The role of Western powers in interventions has blurred considerably in the post-Cold War era (O’Neill & Rees, 2005, p.1). Therefore, there has been increasing focus and attention on this matter since the bi-polarity (between Russia and the US) that characterised most of the 20th century largely dissolved after the collapse of Communism in 1989 (Oman, 1996, p.10). Before this, intervention was largely strategic and power play between countries was rife (Gent, 2007, p.1090). However, due to the creation of liberalist institutions such as the UN, there is a more defined consensus in the West that interventions should be made on a humanitarian basis, as the UN believes that developed countries have a Right to Protect other nations (UN, 2016). The UN (UN Trust Fund for Human Security, 2019) believes that human security calls for “responses [from member states] that strengthen the protection and empowerment of all people” – simply, states should intervene primarily for the good of the people and not themselves. These liberalist institutions have somewhat changed the nature of warfare by introducing rules and guidelines to govern the excessively aggressive nature that interventions can bring. Albeit, more often than not, interventions by Western powers are driven by power politics. Merriam-Webster (2019) defines power politics as “politics based primarily on the use of power (such as military and economic strength) as a coercive force rather than on ethical precepts”. Liberalist institutions often actually facilitate power politics, as many Western countries dominate the most influential committees within these institutions (Patrick, 2010, p.50). Western countries can also claim ‘humanitarian intervention’, when the primary cause is essentially for their own interests. Without any form of power politics, countries often lack incentive to intervene. The resources needed for a large scale intervention are so great, and therefore without ulterior motive, it is not worth their while (Morgan, 2011). Similarly, it is not in politicians’ interests to get involved in a domestically unpopular intervention that has little chance of success. This can be seen through the intervention of the US into Iraq and Syria, which is useful to analyse when studying Western nations as the US is arguably the greatest hegemonic power in this region (Silver & Arrighi, 2003, p.329), leading the way in what could be perceived as the two biggest interventions of the 21st century. The offensive realist viewpoint provides explanation as to why states choose to act this way and can be used to clarify actions that the US took. Through offensive realism, this demonstrates that even if a decision to intervene is multifaceted, it is extremely unlikely that a power or state will intervene without any strategic interest at all.
There have been many international treaties that have been created with the aim of limiting the use of force in conflict interventions. These include those such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact and the UN Charter (Seay, 2007, p.1). According to the UN Charter, there is a responsibility to limit the use of force to just self-defence (UN, 2019). On the other hand, there is also an extremely strong international and often domestic pressure to commit to upholding and preserving basic human rights, such as the right to life. According to the UN (2019), intervention in the domestic affairs of another state is theoretically illegal. Albeit, Nardin and Williams (2006) note that both ‘principles and institutions are contested, uncertain, and abused. One appeals to procedures when people cannot agree on principles, and to principles when institutions are unjust or ineffective’. Therefore, offensive realists argue that there is nothing to prevent an intervening state from selective intervention, intervening only when it matches the countries own political and strategic interests (Mason, Wheeler, 1996, p.5). Regan (1998, p.756) believes that interventions can never be purely moral in nature. Fearon notes that the likelihood of intervention is often shaped by the domestic costs and benefits conceived in terms of their political ramifications (Regan, 1998, p.756). He notes that three factors in particular will affect the expected utility of intervening. These are: costs, utilities over outcomes and estimates of the likelihood of the intervention being successful. Leaders must consider the benefits of intervening vs the potential costs and the probability of a settlement with and without an intervention. Public opinion can also play a vital role in the decision to intervene or not (Jacobson, 2010, p.586).
For offensive realists, there are multiple benefits from an intervention that results in ‘influence maximising’ (Schmidt, 2005, p.546). Political capital can also be assimilated if countries work in the favour of ethical objectives such as assisting the flow of refugees. This can be demonstrated by France’s intervention into Rwanda (Golebiewski, 2013). This is because they gained little in the way of national security but recouped some lost international stature as a result of their actions. Offensive realists also recognise that geopolitics is a factor in interventions (Toft, 2005, p.388). This is where security is threatened or geostrategic interests are at stake. They suggest that the domestic political considerations which are driven primarily by humanitarian concerns or ethnic affinities will have little influence over decisions to intervene. A study by Regan (1998, p.765) tests different hypotheses on the likelihood of states choosing to intervene in outside conflicts. The results show that often these conflicts are fought in third world countries especially Africa or the Middle East. Research has shown that countries that border an internal conflict are less likely to intervene themselves, as they are more vulnerable to attack. Therefore the West are always more likely to intervene as they have less at stake. Similarly, the longer a conflict goes on, the less likely there is to be outside intervention. This is because the costs and stakes are much higher, conveying that most interventions are decisions made by the state considering their own self interests.
However, because of the UN, interventions take on a more multilateral character and are less clear cut. What can be deduced, however, is that an uncertainty over likely outcomes will make big powers far less willing to intervene. This can be demonstrated by Rwanda, where states were reluctant to take decisive action (Regan, 1998, p.766). The killing was extremely intense which put off neighbouring states as they were most likely incapable of bringing the slaughter to an end and they would also be vulnerable to attack.
The offensive realist theory can be demonstrated through the US intervention into Iraq. Since 9/11, Yoo (2008, p.5) argues that foreign policy decisions made by America have become less moderated and restrained than previous centuries which has borne a more aggressive strategy. This strategy focuses more on using intervention to wield leverage on the international stage. Decisions made by the US reflected their own desires and largely ignored the interests of secondary states and international norms. Deudney and Ikenberry (2017, p.7) note that there was a liberal expansionism in the post-Cold War era, leading the US to intervene in more conflicts whilst pursuing their own ambition in favour of democracy promotion and regime change. They claim that the Iraq War was a clear demonstration of how American foreign policy aims to try and pursue hegemony primacy. The evidence to support this is that Iraq had clearly developed chemical weapons along with a longstanding ambition to acquire nuclear weapons. Naturally, this posed a threat to US forces. The invasion of Iraq was clearly centered around power politics due to the effect it could create on the rest of the globe. An invasion such as this strengthens the global position of the US and countered doubts that America was willing to use force. Duedney and Ikenberry (2017, p.9) also highlight that the US’s justification for the war stemmed from a sense of American liberal-democratic imperialism, overconfidence in military power and cultural ignorance. The idea that the war was inherently non-humanitarian can be assessed by evaluating numbers of casualties. At a minimum, Crawford (2013, p.1) notes, at least 134,000 civilians have been killed by war’s violence since 2003. Gilpin (2005, p.6) notes that the regime in Iraq was plagued by inefficiency, brutality and lawlessness, as demonstrated by the Fallujah massacre of 2003 where 17 unarmed civilians were killed by American forces. Gilpin believes that the invasion was initiated by neo-conservative factions within the Bush administration who sought to sustain American global primacy as a priority, over that of the lives of Iraqi citizens.
Although the administration sought to argue that their intentions were to spread democracy throughout the Middle East by removing obstacles, suggesting a human security approach, this is a weak argument. If this was really the US’ long term goals, Jervis (2003, p.367) argues, then why haven’t they been willing to “sacrifice stability and support of U.S. policy to honor democracy in countries like Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan”. The Iraq War was also a violation of the UN Charter as it was not authorised by the Security Council. O’Connell adds that this was a violation of international law and that Bush was primarily concerned with American hegemony (Paulus, 2004, p.722).
It is important when considering the Iraq invasion to assess the colourful history the country had with the US. This is because it helps to provide context. The US often shifted their policy over Iraq because of the structure of the anarchic global system, where governments with the most resources actively pursuing relative gains. Previously, the US had backed many senior and influential political figures in Iraq, having a particular strategic interest in the region due to its large production of oil (Telhami, 2002). Even though it was widely known that Saddam Hussein regularly violated human rights laws, the US initially gave their backing as he was preferential to the more Communist alternative. The reign of Hussein was seen in the media as a victory of Western democracy over the Soviet invasion (MacFarquhar, 2006). This aligns with the neorealist thought that hegemonic states seek to create policy around claiming victories against perceived threats in the global sphere. Reagan even provided Hussein huge amounts of weapons in the Islamic Revolution of 1979, even though bloodshed was estimated to be as high as 1 million civilians (Hersh, 1992).
The shift in policy when Hussein invaded Kuwait further exemplifies the neorealist strategy of the West. As soon as the public were unhappy and Hussein seemed to be wielding too much power, Bush felt forced to intervene. Neorealists (Yordán, 2006) argue that the Bush famed the Gulf War as humanitarian, but in reality it targeted the civilian structure of Iraq. Neorealist ideas that the distribution of capabilities shape outcomes rings true here, as the US were able to use munitions that ultimately affected the country for many years, with skyrockets in cancer rates due to depleted uranium munitions.
The relative gains nature of the US interaction with Iraq can be summed up in Madeleine Albright’s (then Secretary of State) statement, when questioned about US imposed sanctions on Iraq and the subsequent death of many women and children, she simply stated that ‘we think the price is worth it’ (Mahajan, 2001). This can be interpreted as the price of civilians’ lives being worth the American hegemony and dominance.
Even when Bush intervened in 2003, this offensive realist policy was still prevalent. To gain popular support for the cause, it is estimated that Bush and his aides made 935 unequivocally false statements in the run up to the War, including that that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction (CNN, 2008). This can be accounted for by the fact that removing Hussein can be seen as a demonstration of the US portraying their might to the rest of the world through power politics. Especially as a reactionary measure to 9/11, this could also be seen to dispel any ideas that the US were damaged by these attacks. It also gave the US and its citizens a visible enemy to work towards defeating, focusing primarily on power politics (Allen, 2011, p.39).
Another case study that is useful to analyse when assessing why Western states intervene in conflicts is the relationship between Syria and the US. Young (2018) notes that the intervention in Syria is primarily down to the fact that Syrian forces are having to “fight the wars of others on their own soil”. It aligns with the offensive realist viewpoint as it is essentially a form of power politics between the US and Russia due to their complete lack of mutual trust.
Initially, the US intervened by placing sanctions on the Syrian government. They also supplied arms as part of the CIA plan which aimed to arm and train Syrian rebels (Schmitt, 2012). Since this initial involvement, the US have since headed an international coalition that has conducted airstrikes against ISIS in Syria. This can be explained in offensive realist terms as the US essentially seeing a power vacuum that has emerged due to the Syrian War, and their involvement gives them an opportunity to expand American influence even further and strengthen the position of their allies (Goodarzi, 2013). Again, similar to the intervention into Iraq, officials such as Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, have claimed, for example, that the US should strike Syrian government forces because of the use of chemical weapons in Damascus (Morello, Gearan & Ryan, 2018). However, there is no concrete evidence to prove the validity of these statements. Offensive realists would suggest that the real motive behind these claims and these calls to arms is that if America was able to put in place a favourable government to Assad’s regime, that it would not only maximise its own gains, but minimise the influence of Russia in the region (Awal, Agoes, 2018). Slightly different to that of Iraq, this case highlights the maximisation of relative powers in a world where liberalist institutions such as the UN are limited in how far they can govern and restrict other countries decisions. The Security Council highlights this as states are, on the whole, uninterested in humanitarian affairs. The Security Council can create issues through countries seeking their own interests, meaning vetoes are often used and consensuses are not reached. For example, both China and Russia vetoed the proposed Syrian sanctions as they both have strategic interests in the form of weapons trade and oil (Chaziza, 2014). Therefore, hegemonic powers choose to pay little attention to the UN and liberalist ideas in favour of their own strategic interests in a power politics play.
In conclusion, Western powers are more likely to intervene due to power politics than humanitarian intervention. The offensive realist viewpoint affirms this and provides valuable explanation as to why this is the case, focusing on the structure of the international system. Analysing case studies from US interventions proves valuable in evaluating the West, as their intervention is often largescale and receives support from other members of the Western community due to its leverage and influence as a power. The US’ long standing history with Iraq is useful as its foreign policy’s evolution is able to be examined through the decades, with plenty of evidence to suggest power politics as the reason for intervention. Without significant strategic interest, the studies above show that states are often unwilling to intervene. This is the case with Syria, as many developments such as nuclear weapons make the stakes much higher. Therefore, even if Western states are not intervening with the same military scale as seen in previous years, it does not mean that they are not intervening in other ways which maximise their interests and relative gains against other powerful states.
Cite this Essay
To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below