of a poor set of alternatives. Even so, a foreign policy based on them would not mean simply standing by in the face of atrocity and injustice. Indeed, efforts such as helping refugees could save thousands of lives even when a major military intervention is out of the question. Equally important, these strategies would do much to allow Americans to wholeheartedly embrace a less militarized foreign policy, restoring the United States' image as a force for good in the world and providing Americans with an alternative perspective on the use of force, something that has been absent from U.S. foreign policy debates. U.S. foreign policy has always sought to promote the values of its citizens, as well as protect their material and security interests abroad. The country should not abandon that noble impulse now. It simply needs a better way to act on it.
"The True Costs of Humanitarian Intervention "