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  • The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs about the Use of Force
  • Richard Ned Lebow
Martha Finnemore . The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs about the Use of Force. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003. 173 pp.

Evolving patterns in the use of force are an interesting puzzle that can offer valuable insights into the changing character of international society. In this engaging and important study, Martha Finnemore provides a thoughtful analysis of recent military interventions and uses her answers to say interesting things about the dynamics and mechanisms responsible for the evolution of the norms and rules that govern international society.

Finnemore examines three motives for military intervention—the collection of debts, the provision of humanitarian relief, and the safeguarding of national security or international order. She finds that intervention for debt collection stopped early in the twentieth century. Humanitarian intervention has been practiced for two centuries, but the scope and manner of this type of intervention have significantly changed. Initially conceived of as a way of protecting fellow Christians from hostile governments and subsequently connected with the suppression of the slave trade, humanitarian intervention is now carried out largely on behalf of non-white, non-Christian populations and usually on a multilateral basis with authorization from an appropriate international organization. Security-motivated intervention has been a common practice for a long time, but the conditions in which states consider military action have changed. Finnemore contends that the European—and later, the international—political system has progressed through four types of ordering principles: balance of power, concert, spheres of influence, and the current more multilateral system. These conceptions of order have induced states to frame their interests, and the incentives and reasons for intervention, in different ways.

Finnemore contends that neither realist nor liberal models of politics can account for these observable changes in the practice of intervention. Realism fails because the evolution of the practice of all three kinds of intervention does not track with changes in the polarity of the system or the distribution of power among major actors. Liberalism is inadequate because non-democratic states conform to many of the same norms governing intervention. More fundamentally, interests are indeterminate. It is relatively easy, after the fact, to devise interest-based arguments – of the realist or liberal kind – both for and against intervention. Behavior of either kind is more convincingly explained with reference to evolving norms, especially those concerning the value of war, the increasing acceptance of the juridical equality of actors, and the erosion of the normative value of force in international relations. Norms help to define the kinds of intervention that are acceptable and the way intervention is conceptualized, but more fundamentally they help define how actors construct their interests.

Finnemore develops her argument in a series of case studies of twentieth-century interventions—and non-interventions—organized in terms of her three principal motives for intervention. Intervention to collect debts stirred legal objections from Latin American states beginning in 1902, and their arguments won favor with the international [End Page 148] lawyers who increasingly dealt with debt-related issues for the richer powers. The creditor states devised peaceful means for addressing these issues in a more depoliticized way, and military intervention for such purposes effectively ceased after 1907. Ironically, the cessation of this type of intervention happened at a time when foreign loans and debt defaults actually increased.

The concept of humanitarian intervention was dramatically expanded in the aftermath of World War II to include non-Western and non-Christian populations. During much of the Cold War, the norms of sovereignty and self-determination maintained precedence over humanitarian claims, and intervention for this purpose occurred only when the major powers had important security or economic interests at stake. After the end of the Cold War, the case for humanitarian intervention became more compelling, and humanitarian goals were paramount in a number of operations (e.g., Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Liberia, Macedonia). These interventions have had a mixed record of success, but their legitimacy has generally not been questioned.

Interventions to uphold security have varied as a function of the ordering principles Finnemore lays out. Under the current system, interventions for this purpose are deemed legitimate...