Why do States decide for or against Humanitarian Interventions? Explaining the Intervention in Libya and the Nonintervention in Syria

A Case Study

Bachelor Thesis, 2015

44 Pages, Grade: 1,3



A. Introduction

B. Why do states decide for or against humanitarian interventions?
I. Theoretical Foundations and Definitions
1. Neorealism
2. Institutionalism
3. Liberalism
4. Social Constructivism
5. Definition of a Humanitarian Intervention
II. Theoretical Assessment of Humanitarian Interventions
1. Neorealism: Material Gains and National Security
2. Institutionalism: Cooperation through Institutions
3. Liberalism: Interest Groups and Public Opinion
4. Social Constructivism: Norms and Images
5. Summary of Theoretical Motivators
III. Case Study
1. Short History of the Cases
a. Libya
b. Syria
2. Case Study: Material Gains and National Security
3. Case Study: Cooperation through Institutions
4. Case Study: Interest Groups and Public Opinion
5. Case Study: Norms and Images
6. Case Study: Conclusion

C. Conclusion



This paper examines the reasons states have when deciding for or against their engagement in a humanitarian intervention. It uses the theories of Neorealism, Institutionalism, Liberalism and Social Constructivism to identify possible motivations influencing the decision about such an engagement. These motivations are then applied in a case study that compares the 2011 intervention in Libya to the nonintervention in Syria following the events of the Arab Spring, in order to explain intervention and nonintervention in two similar cases.

A. Introduction

The concept of a humanitarian intervention is a fairly new concept in the context of international politics. While interventions are a fairly common occurrence in history, recently they became increasingly less accepted as an instrument of foreign policy. The concept of the invulnerability of the sovereignty of the state was especially strong during the last decades in the Cold War. There was no morally acceptable reason for any state to interfere in the politics of any other state. This had only changed recently, when sovereignty was rethought as a concept that not only included certain rights for the state, but also included responsibilities. This also meant that if any state would fail to meet these responsibilities, the other states in the international community would have the responsibility to intervene for humanitarian reasons.

The last two decades have seen many smaller or larger humanitarian crises, most noteworthy among them the events that unfolded in Libya and Syria in the wake of the Arab Spring. In both countries initially peaceful protest resulted in violent opposition against local regimes that led to prolonged fighting, causing many deaths and caused incredible suffering for the population of these states. In both conflicts the number of civilian deaths and displaced persons rose quickly. Although the situations seem to be similarly dire, a humanitarian intervention has only happened in Libya so far and while such an intervention has been discussed for Syria it seems unlikely that a humanitarian intervention is going to happen there in the nearer future.

There has been a debate among the scholars of International Relations whether humanitarian interventions actually exist and under what conditions they are likely to happen. There are two intentions for this paper. First I want to outline possible motives states could have, when they decide for or against their participation in such a humanitarian intervention. Second I want to test these theoretical motives in a case study, in order to demonstrate how these theoretical motives could play out in a practical case.

A first part of this paper will thus introduce to the topic by outlining a few of the theoretical foundations, which we need in order to be able to discuss the topic. The first part will present the theories of international relations that will be used later on, but these theories will not yet be applied to the case of a humanitarian intervention. This part of the paper will also introduce the reader to the concept of a humanitarian intervention, by giving a short presentation of the history of the idea of a humanitarian intervention, while also giving a robust overview of the ideas that hide behind the concept of a humanitarian intervention.

In a second part this paper intends to apply the theories presented in the first part to the special case of a humanitarian intervention. The goal of the second part is to work out how each of these theories would explain the occurrence of humanitarian interventions and on what factors states would base their decision for or against such an intervention. At the end of the second part this paper will reach a first conclusion when it will be able to present a small list of motives states could have in their decision for or against a humanitarian intervention. This list of factors will then be used in the third part.

The third part of this paper then contains a comparative case study. As mentioned before Libya and Syria after the Arab Spring seem to be comparable cases for states that were a valid target for a humanitarian intervention, but the humanitarian intervention did only happen in one of these states. I am going to take the motives for participating in a humanitarian intervention, and will apply them to this case in order to show why a humanitarian intervention did happen in Libya, but has not yet happened in Syria.

So in conclusion I hope to be able to compile a valid list of reasons states could have for deciding for or against humanitarian interventions, while also being able to explain why a humanitarian intervention did happen in Libya, but not in Syria.

B. Why do states decide for or against humanitarian interventions?

A first chapter will give a short overview over the theories used in this paper, and introduce the concept of a humanitarian intervention. In a second chapter I will apply these theories to the case of a humanitarian intervention and try to extract certain variables from the theories that influence the decision for or against such an intervention. A last and third chapter will contain a case study on Syria and Libya after the Arabic Spring, in which I will try to find out if any of the previously identified variables have played a role in causing the difference between the intervention in Libya and the nonintervention in Syria.

I. Theoretical Foundations and Definitions

In order to identify possible factors, that could influence a state when making a decision for or against a humanitarian intervention I would like to take four theories of International Relations, and to apply them to the special case of a humanitarian intervention. I have selected the theories of Neorealism, Liberalism, Institutionalism and Constructivism. I have selected these four theories, since they are the four most prevalent theories about International Relations and are also fairly different from each other. Since each of these four theories focuses on a different aspect of international politics, together they should also be able to deliver a fairly diverse set of possible factors for influencing the decision for or against a humanitarian intervention. This diverse set of factors can then be checked in the case study later on to identify which factors have played a role in the decisions in Libya and Syria during the Arabic Spring.

In addition the first chapter will define the concept of a humanitarian intervention. This is necessary, since a humanitarian intervention differs significantly from a regular intervention, and I would like to make sure the two concepts are not confused.

1. Neorealism

Any presentation of Neorealism has to begin by outlining the assumptions Neorealists make about the structure of the international system. This is especially important for this theory, since all of its assumptions are made on the grounds of the proposed anarchic structure of the international system and a concept of states as rational actors that only differ in their capabilities, but not their intentions. Waltz concludes thus that “International structures are defined, first, by the ordering principle of the system,[...] anarchy, and second, by the distribution of capabilities across units” (Waltz, 1990, p. 29). It should also be mentioned that units in this context only includes states, since Neorealism does not perceive International Organizations, NGO's or any other actor as having a major effect on the order of the international system. “International organizations do exist, and in evergrowing numbers. Supranational agents able to act effectively, however, either themselves acquire some of the attributes and capabilities of states,[...], or they soon reveal their inability to act in important ways except with the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the principal states concerned with the matters at hand.” (Waltz, 1990, p. 88). This means that any international organization that differs from a state does not influence the international order, except with the approval of the states.

Anarchy in the international system means that there is no central governing authority, which could regulate interstate interactions or sanction states for certain behavior. This means that states can not be forced to cooperate with each other, and that any state can only rely on itself in order to secure its goals and survival. “States have to do whatever they think necessary for their own preservation, since no one can be relied on to do it for them.” (Waltz, 2010, p. 109). According to Neorealism any state's main goal is its own survival, and it will not subordinate this interest to any other interests, be they domestic or foreign. ”The international interest must be served; and if that means anything at all, it means that national interests are subordinate to it.” (Waltz, 2010, p. 109). It should be noted that states also can not just increase their capabilities, but also have to consider the relative gains of capabilities that other states could gain out of any cooperation. Any state's aim would always be to gain more capabilities than any other state.

So how do states secure their own survival in such an anarchic international order? According to Neorealism this happens through two mechanisms: internal and external balancing. Internal balancing means that states increase their own capabilities, so that they gain power in relation to the other states, thereby making it easier to guarantee for their own survival. External balancing means that states will enter into alliances to counter the power of more powerful individual states or stronger alliances.

To sum it up we can state that the main point of Neorealism is the anarchic world order and within the world order the distribution of capabilities. Any state's main goal would be to make relative gains in capabilities when compared to the other states in the international system.

2. Institutionalism

Institutionalism as a theory was an answer to the theory of Neorealism, by trying to work out how states could cooperate in the anarchic world order described by Neorealist theory. One of the main authors for this theory is Robert Keohane. His main argument, which separates Institutionalism from Neorealism is that states do not just value relative gains, but also value absolute gains. This means that states under Institutionalist assumptions could also cooperate, when one state has higher relative gains than the other state. Another of his assumptions is that international politics is in fact not a zero-sum game, which means than one state's gain is not automatically a loss for another state, thereby making cooperation for mutual profit possible. Keohane states that “relative gains are unlikely to have much impact on cooperation if the potential absolute gains from cooperation are substantial, or in any context involving more than two states.” (Keohane, 1995, p. 44).

The theory then puts a special focus on international organizations, as they can allow cooperation by allowing states to better coordinate their cooperation and to guard themselves against the other state cheating. “Unless some coordinating mechanism exists, states may fail to capture the potential gains from cooperation […] In complex situations involving many states, international institutions can step in to provide 'constructed focal points' that make particular cooperative outcomes prominent” (Keohane, 1995, p. 45).

So how can a state's behavior be determined under Institutionalist assumptions? Institutionalism does not differ from Neorealism so much here, since it “agrees that the distribution of power and wealth in the international system exerts a strong influence on state behavior” (Hasenclever, Mayer, Rittberger, 1997, p. 29). Keohane also accepts the Neorealist assumption that “states […] behave as rational egoists who only act to further their own interests” (Hasenclever, Mayer, Rittberger, 1997, p. 29), the main difference being that there is no clear preference for a certain area of politics, as there is on security for Neorealism, while Institutionalism states that “no longer can all issues be subordinated to military security” (Keohane, Nye, 2001, p. 23).

In summary we can say that states can have many reasons for their actions under the assumptions of Institutionalism. The theory's relevant point for us is how states achieve cooperation according to the theory. While cooperation is possible it can also be difficult to achieve, even when states interests seem to align. The theory here puts a big focus on the work of international organizations, which are seen as the main way states achieve cooperation in international politics, since they allow states to guard themselves against the risks of defection from cooperation, and allow them to coordinate their cooperation, which makes cooperation more feasible and attractive at them same time.

3. Liberalism

Liberalism centers on the assumption that domestic politics do in fact play a role in international politics. As Moravcsik puts it: “”Liberal IR theory elaborates the insight that state-society relations […] have a fundamental impact on state behavior in world politics. Societal ideas, interests and institutions influence state behavior by shaping state preferences” (Moravcsik, 1997, p. 513). This means that according to Liberalism we have to look at what is inside a state in order to be able to explain its outwards behavior.

There are three basic assumptions of Liberal theory that should be mentioned here in order to give a good overview over Liberalism. The first assumption is the primacy of social actors. This means that for Liberalism “the fundamental actors in international politics are individuals and private groups who are on the average rational and risk-averse and who organize exchange and collective action to promote differentiated interests under constraints imposed by material scarcity, conflicting values, and variations in societal influence” (Moravcsik, 1997, p. 516). Liberalism holds that the interests of the individuals and groups in a state determine the politics carried out by that state, and that these individuals and groups try to advance their own interests through the politics of the state.

A second basic assumption is thus that the role of the state is diminished to what has often been called a “‘transmission belt' “(Moravcsik, 1997, p. 518). This means that the state only transmits the “preferences and social power of individuals and groups […] into state policy” (Moravcsik, 1997, p. 518). It has to be noted that this does not mean that all interests of individuals or groups will get represented equally or represented at all by a state. As Moravcsik says: “Every government represents some individuals and groups more fully than others” (Moravcsik, 1997, p. 518). This means not only is it important to identify the interests of all relevant social actors in the state in order to understand state policy, but also to identify if they are able to transmit their interests into state policy effectively.

A third important assumption is that “the configuration of interdependent state preferences determines state behavior” (Moravcsik, 1997, p. 520). This means that while each state tries to achieve the realization of its own preferences, each other state is also trying to achieve the realization of their own preferences. This means that states have to adapt their behavior to the behavior of other states, especially so whenever interdependencies between two states exist. But contrary to Neorealism state preferences do not have to be conflictive by default, but can also converge under many circumstances, thus allowing for cooperation.

To sum it up I would say that the main points of Liberalism important for this paper are that a state's behavior is defined by the interests of domestic groups and individuals, and that any state's main goal in international polices would be to realize as many of these interests that its domestic actors have transmitted into its policy.

4. Social Constructivism

Social Constructivism is the last theory that will be used in this paper. One of the main representatives of Social Constructivism is Alexander Wendt, who made the theory widely popular with his paper “Anarchy is what states make of it”.

Social Constructivism focuses on the importance of identities and norms for international politics, and marks a renunciation of theoretical frameworks being based on rational choice approaches, since these have usually ignored norms and identities, as they are difficult to quantify and use in such theories. So what does Social Constructivism say about the reasons states have for their actions in the international system? Wendt puts it this way: “It is collective meanings that constitute the structures which organize our actions” (Wendt, 1992, p. 397). Social Constructionist thus has the view that international politics are socially constructed by the states participating in these international politics.

The two basic beliefs of Social Constructivism can be summarized this way: “that the structures of human association are determined primarily by shared ideas rather than material forces, and [...] that the identities and interests of purposive actors are constructed by these shared ideas rather than given by nature.” (Wendt, 1999, p. 1). This means that states can interpret seemingly similar situations differently depending on norms and identities involved. States can attach different meanings to things and can thus act differently. An example used by Wendt was that British missiles, though equally powerful, were a lot less threatening to the U.S than Soviet missiles. This is the case because Britain has vastly different identity than the Soviet Union and is therefore judged differently. “This does not mean that material power and interests are unimportant, but rather that their meaning and effects depend on the social structure of the system“ (Wendt, 1999, p. 20). Identities and the understanding of others identities are mainly shaped by interaction between the states. “‘The parameters of social organization themselves are reproduced only in and through the orientations and practices of members engaged in social interactions over time' “(Wendt, 1992, p. 406).

To sum it up I would say that the main point of the theory of Social Constructivism is that a state's actions are not so much caused by the actions of other states, but by the state's interpretation of these actions, and what image it has of the other states involved. It also is important to notice that according to the theory states also pay attention to norms and ideas when making decisions.

5. Definition of a Humanitarian Intervention

Before we start with the analysis of the selected theories we need to add a definition of a humanitarian intervention, so that the object of study for this paper is clearly defined, and unnecessary confusions are avoided.

An intervention is defined as “activity undertaken by a state, a group within a state, a group within a state, a group of states or an international organization which interferes coercively in the domestic affairs of another state” (Vincent, 1974, p.13). This means that an intervention constitutes the deliberate violation of international law, and the sovereignty of one state by another state, and is usually hard to justify morally.

The concept of a humanitarian intervention is relatively new, since it only started to appear in the 1990s. A broad understanding of a humanitarian intervention is one as “coercive action by states involving the use of armed force in another state, with or without the authorization from the United Nations Security Council, for the purpose of preventing or putting to a halt gross and massive violations of human rights or international humanitarian law” (Ryter, 2003, p.5). A humanitarian intervention is thus action carried out against a state, be it military interventions or sanctions that are aimed to force this state to stop human rights violations. A first thing to note here is that a humanitarian intervention is still a violation of a state's sovereignty, just as a regular intervention would be.

There of course needs to be some way to justify such a gross violation of the sovereignty of another state. A major step towards legitimate humanitarian interventions and away from the concept of absolute sovereignty of the state was Rome Statute by the International Criminal Court (ICC), which “marks an[...] important cornerstone in the evolution of the UN system from a purely Westphalian model to a system where the sovereignty of the state is dependent on its internal governance” (Krieg, 2013, p. 16). For the first time a “clear statement in favour of the precedence of individual rights over the rights of states” (Krieg, 2013, p. 17) was made. This means that the absolute sovereignty of the state had to be questioned, when a state was unable to guarantee the individual rights of its citizens, or was violating these rights itself. “If states fail to do justice to their responsibility to protect its people, the international community has to take over the role of the state and guarantee the protection of human beings” (Krieg, 2013, p. 17).

The biggest step towards the legitimacy of humanitarian interventions is the principle “Responsibility to Protect (R2P)” formulated by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) in 2001. The report states that “State sovereignty implies responsibilities and the primary responsibility for the protection of its people lies within the state itself [and that] where a population is suffering serious harm, as a result of internal was, insurgency, repression or state failure, and the state in question is unwilling or unable to halt or avert it, the principle of non-intervention yields to the international responsibility to protect” (ICISS, 2001, p. XI) This confirms the international community's right to intervene to end gross violations of the human rights in other states.

In order to be considered humanitarian an intervention also has to adhere to certain principles that ensure the intervention is indeed for humanitarian purposes and the protection of the people. On the aforementioned report the ICISS has also made a list of these principles that need to be adhered to. The first principle is the Just Cause Threshold, which means that in order for humanitarian intervention to be justified there needs to be “large loss of life[...] which is the product either of deliberate state action, or state neglect or inability to act, or a failed state situation or large scale 'ethnic cleansing' ”(ICISS, 2001, p. XII).

Additionally there are Precautionary Principles for the intervening parties: Right Intention means that “the primary purpose of the intervention […] must be to halt or avert human suffering” (ICISS, 2001, p. XII). It is also stated that a humanitarian intervention has to remain the Last Resort, only to be used “when every non-military option […] has been explored” (ICISS, 2001, p. XII). The intervention also has to be carried out with Proportional Means, meaning that “the scale, duration and intensity of the planned intervention should be the minimum necessary to secure the defined human protection objective” (ICISS, 2001, p. XII). There should also be Reasonable Prospects “of success in halting or averting the suffering […] with the consequences of action not likely to be worse than the consequences of inaction” (ICISS, 2001, p. XII).

There is also a passage dealing with the question of who has the authority to carry out humanitarian interventions. The paper states that the best authority for such action is the United Nations Security Council, but that in situations where the security council is unable to act states can also chose to take action (after: ICISS, 2001, p. XII).

II. Theoretical Assessment of Humanitarian Interventions

The second part of this paper uses the theories introduced before and applies them to the special case of a humanitarian intervention. The goal is to use the theories to find factors that could make a state decide for or against participation in or initiation of a human intervention. This part is necessary in order to find the factors that can help us find the difference in the situations in Libya and Syria in the third part of this paper. I hope that at the conclusion of this chapter I will be able to come up with a fairly complete set of possible motives for a state's decision related to humanitarian interventions.

1. Neorealism: Material Gains and National Security

From the first chapter we can recall that the main points of Neorealism are the anarchic world order and within the world order the distribution of capabilities. Any state's main goal would be to make relative gains in capabilities, when compared to the other states in the international system.

The first thing we have to talk about when applying Neorealism to the case of humanitarian interventions is the strong focus Neorealism puts on a state's self-interest. As I have outlined earlier the purpose of any humanitarian intervention always has to be to protect human rights, and end human suffering. Under no circumstance is it permissible for any state to intervene on behalf of its own national interests during a humanitarian intervention. Under the assumptions of Neorealism we probably would have to argue that this is a condition that will always be impossible to meet during any intervention. The only thing states are interested in is to increase their own security, while keeping other states from similarity gaining in capabilities. Under Neorealist assumptions no state should be willing to expend all the resources necessary to carry out a humanitarian intervention in another state. Any humanitarian intervention requires per definition military and other resources to be used, which results in a loss of capabilities for any state participating, since military resources if not lost during the intervention are at least bound for a certain amount of time. So while a humanitarian intervention is costly it also does not promise to yield any gains for the intervening states, since they should not be intervening to serve their own interests. As states are also very concerned about their capabilities relative to those of other states any state participating in such a humanitarian intervention would experience a relative loss of capabilities and power compared to any state that is not participating.

International organizations, such as the UN, are also not a valid actor to carry out such humanitarian interventions under Neorealist assumptions, since, as we have already discussed, they can only act “with the support, or at least the acquiescence, of the principal states concerned with the matters at hand.” (Waltz, 1990, p. 88). This means that any humanitarian intervention formally conducted by such international organizations, for Neorealism, would actually have to be conducted by the states with interests in such an interventions.

Thus far we can record the following: For Neorealism states are the only valid actors that can actually conduct a humanitarian intervention. Any participation of international organizations would be a smoke screen by the states actually conducting the intervention. Second we can also state that these states that would carry out such a humanitarian intervention also have absolutely no interest in doing so. Protecting human rights and ending human suffering are no valid motivations for a state to engage in military conflict of any kind, since the result of such a humanitarian intervention can only be losses for the intervening state, and no gains of any kind can be expected by the state. So Neorealists would probably argue that any humanitarian intervention is actually just a regular intervention, and that the intervening states are expecting some gains through their intervention.

So the next question to be asked is why states would engage in interventions in another state according to Neorealism. As Morgenthau puts it: “Intervene we must where our national interest requires it and where our power gives us a chance to succeed. The choice of these occasions will be determined not by sweeping ideological commitments nor by blind reliance upon [...] power but by a careful calculation of the interests involved and the power available“ (Morgenthau, 1967). So how can an intervention serve the national interest of the intervening countries? Earlier we have explained how states engage in internal balancing (expanding their capabilities) and external balancing (maintaining a balance of power) in order to try to maintain their own security. I would argue that an intervention can be part of both of these ways of balancing.

A first reason for an intervention could be that the intervening state hopes to increase or secure its own capabilities, for example by securing sources of valuable resources or expanding it's own territory at the expense of the other state. These gains should also promise to be larger than the capabilities that could be lost in the intervention. A second reason for an intervention could be that the intervening state sees the intervention as necessary for maintaining its own national security. This could be the case when it expects the situation in the other state to destabilize the region, or to cause massive amounts of refugees. Another example would be a case, in which a government in the other state is threatening or planning to leave an existing alliance with the intervening state.

So in conclusion we should look out for the following factors when trying to explain the occurrence or non-occurrence of an intervention with Neorealism. Either the intervening state can expect some gains greater than its expenses from conducting the intervention or the state that would be the target of the intervention is in a situation of any kind that poses a significant risk to the national security of the state that would conduct the intervention.


Excerpt out of 44 pages


Why do States decide for or against Humanitarian Interventions? Explaining the Intervention in Libya and the Nonintervention in Syria
A Case Study
LMU Munich
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
628 KB
humanitarian intervention, syria, lybia, reasons, neorealism, institutionalism, liberalism, social constructivism, nonintervention, intervention
Quote paper
Björn Kraußer (Author), 2015, Why do States decide for or against Humanitarian Interventions? Explaining the Intervention in Libya and the Nonintervention in Syria, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/307052


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Why do States decide for or against Humanitarian Interventions? Explaining the Intervention in Libya and the Nonintervention in Syria

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free