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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Policy Planning Staff > Releases > 2004

The Role of the U.S. Government in Humanitarian Intervention

Stewart Patrick, Policy Planning Staff
Remarks to the 43rd Annual International Affairs Symposium, The Suffering of Strangers: Global Humanitarian Intervention in a Turbulent World, Lewis and Clark College
Portland, Oregon
April 5, 2004

I would like to thank Lewis and Clark College -- and particularly the student organizers -- for inviting me to what promises to be a thought-provoking symposium.  Our gathering is a timely one, occurring as we mark the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda.  I am impressed by the initiative of the undergraduates who have devoted their energy and intelligence to this event. 


I also want to thank Professor Matthew Levinger, whom I got to know during his recent stint as a State Department fellow.  Matt is proof that individuals can make a difference in large bureaucracies.  He came to D.C. determined to get the U.S. Government to focus more on stopping atrocities.  He banged on doors, asked hard questions and got apathetic or harried officials (like me) to think about how to prevent future Rwandas.  Matt is back in Portland now, but Washington is a better place for his having been there.


The topic of this session is who should intervene in humanitarian crises. When it comes to delivering assistance in permissive environments, the answer is clear.  The lead belongs with humanitarian actors, including international relief agencies, NGOs, and the aid arms of national governments and regional organizations. 


The U.S. Government devotes a great deal of attention and money to assisting the victims of natural and man-made disasters around the world.  In FY 2003, we spent more than two billion dollars assisting refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs).  This represents roughly a third of global spending on humanitarian assistance.  The magnitude of these efforts testify to the generosity of the American people and their desire to help alleviate the suffering of strangers. 


This generosity has also had a major impact.  Over the past two years, the United States has assisted the return and resettlement of some 3.5 million Afghan refugees and IDPs, the biggest humanitarian success story in modern history.  We have similar opportunities for success in other countries where long conflicts have ended, like Angola and Sierra Leone.


The two main humanitarian actors in the U.S. Government are the Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration (PRM).  USAID and PRM support the work of intergovernmental organizations like UNHCR and the World Food Program, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross and NGOS like CARE and Catholic Relief Services.  This evening you will have the opportunity to hear from Gene Dewey, the Assistant Secretary of State for PRM.  


My own remarks this afternoon focus on the more controversial question of what the United States should do in non-permissive settings where violence threatens massive loss of life.  One of the lessons of the past decade is that there are no purely humanitarian solutions to fundamentally political crises.  Humanitarian aid can ameliorate suffering but rarely gets to the root causes of violence. 


Nor should we expect it to.  Humanitarian actors have a limited mandate: to provide emergency aid that saves lives, according to principles of neutrality, impartiality, and consent.  Their mission is to help the afflicted, regardless of the identity of the beneficiaries or their relationship to the conflict.


The nature of contemporary conflict has placed these humanitarian principles under strain.  Notions of neutrality, impartiality, and consent are difficult to apply when belligerents are not professional armies but irregular forces with no respect for civilians or compunction about targeting humanitarian actors.  As we saw in Srebrenica, providing aid in the absence of political and military action to end violence may result only in the “well fed dead.”


In extreme cases, the only way to end suffering and prevent atrocities may be through the threat or use of force – that is, by so-called “humanitarian intervention.”  I say “so-called” because the phrase verges on an oxymoron.  Armed intervention is hardly neutral, impartial, or consensual.  How ever warranted or well intended, it implies choosing sides and using violent means. 


Historically, the main obstacle to armed intervention – humanitarian or otherwise-- has been the doctrine of sovereignty, which prohibits violating the territorial integrity of another state.  One of the striking developments of the past decade has been an erosion of this non-intervention norm and the rise of a nascent doctrine of “contingent sovereignty.”  


This school of thought holds that sovereign rights and immunities are not absolute.  They depend on the observance of fundamental state obligations.  These include the responsibility to protect the citizens of the state.  When a regime makes war on its people or cannot prevent atrocities against them, it risks forfeiting its claim to non-intervention.  In such circumstances, the responsibility to protect may devolve to the international community.


This emerging consensus reflects the traumas of the twentieth century.  The seminal event was the Holocaust, but it was hardly the last to shock the conscience of humankind.  From the killing fields of Cambodia to the bloody hills of Rwanda, a litany of atrocities has mocked our earnest, repeated pledges of “never again.” 


Following the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan described what he termed a “developing international norm”: “that massive and systematic violations of human rights – wherever they may take place – should not be allowed to stand.”  No longer should frontiers be considered an absolute defense behind which states can commit crimes against humanity with “sovereign impunity.” 


The question of when to intervene to stop atrocities is among the most excruciating dilemmas in U.S. foreign policy.  There are several aspects to this dilemma.


The title of this conference, The Suffering of Strangers, hints at one predicament: determining the obligations we owe to those who live beyond our borders.  As the philosopher David Hume observed two and a half centuries ago, human empathy tends to diminish the farther we get from our nuclear families – and, he might have added, from our nation.  In contemplating armed intervention, how should we weigh the potential benefits -- in terms of foreign lives saved -- against the likely costs to the United States, including the loss of our own citizen-soldiers? 


There is no easy answer to this question, which lurks in the background of our intervention debates.  In the late nineteenth century, Bismarck famously remarked that the entirety of the Balkans was not worth the bones of a single “Pomeranian grenadier.”  A century later NATO dithered and vacillated before summoning the will to intervene in Bosnia and Kosovo.  In October 1993, the United States pulled out of Somalia after the deaths of 18 U.S. Army Rangers, concluding that the price was too high.


As we reflect on the Rwanda experience, we should ask ourselves a fundamental question: Do we regard the failure of the international community to intervene as an agonizing but essentially correct decision?  Or do we consider it a terrible mistake we should forever regret and vow never to repeat? 


The claim is often made that massive human suffering abroad, however regrettable, does not impinge on U.S. “national interests,” and that devoting U.S. resources to prevent or respond to it replaces foreign policy with “social work.”  This argument has garnered even greater support since 9/11.  Given our natural preoccupation with combating transnational terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, in this view, can we really afford to devote scarce energy and resources to attend to the suffering of strangers?  


This argument has two main flaws.  First, it rests on a false dichotomy between interests and values.  The desire to assist the less fortunate is an enduring feature of American political culture.  It will always remain part of our international purpose.  And in practical terms, American leadership abroad rests heavily on our reputation as a force for good.  We cannot retain moral authority if others perceive us as wholly self-interested and callously indifferent to their plight.  The National Security Strategy recognizes this connection between American ideals and interests, declaring that the United States will always stand for the “non-negotiable demands of human dignity.”  Foremost among these demands are freedom from fear and freedom from want.


Second, the argument ignores a central lesson of 9/11: allowing distant and troubled lands like Afghanistan to collapse into anarchy threatens on our own safety and welfare.  President Bush has acknowledged this in the National Security Strategy, which declares: “America is now threatened less by conquering states than by failing ones.”  


Weak and failing states breed multiple transnational threats to national and global security.  These include terrorism, organized crime, trafficking in drugs and human beings, pandemic diseases, mass migration, environmental degradation, and economic instability.  They generate -- and frequently export – horrific violence, producing humanitarian catastrophes that can spread across porous boundaries, destabilizing nearby countries and even entire regions, such as West and Central Africa.  We have a basic interest in helping to reform weak states, stabilize failing ones, and reconstruct those that fail. We cannot turn a blind eye or cut them adrift without creating risks for ourselves.


The tough question, of course, is deciding when to intervene.  We are unlikely to come up with an ironclad, consistent rule to govern armed “humanitarian intervention.”  Our policy will inevitably remain selective, because our level of attention to different countries will vary, and because the United States must balance its interest in preventing suffering with its pursuit of other important goals and commitments.  We cannot intervene everywhere.


That is no excuse, however, for never intervening anywhere.  While rigid decision criteria are unrealistic, our policy on “humanitarian intervention” should be guided by several principles.


First, we should set the bar high.  Such intervention should be limited to stopping or preventing egregious atrocities – situations where governments or insurgents are targeting large numbers of civilians for genocide, systematic rape, mass murder and expulsions or other crimes against humanity.  There are prudent reasons this limitation.  Sovereignty remains a key stabilizing force, a barrier to utter global anarchy.  We should beware discarding it too casually.  In addition, U.S. capacities are finite.  Without discipline we could exhaust ourselves in unending interventions.


Second, armed intervention should be an option of last resort. Given its costs, risks, and unpredictable consequences, it should be used only when other measures have fallen short. 


Third, the intervention must promise to do more good than harm -- both to the population in question and U.S. interests, broadly defined.  The military mission should be undertaken with proportional means, and it should be coupled with a realistic long-term political strategy that helps to address the roots of conflict and prevent a relapse into violence.


Fourth, the United States should make every effort to enlist international partners, so that we are not forced to go it alone.  Multilateral interventions are vastly preferable to unilateral ones.  They offer both increased legitimacy and the promise that others will share the load.  When intervention is warranted but a UN imprimatur is unreachable, we should seek to act through regional groupings like NATO or like-minded coalitions.


The final principle may be the most important:  The United States should undertake armed humanitarian intervention only if its leaders are committed to marshaling and sustaining the domestic support required to incur the costs and stay the course.  This is ultimately a question of political will.  In the absence of a groundswell of public or congressional sentiment in favor of intervention, leaders must demonstrate the courage to lead.


The limited U.S. appetite for armed humanitarian intervention need not be a counsel of despair.  There are many things short of military action that we can do – and are doing -- to ease the suffering of strangers.  Many of these steps are preventive, intended to ensure that the question of using armed force does not need to arise.


An inescapable truth of the past decade is that many atrocities could have been prevented by timely action.  Prevention is easier said than done, however.  This is partly a function of the hectic pace of policymaking.  Government officials are so consumed with the crisis of the day that they overlook the crises of tomorrow.  We need to move from a culture of response to a culture of prevention.  


But there is also a practical obstacle.  Intuitively, we understand the value of acting before countries implode.  Yet it is hard to attract attention of mobilize political will until violence erupts and outrages are committed.  Prevention implies acting on imperfect information and spending real resources now to prevent outcomes that are hypothetical and – if we are successful – will never come to pass. 


We need persuasive evidence that a dime of prevention really is worth a dollar of cure.  For example, the UN calculates that the world spent $250 billion on eight major peacekeeping operations in the 1990s, and tens of billions more on reconstruction.  It is hard to believe that preventive action would have been nearly as costly.


Effective preventive action depends first of all on early warning.  An effective early warning system has three components: a reliable model to predict where state failure is most likely; up-to-date monitoring of the situation on the ground in crisis countries; and broad information sharing among international actors.


The Political Instability Task Force, a private group funded by the U.S. Government, has identified some of the root causes of state failure and common triggers of societal breakdown.  The CIA uses these models to create “watch lists” of potential crisis countries.


This is an important advance, but we need to do more.  We need diplomats and intelligence officers to devote greater attention to vulnerable regions, particularly in Africa.  We need adequate resources devoted to monitoring ingredients of conflict like arms flows, private militias and hate media.  Finally, we need more information sharing among national governments, UN agencies, the media, the private sector, and NGOs.  Several NGOs like the International Crisis Group have developed their own impressive monitoring and warning capabilities.  Our ultimate goal should be an integrated global warning network that can serve as a tripwire.


Besides early warning, the international community needs a comprehensive toolbox of policy options – diplomatic, financial, commercial, political, intelligence, law enforcement, and military -- on which we can draw at different phases of an escalating crisis.  We already have many instruments and incentives we can use to change the trajectory of events.  These range from diplomatic mediation to arms embargoes, travel restrictions, financial sanctions, suspensions of aid and military assistance, crackdowns on money laundering, prosecution of war criminals, jamming of hate radio, preventive military deployment and threats of military force.


As we improve our ability to respond to crises, we must improve our capacity for “structural prevention.”  By this I mean long-term measures that improve the stability and viability of troubled societies, countries or regions.  USAID, for example, has begun to integrate conflict prevention into its foreign aid activities. When designing assistance programs, USAID now conducts “conflict impact assessments” -- analogous to environmental impact assessments -- to ensure that the aid it provides goes to actors committed to peace and good governance. 


We also need to do more at the other end of the conflict cycle.  It is a startling fact that one half of all countries emerging from war slide back into violence within five years.  One of the best ways to prevent massive human suffering, it turns out, is to assist post-conflict recovery and peace-building. 


We have learned much, through sometimes painful experience, about the priority tasks of post-conflict reconstruction.  These include first and foremost the provision of basic physical security and public order.  Beyond that, successful reconstruction requires rebuilding institutions of democracy and governance; advancing social and economic welfare; and establishing mechanisms of justice and accountability. 


The Bush administration and Congress are reexamining ways to improve U.S. capacities to assist post-conflict reconstruction.  There is bipartisan consensus both inside and outside government that U.S. approaches have been too ad hoc and reactive.  Without reliable institutions and mechanisms, we have been forced to reinvent the wheel for each new circumstance.  There is also agreement that civilian agencies should assume greater responsibility from the military for dealing with the civilian components of reconstruction.  Two options under consideration are the creation of an office in the State Department to help plan and organize these tasks and the creation of a corps of civilian personnel who can be deployed quickly to post-conflict countries. 


As we take steps to get our own house in order, finally, we are reaching out to the international community.  We are looking for ways to cooperate with other like-minded governments, the UN, international financial institutions, and regional organizations to forge common understandings about the challenges of failing states and the priority tasks to be accomplished. 


There are a number of priority needs to be addressed. One of the most pressing is to eliminate the economic incentives that fuel violence in many conflict zones.  Beyond tracking down and freezing assets of corrupt officials and human rights violators, we need to disrupt the links between narcotics, arms trafficking, and illicit trade in commodities.  One helpful model is the Kimberley process, launched by the private sector and national governments to prohibit trade in conflict diamonds.  Another is the new G-8 initiative on extractive industries, designed to ensure that revenues generated from oil and other extractive sectors are handled in a transparent and accountable manner.


Finally, we are looking for ways to help build the capacities of regional and sub-regional organizations to address the sources of violence in their own neighborhoods.  With this end in mind, the United States is bolstering African militaries through the Africa Contingency Operations Training Assistance program and supporting the efforts of the African Union to prevent, mediate and respond to conflicts on the continent.


As these proposals make clear, there are multiple practical steps that the United States and its partners can take to reduce the sources of violent conflict in vulnerable countries.  Our task is to develop strong prevention capabilities that can protect the lives of the innocent, long before we need to resort to coercive means.


I will now turn the floor over to Christophe Girod.  I look forward to hearing what he has to say about ICRC’s invaluable role in helping alleviate human suffering around the world.







Released on April 12, 2004

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