The Moral Hazard of Intervention

Professor Alan J. Kuperman of the University of Texas has done some interesting work studying the effect of America’s interventionism and the “emerging norm” that outside nations have a “Responsibility to Protect” citizens from their own government when that state becomes abusive. Kuperman’s paper “Rethinking the Responsibility to Protect” for the Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations is quite good. I’ll let him explain:

As with many aspects of institutional liberalism, however, this noble principle has faltered in practice. Most obviously, as Darfur illustrates, the international community lacks the political will for the collective action necessary to protect vulnerable citizens. But even if the international community could muster the requisite political will, humanitarian intervention would remain bedeviled by two substantial obstacles—the logistical requirements of effective intervention and the perverse unintended consequences that result from moral hazard. Based on recent experience, the Responsibility to Protect not only often fails to achieve its goal of protecting at-risk civilians, but it may also unintentionally put others in danger.

The moral hazard comes with the expectation that the United States or another international body will intervene.

The most counter-intuitive aspect of the Responsibility to Protect is that it sometimes contributes to the tragedies that it intends to prevent. The root of the problem is that genocide and ethnic cleansing often represent state retaliation against a sub-state group for rebellion, or armed secession, by some of its members. The emerging norm, by raising hopes of diplomatic and military intervention to protect these groups, unintentionally fosters rebellion by lowering its expected cost and raising its likelihood of success. Intervention does sometimes help rebels attain their political goals, but it is usually too late or inadequate to avert retaliation against civilians. Thus, the emerging norm resembles an imperfect insurance policy against genocidal violence. It creates a moral hazard that encourages the excessively risky behavior of rebellion by members of groups that are vulnerable to genocidal retaliation, but it cannot fully protect these groups against the backlash. The emerging norm thereby causes some genocidal violence that otherwise would not occur.

Kuperman also discusses the logistical problems. Mobilizing a high-tech military requires time and genocidal violence or ethnic cleansing is often conducted in advance of American intervention. The posse arrives too late for exiled civilians. Kuperman cites the example of Bosnia’s Muslim leaders who calculated (correctly) that if they could provoke a violent response from the Yugoslav government, the international community was likely to intervene on their side. But before the United States could arrive, tens of thousands of fighters and civilians were already dead.

Similarly Albanian Muslims who had pursued a mostly-peaceful resistance in Kosovo, believed that if Serbian forces launched an attack on civilians, an international force would guarantee their eventual liberation. Albanian Muslims began attacking Serbian police and civilians. Serbians retaliated by killing nearly 1000 albanians. NATO’s intervention produced more violence at the start as Serbian forces stepped up their counter-offensive to include ethnic-cleansing, displacing almost a million Albanians and killing another 10,000. “Notably, the rate of violent death in Kosovo was roughly thirty times higher during the NATO bombing campaign than it had been during the year of conflict prior to intervention,” Kuperman reminds us.

The same logic of intervention helped to spur the Darfur rebellions in Sudan in 2003. The international community responded with humanitarian aid only, which naturally encouraged the rebels to create an even larger conflict in the hopes of achieving a larger intervention.

With “combat forces” withdrawing from Iraq, it seems that other ethnic or political minorities will make the same calculation that America’s ability to make peace gives them an assurance of victory in war, whatever it costs to the surrounding population.

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