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.