Should States Ever Interfere in the Affairs of Other States?

Is the intervention of one state in the affairs of another ever justified? Do states have a moral duty or a legal right to interfere? Where is the line drawn? This essay will observe some of the answers to these and other questions surrounding the interference of one state in the affairs of others. It will also distinguish between interference and intervention and consider the conflict between these issues and sovereignty. Furthermore, it will examine different types of intervention and pro- and anti-intervention arguments to try to determine whether states are ever justified in interfering in the affairs of other states.

The Westphalian Constitution of world politics based on the peace treaty of Westphalia in 1648 formed the foundation for the international system of states we know today. It outlined three main principles: firstly, territoriality – humankind is organized principally into exclusive territorial (political) communities with fixed borders. Secondly, sovereignty – within its borders, a state or government has an entitlement to supreme, unqualified, and exclusive political and legal authority.

This is also called political self determination. Lastly, autonomy: countries are autonomous containers of political, social and economic activity in that fixed borders separate the domestic sphere from the world outside. Based on the Westphalian constitution, and further developed by the UN Charter , the general rule is that a state should never interfere in the affairs of other states because the international state system is based on state sovereignty. A sovereign state, as a political authority, has no internal equal and no external sovereign.

Sovereignty is absolute, pertains to the ruler (in a dynastic system – in the modern system the ruler can change without affecting the state’s sovereignty), and is perpetual, meaning it doesn’t expire with its holder. It can also be seen as the legitimate exercise of power by a state. Modern sovereignty is the fundamental right of political self-determination, legal equality between states, and the principal of non-intervention of one state in the internal affairs of another. Although the default position based on state sovereignty and the constitution of Westphalia is that states should never interfere in the affairs of other states as it erodes their sovereignty, it could be argued that there are some exceptions.

First let us distinguish between “interference” and “intervention”. Interference, by definition, is clearly premised on the fact that it is wrong and unwelcome by the party that is being interfered in. Intervention, however, is arguably a more neutral term. Both aim to change the policies and goals of the other states government and often aim to achieve effects that favour the intervening agency . A classic example of one state interfering in the affairs of another is the post-9/11 invasion of Iraq by the USA. According to the ‘Bush doctrine’, the interference was justified as the US believed that they had a right to interfere as they thought there was a possibility of a threat to US national security.

Therefore, the Iraq war is seen by many as a preventative war based on a possibility of a threat, which many commentators say is unjustified and taking interference too far. Some people would argue that an exception to the general position that interference in the affairs of another state is never justified is self-defence. For example, the 1919 post-war treaties completely disarmed Germany, took away and divided up much of its territory, and demanded that it pay reparations and take full blame for causing WWI. Many would say the Allies were justified in doing this to prevent another war on the same scale from happening again. Another exception to the rule is Just War Theory – particularly jus ad bellum, which outlines the just conditions for going to war.

There must be a just cause, a right intention, proper authority, a probability of success, fair proportionality and war must be a last resort. However, this could be manipulated in two ways; firstly, an aggressor state could justify a war in a weaker state by masking it with humanitarian intentions. Secondly, it could justify the use of force for humanitarian reasons to eventually bring about peace for all nations, as Barack Obama recently advocated . Furthermore, when in other states, risking the lives of the armed forces for principally humanitarian reasons is controversial as it violates the compact between state and citizen.

According to Samuel Huntingdon, for example, “it is morally unjustifiable and politically indefensible that members of the US armed forces should be killed to prevent Somalis from killing each other” .

Humanitarian intervention is often seen as positive and compassionate rather than an aggressive intervention based on the self-interest of the intervening state, as it aims to protect human rights from grave violations, therefore it is seen as an exception to the general belief that a state shouldn’t interfere in the affairs of another state. However, it still compromises the sovereignty of the state being interfered in. Moreover, it is impossible to ensure that states will intervene solely for humanitarian reasons. Many would argue that any act of intervention or interference, whatever the motive, is determined by the interests of the powerful states initiating it.

The reality of power politics is that only the powerful can intervene, and only the weak can be subject to intervention. In practice, for example, there would be no chance that China, the USA or Britain would allow foreign troops on their soil. Some would argue that although it may violate a state’s sovereignty, the interference of one state in the affairs of another can be justified because the first state has a duty to aid the other in times of need, as we are not only part of a nation but of a global humanity. Are moral obligations defined by national borders, or do we have moral duties that transcend borders? Or, as AJP Taylor argues, perhaps our one duty is to mind our own business.

The political philosopher Michael Walzer argues that the duty of humanitarian intervention by the international community is only necessary and justified when responding to acts that “shock the conscience of humanity”, such as genocide or famine. However, others would argue that it should not take gross, massive violations to prompt intervention – the moral case should not be reduced to a numbers game.

Further examples are those of the individualist and collectivist theories of international justice. Individualist theories are concerned only with the welfare of individual human beings, whereas collectivist theories maintain that ethnic groups, races, nations and states are proper objects of moral concern. Another question surrounding intervention is who should intervene if it is indeed justified. Globalization had introduced new actors that could interfere in state affairs, such as multinational corporations, a flourishing international network of NGOs, an international criminal court system, regional blocs such as the European Union, and more policy coordination groups such as the G-8, G-20 and the OECD.

A unilateral intervention effort could be self-interest masked in humanitarian claims; therefore Obama maintains that it should be multilateral to ensure international legitimacy. Walzer argues that no specific state or society is bound to intervene as humanitarian intervention is an imperfect duty that does not belong to any particular agent. Economic intervention is another occasion where one state might interfere in the affairs of another. When Iraq invaded Kuwait after the 1991 Gulf War, USforces imposed a no-fly zone on Iraq, and imposed economic sanctions to stop it from re-arming. However, the economic sanctions had grave repercussions; accessing foodstuffs and necessary medicinal aid was hindered and thousands of civilians died due to food and medicine shortages. An example of imposing positive economic sanctions is when South Africa was prevented from importing armaments during the apartheid. The use of these sanctions also helped to bring about the end of apartheid and change the policies in South Africa at the time.

Therefore it could be argued that economic intervention can be justified to bring about positive change in the receiving state. In conclusion, according to the world order based on the international state system outlined by Westphalia, and according to the UN charter and general agreements on the preservation of state sovereignty, one state should not interfere in the affairs of another.

However, despite the difficult criteria surrounding the issue such as who should intervene and when, it seems that when presented with a challenge to the world’s order and peace, and when gross violations of fundamental human rights occur, then a state is justified in intervening in another as we are part of a global humanity. 1,650 WORDS

BIBLIOGRAPHYHuntingdon, Samuel: New Contingencies, Old RolesAccessed from on 04.01.2010 Obama, Barack: Nobel Peace Prize speech

Accessed from on 14.12.2009 Taylor, Professor A.J.P: on Europe: The Historian Who Predicted the Future Will Germany be the Next to Explode? The Sunday Express, London, June 2 1968 Accessed from on 08.12.2009 UN Charter, Chapter 1: Purposes and Principles

Accessed from on 05.01.2010

Vincent, R.J.: Nonintervention and International Order (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 1974) Cited in: John Baylis and Steve Smith. The Globalization of World Politics: An introduction to international relations, Third Edition, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005) Chapter 18 – The United Nations, Paul Taylor and Devon Curtis

Walzer, Michael: Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations Third Edition (New York: Basic Books 2000)