How not to do international intervention

U.S. Navy Seals search for al-Qaida and Taliban in the Jaji Mountains, Afghanistan, Jan. 12, 2002. (U.S. Navy photo by Photographer’s Mate 1st Class Tim Turner) (Released, Public Domain)

Stephanie Carvin, Igor Istomin, Valérie Rosoux and Richard Toye

Cross-posted from International Affairs Blog

Over a year after the US completed its ill-fated withdrawal from Afghanistan the limitations for those states looking to pursue forms of international intervention have been thrown into sharp relief. In this blogpost we bring together experts on different forms of intervention to discuss the challenges different approaches face. From war to political interference and conflict mediation, they discuss the key factors that can render interventions ineffective and contribute to policy failure.

What lessons have western governments failed to learn from their military interventions in recent decades?

Stephanie Carvin: While visions of the ‘end of history’ and a ‘revolution in military affairs’ promised an international order where western states could achieve peace and reform through low-cost military interventions, the result was anything but. Flawed intervention has seemingly followed failed interventions, in places including Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. ‘Easy wars’ have become ‘forever wars’. So why has the West continually failed to learn this lesson?

While there is no simple explanation, one important factor is the belief that technology can conquer the ‘fog of war’, creating quick and costless victories. The idea that the application of science and technology can fix complex problems is deeply embedded in western liberal culture. As such, when chaos almost inevitably ensues in the wake of interventions, policy-makers double down in their conviction that the answer lies in more high-tech weaponry, rather than the hard work of diplomacy and negotiation.

Importantly, the current war in Ukraine suggests that this is not an exclusively western phenomenon. The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin erroneously believed he could conquer Kyiv in three days with little trouble suggests that the seductive belief in technology as a panacea, able to conquer the will of a determined foe, goes beyond NATO’s borders.

Stephanie Carvin is an Associate Professor at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, Carleton University.

What factors can make political interference ineffective?

Igor Istomin: When interfering in the politics of other countries, states often rely on local political groupings to achieve their strategic interests. This dependence can make political intervention unreliable, given the inevitable political differences between intervening states and the actors they support. Indeed, this kind of interference rests on a contradictory worldview that combines cynical efforts to exploit political divisions within a target state, with expectations of gratitude from local beneficiaries. This is exacerbated by the fact that as proxies become more influential, they tend to yield less control to their foreign sponsors.

This problem heightens for interference targeting major powers, where governments are difficult to overthrow and control over political proxies is limited. In these instances, even seemingly successful interference produces limited short-term benefits at the cost of long-term liabilities that can lead to mutual accusations of ingratitude and hypocrisy. Despite the recent fascination with cyber-meddling, this fundamental political dynamic remains just as significant an impediment to political interference today as it was during the Cold War.

Igor Istomin is an Associate Professor at the Department of Applied International Political Analysis and Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Advanced American Studies, MGIMO University.

What are the main pitfalls to avoid in attempting conflict mediation?

Valérie Rosoux: The first trap that mediators need to avoid at all costs is arrogance. In the aftermath of mass atrocities, problem-solving approaches in search of ‘solutions’ provoke anger on the ground. Thus, many survivors and families of victims feel indignation towards what they perceive as an ‘indecent’ injunction to reconcile with their enemies.

A second major trap is haste. Although some structural changes can be implemented relatively rapidly after a violent conflict, the same is not true when it comes to transforming relationships. Mediation based on the need to fix things quickly is not only useless, but also counterproductive. All case-studies indicate that transformation of how parties represent each other is an ongoing process that takes generations rather than years.

Mediators are neither magicians nor a deus ex machina. For their own sake and for the sake of local populations they should avoid being guided by unreachable expectations.

Valérie Rosoux is a Research Director at the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research (FNRS).

How have decisions by leaders and the UK’s changing position in the international system combined to undermine UK foreign policy interventions?

Richard Toye: Not all UK foreign policy interventions have been failures, and there have likely been many cases where advice has been heeded and disasters averted. Indeed, such ‘silent successes’ often slip under the analytical radar.

When things do go wrong it is often because prime ministers seize control of the policy process and attempt to exclude critical voices. This can be seen in the emblematic cases of the Munich Crisis, Suez and the Iraq War. Despite declining British power, the UK has been able to maintain a significant degree of agency, albeit if only, in some cases, in the interests of making things worse. In 2002–3, for example, Tony Blair was undoubtedly a significant player on the world stage, but at the price of conceding the UK’s place as a junior partner to the USA.

Richard Toye is Professor of Modern History at the University of Exeter.

This blogpost was commissioned by Jo Hills the Digital Content Editor at International Affairs.

All contributions are based on research published in the September 2022 Special Issue of International Affairs.

All views expressed are individual not institutional.