Keeping out

Alan Brinkley

  • Intervention in World Politics edited by Hedley Bull
    Oxford, 198 pp, £12.50, August 1984, ISBN 0 19 827467 X

Intervention, according to Hedley Bull, is ‘dictatorial or coercive interference, by an outside party or parties, in the sphere of jurisdiction of a sovereign state, or more broadly of an independent political community’. And if there is any principle on which the international community can be said to agree, it is that intervention, so defined, is legally and morally illegitimate. Every nation, no matter what its size or power, is entitled to internal sovereignty. All states have an obligation to refrain from violating the sovereignty of others. It is one of the epochal changes in the nature of International relations that this idea, so recently dismissed as a visionary dream by many of the world’s most powerful nations, has become the foundation of modern international law.

At least until the end of World War Two, intervention retained important defenders. When much of what we now know as the Third World consisted of colonial possessions, the imperial powers never considered interference there to be intervention at all: it was, rather, the legitimate exercise of authority. Many countries with nominal independence were widely believed to possess less than genuine sovereignty, and the great powers felt justified in intervening in these ‘quasi-nations’ whenever ‘standards of civilisation’ – which usually meant the economic interests of the great powers themselves – were in jeopardy or international stability seemed threatened. Even when it was clear that the days of formal colonialism were waning, there were serious and influential arguments on behalf of a post-war order in which the great powers would serve as world policemen, intervening at will In the affairs of lesser countries to preserve stability and peace.

Through most of this century, in short, many nations did not consider intervention an intrinsic threat to the international order, but believed that it could in fact help create or preserve world stability. The idea that all nations, whatever their size, power or stage of development, enjoyed equal rights of sovereignty and self-determination – the idea that Woodrow Wilson had championed in 1918 – enjoyed, at best, a fragile foothold in world affairs.

In the post-war world, however, faith in the capacity of intervention to stabilise international relations became far more difficult to sustain. East-West tensions destroyed any possibility of the super-powers co-operating to police the world. Third World nationalism made intervention far more costly and difficult even where great power rivalries were muted. There emerged as a result a new international climate – a product not only of wartime idealism but of post-war realities – symbolised by the Charter of the United Nations and defined above all by widespread agreement that intervention was no longer an acceptable exercise of national power.

If the birth of this new consensus has been one of the most striking developments of modern international relations, it is, of course, equally striking how little impact that consensus seems to have had on the realities of international behaviour. Virtually every nation now agrees in principle that intervention is wrong. Nevertheless, intervention continues apace. Indeed a case could be made that interventionism is as important a force in world affairs today as it has ever been. It is, in the nuclear era, certainly more dangerous.

What purpose, then, does the doctrine of non-intervention serve? Has it, Hedley Bull asks, ‘become a mockery with which it would be better to dispense altogether, or does the proscription of intervention remain a vital part of the normative structure on which international order depends’? To explore these (and other) questions, Bull invited a distinguished group of British, European and American scholars to deliver a series of lectures at Oxford in the fall of 1982; and he has collected those lectures into a short but provocative book which shows, among other things, how enormous the obstacles to effective enforcement of the non-intervention doctrine remain. Stanley Hoffmann observes, in the opening passage of his thoughtful introductory essay: ‘I shall look at [intervention] as an issue, as a problem to be solved, before coming to the obvious conclusion that it is insoluble.’ It is a conclusion that none of the other authors, despite brave efforts by several, is able effectively to dispute.

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