Current Events, Academic Philosophy

Humanitarian non-intervention

Over the past two posts, I have explained why we should be skeptical of foreign military interventions. Historically, military interventions have extremely low success rates. And there are structural reasons for this. Interveners typically have conflicting aims (peacekeeping and nation-building require different things). Interveners typically lack the kind of knowledge they would need to successfully bring about those aims. And democratic politics skews decision-making away from what would be strategically best to pursue those aims, and toward what is politically easiest to sell.

These problems aren’t new, and they aren’t going away. The things that make interventions so difficult to pull off remain present today, and so we should – as a rule – refrain from intervention. (The phrase “as a rule” seems to have confused some people. Here’s what I mean: there is a presumption against intervention, which can be overridden in cases that are clear exceptions in terms of the problems above.)

Nevertheless, many people – including some in the comments section to a previous post – want to keep intervening, even if doing so means ignoring the evidence that such interventions have very low chances of success. Why?

One possible reason: some people have the intuition that I am being too gloomy about the possibility of doing good through military action. But we really shouldn’t rely on intuitions here. As is well-known, we suffer from various psychological biases, including an over-confidence bias. As Kahneman and Tverski famously showed, we tend to exaggerate our abilities to bring about good outcomes (we think we’re smarter than average, have better leadership abilities, better morals, and so on). And we do the opposite with others, especially when we can classify them as members of a certain group (which we can then see as inferior). We tend to underestimate their abilities, character, and the likelihood that they will resist our efforts. Most importantly, we underestimate the role of randomness and (bad) luck.

We are built, then, to think that interventions can be more successful than they actually are, or will be. And, again, the empirical evidence about the success rates of interventions does not support optimism. (The history of intervention spans a long period of time, and many different kinds of conflicts, interveners, and methods. And while some surely do worse than others, even under the best of conditions interventions still do not succeed very often at all. I offer a detailed discussion in Debating Humanitarian Intervention.)

The problem here is not just failing to bring about good. When interventions fail, they often make things worse. They cause deaths and suffering of themselves, they have a tendency to prolong the conflict, and they may have pretty bad ripple effects elsewhere too.

The non-interventionist position, then, is not some selfish or callous view. Most of the time, non-intervention is the humanitarian thing to do.

Does this mean that we should just do nothing? Can we stand idly by when quite literally hundreds of thousands of people are being slaughtered in a place like Syria? Obviously, the answer cannot be yes. This may be the most compelling worry about rejecting the interventionist position.

But the non-interventionist position is decidedly not a position of complacency or inaction. It is not a defense of “politics as usual.” (After all, intervention is politics as usual.) Rather, it is a call to try things that work, rather than keep on doing things that have created more misery time and again.

In particular, this means we are facing even stronger reasons to open our borders, in this case to people fleeing places ravaged by violence, oppression, and conflict. Here is how I put the point in Debating Humanitarian Intervention:

The aim of the interventionist is to bring peace and stability to places where people are forced to live under conditions of oppression, conflict, and war. But there are two variables to this equation: the people and the places in which they live. Unfortunately, the quality of the institutions that govern places is highly inert. Bad institutions incentivize political and social elites to keep them bad. Their extractive ways of life depend on it. And there isn’t much that we as outsiders can do about it.

Fortunately, the people living in these places are not so inert. They can and often are willing to move. And we, as outsiders, can make it much easier for them to do so. The truly humanitarian response to suffering and oppression around the world, then, is not to try and fix other countries through the use of violence. The truly humanitarian response is to make it as easy as possible for those who are forced to live in these countries to leave for better places.

Instead, our governments do pretty much the worst thing imaginable. They export violence to other countries, while keeping the victims of that violence trapped in their dysfunctional societies. It is difficult to imagine a less humanitarian view than that.

Published on:
Author: Bas van der Vossen
  • TimStarr

    Which led to more bloodshed: US “intervention” in Indochina between 1945 and 1975, or US withdrawal from Indochina from 1975-1979, especially in Cambodia? Which led to more bloodshed, US withdrawal from Europe between 1919 and 1939, or US military bases in Europe from 1945 to present? Which country has suffered more humanitarian disaster since 1950, South Korea, which has been a US ally & had US military ground troops, or North Korea, which has not been a US ally nor had any US military troops stationed in its territory? Which led to more bloodshed, US intervention in Somalia in 1993, or US absence from Rwanda in 1995? Failure to take such comparisons seriously greatly undermines your credibility.

    Additionally, waiting until a humanitarian crisis is already underway, THEN mustering an expeditionary force to try to stop it, is a rather blinkered way to measure the “frequency” with which “intervention” leads to less violence. It is rather like saying that the police ought to remain inside their stations until they get called about murders in progress, at which point they get to leave their stations to try to stop it, only to be told by “anti-interventionists” that the cops rarely stop those murders.

    A true comparison of cases of US intervention vs. non-intervention would include US allies vs. non-allies, countries that did and did not get US foreign aid, etc., not just countries that happened to get US military combat deployments. But do US military alliances actually prevent violence and other humanitarian disasters? Can the same be said for US foreign aid? Can the same be said for the alliances and foreign aid of other international actors?

    • Sean II

      Shame I can only award one upvote for that opening paragraph. Magnificent.

      • Lacunaria

        Yep. Ironically, I am very non-interventionist in practice, but Bas is not measuring what he thinks he’s measuring, because what he wants to measure is much more difficult to measure.

        • Sean II

          Also it’s become glaringly obvious that he started with his conclusion.

          That’s why the crazy lopsided skew where inaction gets a pass no matter how many people die or become enslaved, but action is scrutinized with such low tolerance for uncertainty or error.

          • Basvandervossen

            It’s interesting that this has become so glaringly obvious. I used to be an interventionist like Teson. It’s after studying the question that I changed my mind. But I guess you know better.

          • Sean II

            I’m not claiming to know whether you ever changed your mind on this subject. Of course I don’t know that. Don’t be petulant.

            I’m saying “the argument you now use looks reverse-engineered”.

            And oh my god, it does. A neutral study of history would have led you to much less tidy conclusions, as you grappled with the kind of problems and cases other people have been pointing out in these threads.

            Consider: if a guy came out arguing “we must almost always tell the truth, for the consequences of lying are too hard to calculate safely”… you’d know he didn’t form his argument by a dispassionate empirical study of daily life, where lying is pervasive and necessary. You’d know he had to start the other way. And you’d especially know this when he started get hit with counter examples he appears never to have considered.

            That, as it were, is the characteristic tool-mark of reverse engineering.

          • Basvandervossen

            Great point, except nothing in my argument hinges on the consequences being too hard to calculate. This is a waste of time.

          • Sean II

            Really? You didn’t write this?

            “Interveners typically lack the kind of knowledge they would need to successfully bring about those aims.”

          • Basvandervossen

            I’d meant to leave it at that, but sure – one more, why not.

            I lack the knowledge about car engines needed to fix them. But I have no trouble calculating the consequences of my trying to fix them. The consequences are going to be bad because I lack the knowledge.

          • Sean II

            Bad analogy, for two reasons:

            1) We don’t lack technical knowledge about how to intervene. In fact we’re experts at blowing shit up. Give us a target, we can destroy it.

            This is more a question of us knowing exactly how to fix the engine, but not always knowing what good or harm the driver may do with the car.

            2) You beg the question by assuming the consequences of leaving the engine unfixed are preferable to the consequences of fixing it (or at least trying to fix it). No. That’s precisely what’s in dispute here.

            Whatever doubts you have about the consequences of fixing the engine, must be weighed against the consequences of leaving the car stranded.

    • Salem

      Much as I love your opening paragraph, I think the second one is even better. I tried to make that point (far less eloquently) in the previous thread, but unfortunately the non-interventionists do not seem responsive to it.

      My only quibble with your third paragraph is that it doesn’t go far enough. You also need to take into account the influence of US interventions on third-party countries. For example, Gaddafi’s surrender of weapons of mass destruction needs to be chalked up to the credit of the Iraq War.

    • Basvandervossen

      Briefly, as I said before I wouldn’t have opposed intervention in Rwanda. Not sure why you think there’s a target there. And even setting that aside, your comparison with Somalia may still not go exactly as you seem to think. Most studies of that intervention believe that intervention prolonged the conflict. And it’s been a horrific one. (Note: my interest in intervention was caused in significant part by the Rwanda crisis. I am under no false impressions about its horrors.)

      Setting aside the table-pounding, here’s the interesting question is this. Why prioritize avoiding doing harm versus preventing harm? The reason is straightforward. You may be a kind of utilitarian, or someone for whom deaths occurring somewhere that you might have prevented are morally equivalent to deaths you directly cause. I am not. In my view, people have rights and these impose moral restrictions on us. We can be justified in acting contrary to those restrictions only if the good we achieve thereby significantly outweighs the harms. (That’s what I meant before when I said these are military operations that require lesser-evil justifications.) It follows that if we’re going to use violence to try and save people’s lives, we better save significantly more lives than we end up causing to be killed.

      • Sean II

        “Why prioritize avoiding doing harm versus preventing harm?”

        When I talk to people about the Trolley Problem, they split about 70%-30% for throwing the switch in the plain version.

        Among those 30% who oppose there is always someone who, pressed to explain, says “but if I throw the switch the one guy dies by my hand, whereas if I don’t the other five die by the hand of fate”.

        I always respond: “Ah, but that seems awfully selfish. Is the cleanliness of your hands more important than the number of lives lost?”

        That’s what your theory fall back to. It’s not about protecting rights, because you’re clearly willing to tolerate a large amount of rights violation as long as other people caused them.

        It’s a way of saying “lives lost to my action are more precious than lives lost to my inaction”.

        Counterpoint: the preciousness of those lives is independent of you.

        • Lacunaria

          For some reason, I want to debate this more, so I argue both sides. 🙂

          You are correct, but the unique feature of the Trolley Problem is the certainty involved, and (at least half of the time) Bas means to be making his case based upon the uncertainty.

          In other words, Bas is requiring significant outweighing only because we are so uncertain of what the outcomes will be. He wants a moral margin of error, which seems reasonable.

          That said, I still haven’t seen Bas address Salem’s point about deterrence or moral effects beyond individual cases. Of course, the hazard of admitting deterrent effects is that they are extremely difficult to reason about and can admit too much intervention, but simply ignoring them is a glaring mistake.

          • Sean II

            Sure but that assumed certainty is just to simplify the gedankenspiel. Hardly any real-life analogue would involve choosing with exact counts. So if the trolley problem is worth anything…

            Also Bas just went out of his way to say he’s not basing his case on uncertainty. Which, granted, seems weird given that the post we’re chatting under includes a section about uncertainty, biases, etc.

            Major weakness as I see them: 1) Bas hasn’t answered for deterrence, as you note, 2) Nor dealt honestly with success cases like Korea, Anti-Soviet Containment, Yugoslavia, etc. 3) Nor explained why a death from inaction is better than a death from intervention.

            I might add 4) there’s some motte and bailey stuff going on even with his better arguments.

      • King Goat

        Utilitarians are often at a loss to get where people from other ethical viewpoints, especially rights based ones, are coming from. I think it’s foundational.


    I believe I have somewhat belatedly come up with an appropriate analogy to illustrate why the argument in favor of a “presumptive” against humanitarian interventions is no more convincing than the case for a “rule.”

    As anyone who has ever studied chess knows, novices are given the following ranking of piece value to assist their learning: Q=9, R=5, B=3+, Kn=3, P=1. The “+” conveys the fact that in the abstract–more often than not–a Bishop is worth slightly more than a Knight.

    • Sean II

      Even Petrosian would have bombed Belgrade.


        Okay, putting on my pedant hat, I must vigorously disagree. See, Petrosian was a genius at slow, positional maneuvering. He wasn’t renowned for his tactics, so he would devise some incredibly sophisticated strategy to squeeze the Serbs to death. Now Tal, on the other hand, would have nuked them.

        • Sean II

          Of course, you’re right.

          Petrosian would have slowly maneuvered the Pentagon itself until he had it controlling key squares in the heart of Serb territory.

    • Basvandervossen

      Again, I think our views aren’t as far apart as you may think they are. As I’ve said before (and say in the book), each case should be judged by its own merits. And the history and structural problems support a presumption against intervention for each of these cases, but if a case presents a clear exception (for example because the bloodshed is so bad that it’s hard for interveners to make things even worse – as, I think, was the case in Rwanda – or for other reasons) then I do not oppose intervention. In my estimation, such exceptions do not occur very often at all. That’s a judgment call. I may be wrong. But for me to be wrong tomorrow has to be very different from yesterday.

      • Sean II

        “…but if a case presents a clear exception…”

        You may be missing the point of Mark’s analogy. The decision to exchange 3plus for 3flat must be made before “clear” comes into the picture.


        Our difference is, I think, that I do not regard the past as action-guiding for the policy maker. When deciding whether I should make a particular move in a chess game, every prior chess game ever played is completely irrelevant. The only issue is finding the best move, using the method I described. Of course, at that moment I have internalized the lessons of those past games, they are part of my intellectual armament, but not part of my over-the-board calculations. I don’t say to myself, “well back in 2005 I played B x Kn and lost.” It just doesn’t matter what happened in 2005 or at any other time. I think the same analysis applies to interventions.

        • Basvandervossen

          Thanks. That certainly is a disagreement. I do think interventions are relevantly different from chess games. And I do think that the history of intervention contains relevant information about its future.

    • Sean II

      Off topic, but how good are you in Elo terms?


        At my peak, I played to a (weak) Expert’s rating (say 1950). This was in college, when I had a bunch of other more exciting things going on, so the time I had available to study and devote to tournament play was very limited. If I had dropped out of college to devote myself exclusively to chess, I might have been able to achieve a low Master’s rating (2200), but that would be it. I lacked the spacial/visual to go any higher. If I went down that path, I’d be the guy holding a tin cup out on the street asking for loose change. So, I was pretty good, but no Fischer.

        • Sean II

          Funny you should mention spatial reasoning. I’m deficient in that area myself, and it seems especially costly in the realm of knight moves.

          When you first mentioned trading a bishop for a knight my instinct was “hell yeah, anything to get those troublesome fuckers off the board!”

  • Salem

    But doesn’t the migration argument make intervention look even better?

    For example, one of the best effects of the Iraq War is that it made it much easier for Iraqis to emigrate. The previous government (like many dictatorial states) treated its citizens like property of the country and took many measures to prevent this, but the 2003 intervention means that now Iraqis can leave for any state that will take them. Hundreds of thousands of people (disclosure: including several of my family members) have left for a better life in the West, but you never see this tallied as a benefit of the intervention.

  • D Hampton


    You say you would have supported intervention in Rwanda.
    But it’s easy to say that in hindsight, now that the full extent of the atrocities has been well documented.

    Do you think that, using the decision making mechanism you prescribe, there’s any realistic chance that you (as a hypothetical adviser to the president) would have supported intervention in Rwanda at the time when it would have been necessary to make that decision in order to still prevent all or most of the atrocities from happening?

    If your philosophy only allows interventions in hindsight but not when they’re needed, then you have to admit that the point about “harm from missed interventions” that the utilitarians are making can’t just be dismissed.

    • Basvandervossen

      Well, as I’ve said in the previous posts, I think the relevant question is exactly whether one would have supported it at the time. So that’s what I intended to say. Part of the reason why I say this were the unique circumstances prior to the Rwanda genocide – the fact that the parties to the Arusha accords were open to a foreign presence to help smooth the transition of power early, the reports that Dallaire put together with his knowledge on the ground, and so on. Also, the intensity of the violence that was happening in Rwanda is among those things that, historically, has been more conducive to success.

      To be sure, I am basing these judgments on books etc. that have all been written after the fact. And it is extremely difficult to know whether, at the time, one would have seen these things in the same light as we do now. But yes, I do think that I would have supported it at the time.

  • johnbarri

    I posted an opinion on this topic which basically stated that most interventions were in response to bullies bullying the vulnerable because they can, and that whether we like it or not, we need to stand up to the bullies of the world and intervene with force where other efforts fail, because, if we do not, the next steps will include those same bullies knocking on our own doors. Guess what, my post silently disappeared, as might this post.

    The point I am now making is that my opinion and arguments are as valid as any, they reflect my fears for where the world is headed, along with the fears of many like me, and that however much they may differ from the opinions and tone of this site, they should be read and, if so desired, debated and countered, on site, not just closed down, which is what seems to have happened. This amounts to censorship and does no one a service, let alone the cause of libertarianism.

    • Basvandervossen


      Not sure what happened to your prior post. I never saw it, much less deleted it. I doubt anyone else did. This site takes freedom of expression very seriously. (Even if deleting a comment on a blog is not exactly the same as censorship.)

      In any case, your comment is here now for all to admire.

      • johnbarri

        I am not looking for admiration, just debate. I am happy to be wrong and mostly fear that I am right more often than wrong. But that comes with a 70 odd year perspective, as does a paranoia which kicks in when my admitedly controversial post disappears into nothing.

        I am glad you troubled to respond and of your assurances that you do not suppress contrary opinion, which is what I took your response to mean.

        My original post took about an hour to craft and I was understandably miffed to lose the product of that effort. Maybe another effort at another time will work out better.

        As a parting shot, if deleting a contrary or controversial comment on a blog does not amount to censorship, what does it amount to?

        Thank you.

        • Lacunaria

          You could call it private censorship, but Bas was using “censorship” to refer to acts of government rather than private entities curating their own blog.

          Some malfunction or flagging of your comment is entirely possible. I suggest you save a copy of what you write in a text file so that you do not lose the time you have invested and can easily repost it in the future.

          • johnbarri

            Got that but thanks for the suggestion. I should have know better but I did it on the fly on my tablet.

          • Lacunaria

            Yes, many forms of censorship, but the typical moral implications of each are quite different, e.g. government compulsion vs. removing a blog comment or social shunning.

            What specific approach(es) do you advocate for controlling speech?

          • johnbarri

            I don’t think speech should be controlled so much as addressed, responded to. One should lead by example, not suppress. Is that too simplistic? And I don’t think there is much difference morally betwen the different forms of censorship.

            People seem to think that the net is a venue for free speech but I think that is not so true in practice, as many bloggers have their own very specific agendas and only allow content which supports those agendas. So there is not as much room for debate as is imagined.

          • Lacunaria

            I agree entirely to lead by example rather than suppress. Fight speech with more speech. Its simplicity is a feature, not a bug.

            The moral difference between the forms of censorship hinges on compelling people (fines, prison, etc.) vs. controlling your own property. The former is government censorship, the latter is private censorship and has an important place in a free market.

            I still advocate freedom and transparency in private dialogs and I avoid blogs which delete comments. In that way, they lose voluntary readership if they are not creating more value through their selection/curation/censorship.

            Everyone has their own agenda. The neat thing about the net is that everyone can have their own fiefdom and compete for readership. If we simply measured the venue of free speech by quantity of the types of speech or bloggers, then spam and porn would dominate our calculations, so I think we need to use metrics based upon what becomes possible in such a free and open environment rather than what is common.

          • johnbarri

            Freedom is a two edged sword. Militant islam objects to western liberal societies as being un islamic. This is one of the big issues in the world today. MI’s approach is two pronged. Use liberalist freedon as a platform from which to attack w-liberalism until we are obliged to cut back on the freedoms it prides itself in, as happened after 9/11. Tried to fly almost anywhere in the world since then? It is no longer the same world. The other prong of the fork is to breed themselves into demographic majority.

            When I was 15 an imam tried to convert me to islam. During the discussion he spoke of the inevitability of an islamic south africa (where I was at the time) and an islamic world. That was decades ago and look at what has happened in the intervening years.

            Now this is something that needs to be discussed by all, the islamic and the non islamic world. We need to learn from history what happens when one element of society tries to dominate all other elements of society. The prospects are not pretty.

            When I wrote of democracy being under attack, I was thinking of three principle oponents of democracy, all of them oligarchic.

            One was islam as mentioned above , another was a more loose group of oligarchs and or technocrats who may have come to socio-political power through buying their influence (a la the capitalist oligarchs) and the political bullies who dispense with the niceties of capitalism, mixed in with the technocrats who think they are the only ones with the nous to rule the world.

            I don’t think this is very comprehensive, but all these groups need to consider the possible outcomes of their respective strategies, because all these groups (the theocratic oligarchs, the non theocratic oligarchs and the technocratic oligarchs) will one day rue their ignorance of the possible consequences of their obsessions, one with the rule of god, another with the rule of money, and the third with the rule of the intellect, if that is not too glib a characterisation of their positions. The reality is probably a great deal more complex.

            What I believe we are seeing are three different styles of intervention, all at work simultaneously in the world, all of which are provoking counter responses which this thread seems concerned with, military or non military in nature, mixed with the possibility of a healthy dose of revolution,

            The net effect of this mess is that none will have the freedoms that many of us cherish.

            So I am not a very happy chappy. I like those freedoms and I believe the only system that guarantees those freedoms is democracy. I hope this is not too convoluted or off topic, because I believe democracy is fundamental to the rights of man to be free.

          • johnbarri

            I responded to this post discussing the role of militant islam, capitalist oligarchs, autocratic oligarchs and what I will call the intellectual oligarchs, undermining the role and state of democracy in the world. Another controversial post that didn’t make it to print, so to speak. Hmmm?

          • Lacunaria

            I don’t know. Try reposting it.

          • integer

            My mom spent about an hour filling out some excessively long California DMV form, only to have it fail when she hit submit.

            If you can master copy & paste, you can save yourself much of the time. My cheap Fire came with some China-made word processor. It’s better than relying on a web form to save my data.

  • ThaomasH

    While I share the view on military intervention, the strictures apply much less to non-military intervention, thought any intervention runs the risk of being counterproductive because we will understand other countries less well than our own.