In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Intervention and Use of Force

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • History and Evolution of the Sovereignty Norm
  • Intervention and the Cold War Balance of Power
  • Select Post–Cold War Cases
  • Post-9/11 Intervention for Self-Defense and Liberal Order
  • International Conventions and Legal Documents
  • French, Russian, and Chinese Perspectives on Intervention

International Relations Intervention and Use of Force
Scott A. Silverstone
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 November 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 02 March 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0047


Intervention is commonly defined as interference in the territory or domestic affairs of another state with military force, typically in a way that compromises a sovereign government’s control over its own territory and population. The meaning and importance of “sovereignty” as the key concept defining the global political order has made intervention a controversial and debated subject for the past several hundred years. The concept of sovereignty is typically traced back to the Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648 and established a political order of territorially defined states that had exclusive control over their own political affairs and populations. In the following centuries, international legal scholars further developed the noninterference principle, which, by prohibiting meddling in the internal affairs of other states, was intended to reduce conflict and cultivate order in an already violence-prone system. This objective was formally codified in the Charter of the United Nations, which explicitly prohibits interference in the domestic affairs of member states. Despite the importance of sovereignty and noninterference in international theory and law, many scholars point out that these principles have never been given absolute respect in practice. Since the end of the Cold War, an increasing number of scholars, political leaders, and activists have argued that sovereignty should not stand in the way of international intervention meant to protect victims of gross human-rights violations. A number of cases illustrate this new normative claim and the controversy this position has generated, such as the 1992 Somalia intervention, the Bosnian civil war, the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and the 1999 Kosovo war. The literature on intervention reflects these key themes, with authors arguing over the meaning and continuing importance of sovereignty and the noninterference principle, whether the international community has a right or obligation to respond to humanitarian abuses, whether intervention can actually make a positive contribution to peace and stability at acceptable costs, and how intervention can be made more effective for those military and civilian practitioners engaged in actual interventions. There has been a strong surge of attention in this last question since the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, as the United States found itself with a much more complicated political, social, and military challenge than first anticipated when American leaders decided to intervene in those countries.

General Overviews

The most useful general literature puts intervention and the use of force in a broad historical, legal, and normative context while applying these concepts to particular cases that illustrate changes in practice over time. It is helpful to start with strong assertions on behalf of the noninterference principle, as in the classic legal analysis Stowell 1921. Finnemore 2003 and Bass 2008 are excellent sources for tracing the changing norms of intervention over several hundred years to the contemporary debate, while Davis, et al. 2004 focuses specifically on the normative debate in the post–Cold War period, and Haass 1999 explores its meaning for US foreign policy specifically. Regan 2000 is a valuable contribution because it is one of the few sources to examine empirically the conditions most likely to produce actual intervention in civil wars and the conditions most likely to lead to success. Simons is a helpful primer on the basic concepts and history, useful for the beginning student on the subject of intervention. Boniface 2003 represents a European perspective on “regime change” interventions and highlights complex political challenges in deciding when, where, and how interventions will be executed.

  • Bass, Gary J. Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention. New York: Knopf, 2008.

    Valuable corrective to the common notion that humanitarian intervention is a largely post–Cold War development in international relations. Showcases efforts in the 19th century to stop atrocities in Greece, Bulgaria, Syria, and Armenia. Looks for implications of earlier cases for contemporary humanitarian crises; proposes policy changes to increase effectiveness of intervention.

  • Boniface, Pascal. “What Justifies Regime Change?” Washington Quarterly 26.3 (2003): 61–71.

    Succinct, insightful analysis of “regime change” interventions from a European perspective. Considers intervention motivated by genocide, weapons of mass destruction proliferation, democratization, and terrorism. Reminds reader that key questions will be political and complex: who decides when and where to intervene, for what objectives, and how?

  • Davis, Michael C., Wolfgang, Dietrich, Bettina Scholdan, and Dieter, Sepp. International Intervention in the Post–Cold War World. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2004.

    Primarily European and Asian scholars offering diverse regional and disciplinary perspectives on the politics of humanitarian intervention. Covers the history of the idea and evolving legal debate; offers a broad set of case studies that apply diverse perspectives.

  • Finnemore, Martha. The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs about the Use of Force. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003.

    Focuses on military intervention as a historical phenomenon; demonstrates and explains change over time in the reasons that motivated states to intervene. Analysis rooted in international-relations theory, with emphasis on changing normative beliefs about intervention. Cases include intervention for international debt collection and humanitarianism, and to uphold international order.

  • Haass, Richard N. Intervention: The Use of American Military Force in the Post-Cold War World. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1999.

    Example of 1990s policy perspective on the broad debate over intervention, and specifically its implications for US policy. Written by former member of President George H. W. Bush’s administration, future director of State Department policy-planning staff under George W. Bush. Analysis of numerous cases, including Lebanon, Grenada, Panama, Iraq in 1991, Somalia, and Bosnia.

  • Regan, Patrick M. Civil Wars and Foreign Powers: Outside Intervention in Intrastate Conflict. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000.

    Uses quantitative data, regression analysis, and cases to examine the conditions that tend to generate third-party intervention in civil wars and the conditions that make intervention more likely to succeed. Examines the importance of positive reaction from parties to civil conflict, multilateralism versus unilateralism, and what makes for coherent strategy.

  • Simons, Penelope C. “Humanitarian Intervention: A Review of the Literature.”

    Concise review of basic concepts related to military intervention, the evolution of sovereignty and intervention norms, key cases, challenges, and opportunities. Very useful primer on the topic, particularly for students with little background in the subject.

  • Stowell, Ellery C. Intervention in International Law. Washington, DC: John Byrne, 1921.

    Frequently cited early-20th-century source examining conditions that might legitimize intervention in international law; focuses on the common post–World War I theme of intervention to advance self-determination of persecuted nations. Contrast with more recent focus on intervention to protect generally asserted human rights.

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