Humanitarian intervention (HI) is one of CPOST’s three primary areas of research within the field of international relations. HI has proven to be one of the most important, yet challenging, ideas for states and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs). In the last 20 years, there have been several examples of states turning violent against their civilian populations. These crises, in which HI was raised and strongly considered, if not implemented, include the 1990s cases of Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia, as well as the post-Arab Spring cases of Libya and Syria, and very recently South Sudan.

Although many states and IGOs with a vital stake in the regional security of the target state and the financial and military capacity for intervention, difficult and complex questions surround the issue of HI, specifically its practical limits. These wide-ranging policy questions have the potential for dramatic and unpredictable impact on both the target state and population, and the intervening states and IGOs – and thus present an enormously complex problem.

CPOST Research

In 2010, CPOST began to research one of the most difficult issues in HI: creating a “standard” for intervention – a set of rules that great power states and IGOs can follow when a humanitarian crisis is occurring, which takes into account the limits of intervention. Specifically, CPOST asked: When should states and IGOs intervene in humanitarian crises, and when should they not? Dr. Pape and his research team developed a Pragmatic Standard, which takes into account the limits of humanitarian intervention policy. It can be summarized in the following two principles:

  • Any standard of humanitarian intervention which does not take the cost or long-term effectiveness of the intervention into account is not taking the likelihood of its own implementation by policymakers into account.
  • Any standard of humanitarian intervention which is not likely to be implemented consistently and predictably is immoral, because it constitutes a false promise to the world.

During the spring of 2011, as the U.S. debated intervention in Libya, Dr. Pape authored a policy memo explaining the Pragmatic Standard and encouraging intervention for humanitarian purposes. This memo was circulated among policymakers and published by media outlets. A year later, Dr. Pape authored another policy memo discouraging intervention in Syria based on the Pragmatic Standard. Ultimately, he found that such an intervention would have limited effectiveness, and likely precipitate high costs. Recognizing cases when these limits apply and when they do not is the key to a succesful policy.

The logic underpinning Dr. Pape’s pragmatic standard aligned with the Obama administration’s decisions in both cases, as the U.S. intervened in Libya in 2011 but not in Syria. CPOST’s research was published in the Summer 2012 edition of International Security in an article titled “When Duty Calls: A Pragmatic Standard of Humanitarian Intervention.”

Current and Future Projects

Today, CPOST continues to strive for clarity in HI by addressing another of its most complicated issues: consequences. Specifically, Dr. Pape and his research team are exploring the following question: What are the consequences – intended and unintended – of humanitarian intervention, and what the implications of those consequences? These findings, crucial for understanding past cases and an important reference for possible future interventions, will be turned into a peer-reviewed article and published in an upcoming book.

Additionally, in the fall of 2014, CPOST co-sponsored a conference with the New York Council on Foreign Relations. The conference featured two panels: the first debated the evolution of the guiding principles for humanitarian intervention, while the second discussed the lessons learned from previous crises.