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Humanitarian Intervention Does More Harm Than Good

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  • Syrian Intervention

    Thousands of civilians are under attack in Syria right now. Would military intervention alleviate one of today’s most pressing humanitarian crises?

  • Intervention & The Age of America First

    Given America’s domestic challenges, can the U.S. government really justify intervening in affairs abroad rather than focusing on issues at home? Kori Schake and Frank Ledwidge debate.

  • Boots On the Ground

    Does saving innocent lives justify putting your own troops at risk? And at what point is intervention doomed to fail? Rajan Menon and Bernard Kouchner discuss.

  • Terrorism & American Inaction

    Did America’s failure to act in Syria fuel ISIS’ rise? Frank Ledwidge and Kori Schake debate.

  • Unintended Consequences

    Does military intervention in the service of humanitarian goals yield too many unintended consequences and put too many civilians at risk?

  • Failed Interventions

    Former British intelligence officer Frank Ledwidge gives a personal account of failed humanitarian interventions in support of the motion, “Humanitarian Intervention Does More Harm Than Good.”

  • Strategic Action

    The International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Kori Schake argues that strategic and limited military action can be a successful tool in halting human rights abuses on the world stage.

Debate Details

The international community currently faces a global refugee crisis and mass atrocities in Iraq, Myanmar, Syria, Yemen, and beyond. How should the West respond? 


Proponents of humanitarian intervention – the use of force to halt human rights abuses – argue that the world’s most powerful militaries have a responsibility to protect innocent civilians around the world. Beyond saving lives, they argue, intervention deters would-be abusers and ensures global stability, thereby strengthening the liberal world order. But opponents argue that military intervention is thinly veiled Western imperialism, and subsequently, an assault on state sovereignty. And, it’s ineffective: the West, with its military might, increases the death toll and worsens the conflicts it sets out to solve. Further, given recent waves of populism in the U.S., France, and U.K., they suggest that Western nations should spend their time looking inward rather than policing activity around the world.  This debate is presented in partnership with The German Marshall Fund's Brussels Forum, broadcast live from Brussels, Belgium.

The Debaters

For the motion

Frank Ledwidge

Frank Ledwidge

Senior Fellow, Royal Air Force College & Former British Intelligence Officer

Frank Ledwidge is a senior fellow at the Royal Air Force College and a former military intelligence officer. He spent fifteen years at the front end... Read More

Rajan Menon

Rajan Menon

Author, The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention

Rajan Menon is a senior research scholar at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies and the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Chair... Read More

Against the motion

Bernard Kouchner

Bernard Kouchner

Co-Founder, Doctors Without Borders

Bernard Kouchner, a medical doctor by training, is the co-founder and former president of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). The... Read More

Kori Schake

Deputy Director-General, International Institute for Strategic Studies

Kori Schake is the deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and was previously a research fellow at the Hoover... Read More

Where Do You Stand?

For The Motion
  • Despite good intentions, humanitarian intervention invariably leads to instability, occupation, and the death of innocent civilians.

  • State sovereignty must be respected on the world stage. Unless acting in self-defense or facing an imminent threat, nations have no right to use military force against another state. 

  • The U.S. election and Brexit made Western opinion clear: civilians are fed up with spending money in foreign conflicts. It’s time for wealthy nations to turn inward and deal with problems at home.

Against The Motion
  • Wealthy nations have a moral obligation to prevent crimes against humanity wherever they may occur. Failure to intervene constitutes a failure to lead. 

  • All U.N. member states have endorsed the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, a global political commitment to halt or prevent genocide and war crimes. These states have an obligation to uphold this promise. 

  • Violent civil wars often have spillover effects, leading to regional instability that could threaten global security

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The Research

The Research

The Dilemma of Humanitarian Intervention

Jayshree Bajoria and Robert McMahon
June 12, 2013

“The willingness to use armed force is also inevitably influenced not only by the desperation of the affected population but also by geopolitical factors, including the relevance of the country to the world community, regional stability, and the attitudes of other major players, say experts.”

Military Interventions on Behalf of Rebels Typically Lead to More Killing of Civilians Not Less

Matthew Yglesias
August 27, 2013

“… Historically speaking, intervening on behalf of rebels increases the number of civilians who are killed by increasing the desperation of government forces.”

Bystanders to Genocide

Samantha Power
September 1, 2001

“The U.S. government knew enough about the [Rwandan] genocide early on to save lives, but passed up countless opportunities to intervene.”

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