Interests, Ethics and Rules: Renewing UK Intervention Policy

By Paul Cornish, Nigel Biggar, Robert Johnson and Gareth Stansfield

Following events in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and elsewhere, the post-Cold War inclination to foreign intervention came to a grinding halt. In a speech to the US Republican Party conference on 26 January 2017 former Prime Minister Theresa May voiced what had become the new received wisdom when she argued ‘The days of Britain and America intervening in sovereign countries in an attempt to remake the world in our own image are over.’ Yet intervention is regaining its place in the national strategic debate in the UK and elsewhere. Sophisticated and urgent questions are once again being asked of governments, international organisations, political and military strategists and civil society; questions which deserve a considered and intelligent response. If intervention is ‘bad’ then could non-intervention be even worse? If we are entering the era of ‘westlessness’ in international politics then who will fill the space left by western interests and values?

Co-authored with Nigel Biggar, Rob Johnson and Gareth Stansfield my new report Interests, Ethics and Rules: Renewing UK Intervention Policy was published by Cityforum on 11th February 2020. Commissioned by the Development, Concepts and Doctrine Centre of the United Kingdom Ministry of Defence, the report is an invitation to think closely and constructively about the circumstances in which the UK national interest might become engaged in some natural or man-made crisis around the world, and what that engagement would imply in organisational, decision-making and practical terms.

The report acknowledges that intervention has been, and remains, a deeply contested concept, on political, diplomatic, moral, legal and strategic grounds. The authors argue, nevertheless, that there are two sets of principles in which in which UK national interests are directly engaged and on the basis of which intervention, in one form or another, might properly be contemplated. The first of these, humanitarian intervention is the most familiar (and contested) and concerns the response to death, injury, hardship and disease caused by natural disasters, or the prevention/mitigation of man-made disasters such as violent atrocities against unarmed people, the forced relocation of populations or the abuse of internationally accepted human rights standards. In the worst imaginable case, if another genocide took place, on the scale perhaps of that in Rwanda in 1994, it seems unlikely, if not inconceivable that militarily capable, internationally minded governments around the world would turn their backs on the atrocity even as they knew it was taking place. What would be said of these countries’ diplomatic, cultural and moral standing if they were seen to be shrinking back into their so-called comfort zone and to be tacitly condoning some gross and highly visible violation of human rights? In the digital age these governments could scarcely claim not to be unaware of the crisis and its consequences. We argue that the case for humanitarian intervention has not been consigned to history and that the UK and other, like-minded countries have an unquestionably principle-based, national interest in the human condition around the globe.

Just as it makes no sense, in our analysis, to claim that the UK has no moral national interest in the human condition around the world, so we argue that the UK has a concrete national interest in the operation of the international system. The second set of principles are therefore more practical in character and concern the stability, security, functionality and predictability of what has become known as the ‘rules-based international system’ (RBIS)); a system in which the UK not only exists, but upon which it is fundamentally dependent. That system appears increasingly vulnerable, however. The RBIS is being challenged on many levels – intellectual, political, economic and strategic – and for various reasons; whether to debunk it as a political idea born some decades ago, disable its authority for narrow reasons of national interest or in specific circumstances, or discredit it altogether as a normative account of international politics. US President Donald Trump has surprised many by becoming the denigrator-in-chief of the RBIS – a system which the US might fairly be said to have invented. As one critic of the Trump Administration’s position has noted, ‘The leader of the free world doesn’t believe in the free world.’ Neither do some others: President Putin of Russia has insisted that ‘The liberal idea has become obsolete. It has come into conflict with the interest of the overwhelming majority of the population’; and President Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China has shown himself to be less than enamoured with the RBIS.

For a wide range of diplomatic, financial, economic, cultural and security reasons, therefore, we argue that UK national interest cannot be anything other than directly engaged in furthering these moral and practical principles, even to the point of intervening in their name. Our report is not some vainglorious call to arms, however. Instead, we argue that the intervention debate is changing its terms and that in this evolving and uncertain mood, politicians and strategic leaders in the UK and elsewhere, including in international alliances and organisations, will increasingly be expected to explain both their decisions to act and their decisions not to act. Intervention is back, whether governments like it or not.

The report is available at