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A Few Words on Mill, Walzer, and Nonintervention

  • Michael W. Doyle


Nonintervention has been a particularly important and occasionally disturbing principle for liberal scholars, such as John Stuart Mill and Michael Walzer, who share a commitment to basic and universal human rights. On the one hand, liberals have provided some of the strongest reasons to abide by a strict form of the nonintervention doctrine. It was only with the security of national borders that peoples could work out the capacity to govern themselves as free citizens. On the other hand, those very same principles of universal human dignity when applied in different contexts have provided justifications for overriding or disregarding the principle of nonintervention.

In explaining this dual logic I present an interpretive summary of s'Mill famous argument against and for intervention, presented in his “A Few Words on Non-Intervention” (1859), that illustrates what makes Mill's “few words” both so attractive and alarming to us. We should be drawn to Mill's arguments because he is among the first to address the conundrums of modern intervention. The modern conscience tries simultaneously to adhere to three contradictory principles: first, the cosmopolitan, humanitarian commitment to assistance, irrespective of international borders; second, respect for the significance of communitarian, national self-determination; and, third, accommodation to the reality of international anarchy, which puts a premium on self-help national security. I stress, more than has been conventional, the consequentialist character of the ethics of both nonintervention and intervention.

Comparing Mill's “Non-Intervention” and Walzer's Just and Unjust Wars (1977) links two classic statements on just wars of intervention. I conclude that interventionist arguments should go beyond the three paradigmatic cases Walzer explores in Just and Unjust Wars. But while they can draw on Mill's “Non-Intervention,” they need to offer a more convincing set of criteria for when such interventions are likely to do more good than harm



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1 Citations to the 1859 “Non-Intervention” essay are to John Stuart Mill, “A Few Words on Non-Intervention,” in Essays on Politics and Culture, ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb (Gloucester: Peter Smith, 1973), pp. 368–84. Citations to Walzer (1977) are to Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars: A Moral Argument with Historical Illustrations (New York: Basic Books, 1977). I have also found helpful in comparing the two Walzer's “Mill's ‘A Few Words on Non-Intervention’: A Commentary,” in Nadia Urbinati and Alex Zakaras, eds., J. S. Mill's Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), pp. 347–56.

2 In a work now in progress, I will explore the possibility that the deeper interdependence embodied in globalization (1) requires a stronger commitment to intervention in order to prevent or halt crimes against humanity; (2) prioritizes multilateral authorization; and (3) fosters a greater capacity in the United Nations to halt protracted civil wars.

3 Lassa Oppenheim, International Law (London: Longmans, 1920) vol. I, p. 221. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits the use of force in general and GA Res 2131 (XX) (1965) provides partial evidence for customary law norms when it outlines potential violations and declares the “Inadmissibility of Intervention into the Domestic Affairs of States.” For the complicated legal record, see Lori Damrosch et al., International Law: Cases and Materials, 4th ed. (St. Paul, Minn.: West, 2001), chap. 12.

4 As surveys of a large literature, I have found especially valuable R. J. Vincent, Nonintervention and International Order (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974); Charles R. Beitz, Political Theory and International Relations (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979); Stanley Hoffmann, Duties Beyond Borders: On the Limits and Possibilities of Ethical International Politics (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1981); Anthony Ellis, “Utilitarianism and International Ethics,” in Terry Nardin and David Mapel, eds., Traditions of International Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 158–79; Fernando Teson, Humanitarian Intervention: An Inquiry Into Law and Morality (Irvington-On-Hudson, N.Y.: Transnational Publishers, 1997); Nicholas Wheeler, Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Simon Chesterman, Just War or Just Peace? Humanitarian Intervention and International Law (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Deen Chatterjee and Don Scheid, eds., Ethics and Foreign Intervention (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); J. L. Holzgrefe and Robert Keohane, eds., Humanitarian Intervention: Ethical, Legal and Political Dilemmas (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Martha Finnemore, The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs about the Use of Force (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003); Jennifer Welsh, ed., Humanitarian Intervention and International Relations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Thomas Weiss, Humanitarian Intervention (Cambridge: Polity, 2007); and Gary Bass, Freedom's Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention (New York: Knopf, 2008).

5 Hans Morgenthau famously states: “International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power,” in Politics among Nations (New York: Knopf, 1967), p. 25, and Michael Walzer begins Just and Unjust Wars with a chapter titled “Against ‘Realism.”’ For one discussion of the varieties of realist, liberal, and socialist philosophy of world politics, see my Ways of War and Peace (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997).

6 See, e.g., the influential works of David Luban, “Just War and Human Rights,”Philosophy & Public Affairs 9, no. 1 (Winter 1980), pp. 160–81; and Hadley Arkes, First Things: An Inquiry into the First Principles of Morals and Justice (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1986). Both Luban and Arkes are cosmopolitans in this sense, but their conceptions of which rights are fundamental differ profoundly, the first tending toward social democratic and the second libertarian in orientation, with correspondingly large differences in judgment on interventions.

7 Pushpin was a mindless game in which boys stuck pins in each other's hats and then took turns knocking them off. Good discussions of the wider aspects of Mill's ethical theory are in Alan Ryan, J. S. Mill (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975); and Nicholas Capaldi, John Stuart Mill: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 249–65.

8 See his Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (New York: Basic Books, 1983), and Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at Home and Abroad (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1994), for his more general reflections on justice—domestic and international.

9 For analysis of Mill's politics, see Dennis Thompson, John Stuart Mill and Representative Government (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1976); for Walzer, see his Thick and Thin.

10 Mill, “Non-Intervention,” p. 376.

11 Kant's fifth preliminary article of Perpetual Peace prohibits forcible interference in “the constitution and government of another state,” for to do so would violate “the right of people dependent on no other and only struggling with its internal illness.” Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace,” in Kant's Political Writings, ed. Hans Reiss, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1970), pp. 93–130. For comment, see also Sankar Muthu, Enlightenment Against Empire (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003), chaps. 4, 5.

12 Mill, “Non-Intervention,” p. 381; emphasis added. The voluntarist and deliberative element in Mill's conception of political liberty is captured in Nadia Urbinati, “The Many Heads of the Hydra,” in Urbinati and Zakaras, eds., J. S. Mill's Political Thought, pp. 66–97.

13 Mill, “Non-Intervention,” p. 381; emphasis added.

14 Ibid., p. 382.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid., p. 380.

17 Michael Walzer, “The Moral Standing of States,” in Charles R. Beitz et al., eds., International Ethics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1985), p. 221, n.7.

18 For discussion, see Jennifer Welsh, “Taking Consequences Seriously: Objections to Humanitarian Intervention,” in Welsh, ed., Humanitarian Intervention, pp. 56–68.

19 “Agreements must be upheld.” See Terry Nardin, Law, Morality, and the Relations of States (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983); and Thomas Franck, Fairness in International Law and Institutions (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).

20 Mill, “Non-Intervention,” p. 383.

21 Ibid., p. 382.

22 Ibid.

23 Quoted from Lord Burghley's State Papers in Wallace MacCaffrey, “The Newhaven Expedition: 1562–1563,”Historical Journal 40, no. 1 (1997), p. 2. For an insightful and wide-ranging analysis of religious internationalism in this period, see John Owen, “When Do Ideologies Produce Alliances?”International Studies Quarterly 49 (2005), pp. 73–99.

24 Ronald Reagan, State of the Union Address, 1985. President Truman's doctrine promising to defend free peoples from external or internal aggression was presented to a joint session of Congress in justification of the assistance he proposed for Greece and Turkey in March 1947. President Brezhnev presented his doctrine in a speech at the Fifth Congress of the Polish Workers' Party in November 1968, following the intervention against the Czechoslovak Prague Spring. Brezhnev proclaimed: “When forces that are hostile to socialism try to turn the development of some socialist country towards capitalism, it becomes not only a problem of the country concerned, but a common problem and concern of all socialist countries.”

25 See Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA (New York: Doubleday, 2007), esp. pp. 45–46, 58–61; and for a general comparison, the classic by Samuel Huntington and Zbigniew Brzezinski, Political Power: USA/USSR (New York: Viking, 1961).

26 MacCaffrey, “The Newhaven Expedition,” p. 19.

27 See R. B. Wernham, Before the Armada (London: Cape, 1966); and G. D. Ramsay, The Reign of Elizabeth I, ed. Christopher Haigh (London: Macmillan, 1984), who describe dual balancing, against both foreign and domestic threats.

28 Mill, “Non-Intervention,” p. 383.

29 See Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution (New York: Harper, 2002), for background and Mill's letter to Parke Goodwin quoted in Michael St. John Packe, The Life of John Stuart Mill (New York: Macmillan, 1954), p. 427.

30 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, pp. 111–24.

31 Ibid., p. 117. See Gary J. Bass, “Jus Post Bellum,”Philosophy & Public Affairs 32, no. 3 (2004), who explores the justice of these kinds of settlements, but limits his arguments to the demonstrably necessary case of post-genocide.

32 Ian Buruma surveys the debate on the issue in “The War over the Bomb,”New York Review of Books, September 21, 1995, pp. 26–34. Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman and the Surrender of Japan (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2005), pp. 205ff., discusses the difficulty of persuading the Japanese Cabinet to limit negotiations to the preservation of the emperor, even after the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been dropped.

33 For a discussion of the circumstances favoring successful peacekeeping and peace building in a civil war context, see Michael Doyle and Nicholas Sambanis, Making War and Building Peace: United Nations Peace Operations (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2006), and the large literature we cite. For discussions of the ethical issues raised in reconstruction, see Stefano Recchia, “Just and Unjust Postwar Reconstruction,” pp. 165–88, and related articles in the special issue of Ethics & International Affairs 23, no. 2 (2009), on the Responsibility to Rebuild.

34 Mill, “Non-Intervention,” p. 380.

35 Bass, Freedom's Battle, chaps. 4–12, treats this conflict under the rubric of humanitarian concern. It fits there, but it was also a war for secession, as noted below. Conflicts typically overlap: great powers forcibly mediated a protracted civil war with large casualties and promoted the secession of Greece from an established empire, Ottoman Turkey.

36 H. V. Livermore, A New History of Portugal, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), p. 274.

37 See Jasper Ridley, Lord Palmerston (London: Constable, 1970), pp. 317–20; and W. Smith, Anglo-Portuguese Relations, 1851–1861 (Lisboa: Centro de Estudios Historicos Ultramarinos, 1970), p. 16.

38 Mill, “Non-Intervention,” p. 381.

39 Livermore, New History of Portugal, pp. 288–90.

40 Mill, “Non-Intervention,” p. 383.

41 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, chap. 6.

42 Mill, “Non-Intervention,” p. 383.

43 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, p. 95.

44 Mill, “Non-Intervention,” p. 383. For a modern interpretation stressing Hungary's success in civil reform despite its failure in acquiring independence, see Domokos Kosáry, Hungary and International Politics in 1848–1849, trans. Tim Wilkinson (Boulder, Colo.: Atlantic Research and Publications, 2003).

45 Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, pp. 97–99.

46 Ibid., pp. 101–08.

47 Mill, however, conceives of many circumstances in which analogous forms of paternalism or benign despotism can be justified, including over children and domestically when populations are not fit for self-government; see discussion of various forms of despotism in Nadia Urbinati, “The Many Heads of the Hydra” (unpublished paper, 2007); and Mark Tunick, “Tolerant Imperialism: John Stuart Mill's Defense of British Rule in India,”Review of Politics 68, no. 4 (2006), pp. 586–611.

48 Mill, “Non-Intervention,” pp. 377, 379.

49 Ibid., p. 377.

50 Tunick, “Tolerant Imperialism”; and see Stephen Holmes, “Making Sense of Liberal Imperialism,” in Urbinati and Zakaras, eds., J. S. Mill's Political Thought, pp. 319–46, for related arguments.

51 Jennifer Pitts points out that J. S. Mill, like his father, James Mill, stressed the moral and intellectual failings of the “barbarous” peoples and lumped their various social structures, from nomadic tribes to feudal and bureaucratic empires, into one category of barbarism. In doing so, the Mills broke with earlier liberal traditions that posited a common rationality and varying societal and political regimes, as did Bentham and such philosophers as Adam Smith. See Jennifer Pitts, A Turn to Empire: The Rise of Imperial Liberalism in Britain and France (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003), chap. 5, passim; and for Smith, Doyle, Ways of War and Peace, chap. 7.

52 Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Awadh in Revolt, 1857–1858: A Study of Popular Resistance (Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1984), quoting Metcalf, p. 33.

53 Lt. Col. C. E. Luard, “The Indian States: 1818–1857,” in H. H. Dodwell, ed., The Cambridge History of India, vol. 5 (Delhi: S. Chand, 1987), chap. 31.

54 Mill, “Non-Intervention,” p. 379.

55 See Karl Marx, “The Annexation of Oude,”New York Daily Tribune, May 28, 1858.

56 Mill, “Non-Intervention,” p. 379.

57 For background on Mill's career in this connection, see Lynn Zastoupil, John Stuart Mill and India (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994), p. 87.

58 In “The Politics of Rescue,”Dissent (Winter 1995), Walzer discusses the challenges of interventions from which there is no quick exit.

* This article will also be published in Yitzhak Benbaji and Naomi Sussmann, eds., Reading Walzer: Sovereignty, Culture, and Justice (London: Routledge, forthcoming). I am most grateful for the research assistance of Kate Cronin-Furman, Megan Crowley, Axel Domeyer, and David Hambrick, and for the editorial suggestions of Olena Jennings and the editors of Ethics & International Affairs. I thank Dennis Thompson, Nadia Urbinati, Michael Walzer, Noam Zohar, and two anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. This essay draws in part on ideas first published in “International Intervention,” chapter 11 of Ways of War and Peace: Realism, Liberalism, and Socialism (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), and continued later in “The New Interventionism,”Metaphilosophy 32, no. 1/2 (2001), pp. 212–35.


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