Options for a Consistent U.S. Approach to Humanitarian Intervention

Michael D. Purzycki is a researcher, analyst and writer based in Arlington, Virginia.  He is a former communications and media analyst for the United States Marine Corps.  He writes regularly for Charged Affairs (the journal of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy) and Better Angels, and has also been published in Merion West, the Washington Monthly, the Truman National Security Project, and France 24.  He can be found on Twitter at @MDPurzycki and on Medium at https://medium.com/@mdpurzycki.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  Genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other forms of mass violence lead to destabilizing refugee flows and constitute humanitarian catastrophes.

Date Originally Written:  February 15, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  February 24, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of the United States government.

Background:  The United States’ responses to episodes of mass killing in recent decades have been inconsistent. The U.S. has intervened militarily in Bosnia, Kosovo and Libya. It has declined to intervene in Rwanda, Darfur and Syria (prior to the conflict against the Islamic State). This inconsistency calls into question American moral and geopolitical leadership, and creates an opening for rivals, especially China and Russia, to fill. America’s decision not to respond with military force when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people arguably emboldened Assad’s ally Russia.  Following this U.S. non-response Russia sent forces to Syria in 2015 that have committed multiple atrocities, including intentional bombing of hospitals[1]. Meanwhile, massive flows of refugees from Syria, as well as from other Middle Eastern and African countries, have destabilized Europe politically, empowering demagogues and weakening European cohesion. Climate change is likely to exacerbate existing conflicts, and make massacres and refugee flows more common[2].

Significance:  From a strategic perspective, sudden massive inflows of refugees destabilize allies and weaken host country populations’ confidence in international institutions. From a moral perspective, the refusal of the U.S. to stop mass killing when it is capable of doing so threatens American moral credibility, and afflicts the consciences of those who could have intervened but did not, as in Rwanda[3]. From a perspective that is both strategic and moral, non-intervention in cases where U.S. and allied force can plausibly halt massacres, as in Bosnia before August 1995, makes the U.S. and its allies look weak, undermining the credibility of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and other security institutions[4].

Option #1:  The U.S. adopts a policy of humanitarian intervention during mass violence.

The U.S. government could adopt a de facto policy of intervening in humanitarian crises when it is capable of doing so, and when intervention can plausibly halt mass violence. The policy need not be formalized, stated or written down, but need only be inferred from the actions of the U.S. The U.S. could adopt the following criteria for intervention:

“1. The actual or anticipated loss of life substantially exceeds the lives lost to violence in the United States.
2. The military operation to stop the massive loss of life would not put at risk anything close to the number of lives it would save.
3. The United States is able to secure the participation of other countries in the military intervention[5].”

Risk:  Even with military units prepared for and devoted to humanitarian intervention, it is possible a successful intervention will require a larger force than the U.S. is able to commit, thus possibly weakening the credibility of U.S. power in humanitarian crises. Commitment of too many units to intervention could harm America’s ability to defend allies or project power elsewhere in the world. An unsuccessful intervention, especially one with a large number of American casualties, could easily sour the American public on intervention, and produce a backlash against foreign commitments in general.

Gain:  Intervention can halt or reduce destabilizing refugee flows by ending mass killing. It can also help guarantee American moral leadership on the world stage, as the great power that cares about humanity especially if contrasted with such atrocities as Chinese abuse of Uighurs or Russian bombing of Syrian hospitals. The saving of lives in a humanitarian intervention adds a moral benefit to the strategic benefits of action.

Option #2:  The U.S. adopts a policy of non-intervention during mass violence.

The U.S. could refuse to intervene to halt atrocities, even in cases where intervention is widely believed to be able to stop mass violence. Rather than intervening in some cases but not others, as has been the case in the last three decades, or intervening whenever possible, the U.S. could be consistent in its refusal to use force to halt genocide, ethnic cleansing, or other atrocities. Absent a formal declaration of atrocity prevention as a vital national security interest, it would not intervene in such conflicts.

Risk:  A policy of non-intervention risks bringing moral condemnation upon the United States, from the international community and from portions of the U.S. population. The U.S. risks surrendering its moral position as the world’s most powerful defender of liberal values and human rights. Furthermore, refugee flows from ongoing conflicts threaten to further destabilize societies and reduce populations’ trust in liberal democracy and international institutions.

Gain:  Non-intervention lowers the risk of U.S. military power being weakened before a potential conflict with China, Russia, Iran or North Korea. This option helps the U.S. avoid charges of inconsistency that result from intervention in some humanitarian crises but not others. The U.S. could choose to ignore the world’s condemnation, and concern itself purely with its own interests. Finally, non-intervention allows other countries to bear the burden of global stability in an increasingly multi-polar age, an age in which U.S. power is in relative decline.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Hill, Evan and Christiaan Triebert. “12 Hours. 4 Syrian Hospitals Bombed. One Culprit: Russia.” New York Times, October 13, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/13/world/middleeast/russia-bombing-syrian-hospitals.html

[2] “Climate Change Could Force Over 140 Million to Migrate Within Countries by 2050: World Bank Report.” World Bank, March 19, 2018. https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2018/03/19/climate-change-could-force-over-140-million-to-migrate-within-countries-by-2050-world-bank-report

[3] Power, Samantha. “Bystanders to Genocide.” Atlantic, September 2001. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/09/bystanders-to-genocide/304571

[4] Daalder, Ivo H. “Decision to Intervene: How the War in Bosnia Ended.” Brookings Institution, December 1, 1998. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/decision-to-intervene-how-the-war-in-bosnia-ended

[5] Solarz, Stephen J. “When to Go in.” Blueprint Magazine, January 1, 2000. https://web.archive.org/web/20070311054019/http://www.dlc.org/ndol_ci.cfm?contentid=1126&kaid=124&subid=158

Mass Killings Michael D. Purzycki Option Papers United States