The Potential Benefits of Early, Neutral Intervention in Revolutions

By Thomas Sutton II
Cornell International Affairs Review
2015, Vol. 8 No. 2 | pg. 2/2 |

Though the UN stipulated that it was the primary responsibility of sovereign nations, and that the international community’s primary responsibility is to “encourage and assist States in fulfilling this responsibility,” this was a major international achievement in terms of the protection of human lives, in that it placed more value in the importance of human life than in the formerly resolute notion of complete sovereignty. I contend that if actively occurring large-scale violence is enough to legitimize humanitarian intervention in order to put an end to it, then impending large-scale violence should also be enough to legitimize intervention to prevent it, and possibly an even more worthy end to pursue. Buchanan mentions many ways in which early intervention is preventative, rather than reactive. As mentioned before, early intervention is intended to prevent the cycle of coercion, characteristic of many revolutions, which leads to both sides continuously raising the costs to participate and/or not participate in the revolution.

Preventing this cycle would not only prevent many casualties on both sides, but it would also prevent further undesirable immoral actions by keeping both the regime and the ARL from becoming habituated to making morally unacceptable choices 30. Buchanan focuses particularly on the benefits this would have for the ARLs because, when they are forced to take morally impermissible actions, it can contribute to corruption, it can increase the probability of future mistreatment of citizens, and it can help create a general culture of brutality 31. The reactive nature of other theories of intervention, including those that subscribe to the Mill’s Principle and the Consent Principle, would not allow intervention until many of these events have already occurred, possibly tainting the revolution.

Another reason that Buchanan’s argument is compelling is that it promotes an environment where accurate information gathering can take place, and judgments about the causes and/or legitimacy of the revolution can more accurately be made. A key aspect of Buchanan’s proposed intervention is thatit will require neutrality by the intervener and will allow free expression of the people before deciding whether or not to support the revolution. This type of intervention, where the two fighting parties are separated and allowed to express their opinions, not only prevents violence, but it gives the citizens a free choice to make about whether or not they want the proposed change to their society.

While some would argue that this desire to ascertain the will of the people and allow them to govern themselves is a promotion of Western values of democracy, I would argue that Buchanan’s form of intervention merely allows for decisions about what to do next to be made with more complete information, and does not actually advocate one particular set of beliefs about governance over another.

Both of the previous reasons show some of the ways in which problems of existing theories of intervention are resolved by Buchanan’s proposed form of intervention. One of the questions raised by both the Mill’s Principle and the Consent Principle is: What counts as consent for and/or participation in a revolution? This is a very difficult question to answer when both oppressive regimes, who wish to discourage participation, and ARLs, who wish to encourage participation, are restricting people in their free expression. Not only would this type of intervention allow for people to more freely express their opinion, but it would be in ways that provide much more clarity than most options that are available to people in revolutions. Though one can rarely guarantee a perfect freedom to express one’s opinions, a vote in a free election or referendum for a new government would seem much easier to understand than something like the murder of a corrupt government official which could be the result of a number of things; the individual committing the murder could have been forced by the ARL to do it in order to save his family, the individual actually could have been an unforced participant in the revolution, or the individual could have been merely settling a personal matter with the government official—there are even more possibilities than just those three, but they serve to show the lack of clarity associated with individual actions, especially in situations of limited information.

Another question of both the Mill’s and Consent principles is: How widespread must the participation/consent be in order to justify support of a revolution? Though Buchanan’s argument does not answer this question, it is not important to justify neutral intervention with the intention of limiting violence. This is certainly a question that needs to be answered in order to determine what to do after violence has been stopped, however, regardless of that answer, free and fair expression (which would most likely occur through voting/ elections) would allow for interveners to understand more clearly and more accurately exactly how widespread participation and consent actually are. This would hopefully allow for a more morally correct action to be taken than when those whowish to either support or put down revolutions are just shooting in the dark, as the expression goes, in judging the sentiments of the people.

Buchanan’s argument does not answer all the questions it raises, however. There are at least three key questions that come to mind when considering Buchanan’s argument for early intervention: Where does one draw the line for justified intervention? What should one do if the revolution turns out not to be justified? And finally, who should be the one intervening in this proposed form of intervention? Buchanan does not answer these questions, however I think they are worth attempting to answer within the framework of Buchanan’s intervention, given the potential benefits of considering such a form of intervention. When considering when the line must be drawn for intervention, though Buchanan’s form of intervention may be seen as premature by many, the preventative aspect of it would allow for the prevention of an incredible loss of life and further immoral actions.

This prevention of massive moral transgression seems to justify the possibility of intervening a little prematurely in some cases, and seems to be deserving of slightly more discretion than other reactionary forms of intervention. Obviously there have to be some limits on intervention, but Buchanan’s early intervention seems to suggest that when opposing factions have been identified and violence is beginning to occur, action is most useful earlier rather than later. If the intervention were truly neutral and only in humanitarian interests, it would not be hard to consider this as a humanitarian action, which is widely accepted as the morally correct thing to do when humanitarian crises occur. When considering what to do if the revolution is determined to be unjustified, one has to consider whether or not it would be better to have that information before large-scale violence has occurred or after. If a revolution is not justified and it is determined sooner rather than later, interveners can do everything in their power to aid the regime in restoring order to the society, ensuring that humanitarian principles are observed in the process.

As for the question of who should legitimately be an intervener in these situations, I believe that this is the hardest question to answer, and I do believe that this is an important question for Buchanan to consider if he wants his theory of intervention to have any credence. Buchanan does however call for neutral intervention that would not benefit outside parties and would serve merely to prevent future moral transgressions, giving some idea as to how he would answer that question. I think the most obvious answer to this question would be that the UN is the only organization that could claim any sort of legitimate authority on neutral intervention. One of the primary criticisms of NATO’s intervention in Kosovo was that it was an illegitimate intervention and that it was in directopposition to the more legitimate UN decision which officially stated that Kosovo was within the sovereign territory of Serbia. Because of its veto rules, the UN does face a historical problem of gridlock when it comes to controversial decisions such as when intervention is acceptable. Despite this, if Buchanan’s form of intervention were used as a template for UN intervention, I believe that it could be viewed as more of a humanitarian action than anything, which the UN is much more amicable towards.

Though Buchanan’s argument is not without flaws, it does present a compelling argument for the potential benefits of early intervention, including the prevention of a cycle of coercion and the establishment of conditions for more clearly understanding the will of the people in a revolution. In considering the historical case of Kosovo, one might think that Kosovo demonstrates how this form of intervention can fail, however I have shown that the case of Kosovo was not handled in a way that fits into the framework of a Buchanan-style intervention, and so cannot be used to measure its success. Buchanan’s argument for intervention also counters popular existing principles that seek to govern intervention, Mill’s Principle, and the Consent Principle, and provides solutions to many of the problems that inhibit those principles.

This type of intervention is morally desirable both because of its preventative nature, which would allow much less moral transgression than reactionary forms of intervention, and because of its promotion of an environment which will allow more clarity in revolutionary situations generally riddled with obscurity. While it still leaves some to be desired, Buchanan’s form of intervention has the potential to bring us closer to making morally permissible decisions in the midst of a revolution while simultaneously preventing many casualties and many more morally impermissible actions from occurring along the way.


Buchanan, Allen. “The Ethics of Revolution and its Implications for the Ethics of Intervention,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, Volume 14, Issue 4, Fall 2013, Pages 291-323.

Mandelbaum, Michael. “A Perfect Failure: NATO’s War against Yugoslavia,” Foreign Affairs, Volume 78, No. 5, Fall 1999, Pages 2-8.


  1. Buchanan, 296
  2. Ibid, 319
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid, 320
  8. Ibid
  9. Ibid, 321
  10. Ibid
  11. Mandelbaum, 3
  12. Ibid, 4
  13. Ibid, 6
  14. Buchanan, 315
  15. Ibid, 316
  16. Ibid
  17. Ibid
  18. Ibid
  19. Ibid
  20. Ibid, 315
  21. Ibid, 317
  22. Ibid
  23. Ibid
  24. Ibid
  25. Ibid, 318
  26. Ibid
  27. Ibid
  28. Ibid, 321
  29. Ibid, 293
  30. Ibid, 319
  31. Ibid


[i] Hereinafter referred to as “early intervention” or simply “intervention.”

[ii] Hereinafter referred to as “regime”

[iii] The Reasonable Likelihood of Success requirement is a Jus Ad Bellum requirement recognized by most just war theorists which states that there should be a reasonable likelihood of success in order to justify any war.

[iv] Buchanan characterizes unjustified paternalism as a form of intervention that is “disrespectful to people regarded as autonomous agents with their own values and reasons for acting” (Buchanan, 317).

[v] While this proposed solution does help to solve the problem of violent coercion’s effects on mass participation, it is important to note that Buchanan’s early intervention does nothing to assuage the problem of the propagation of false atrocities committed by the regime or other forms of nonviolent coercion. However, this seems to be more a result of the incompleteness of Buchanan’s theory rather than an ineptitude of his theory to counter the problems he identifies with Mill’s Principle.

[vi] This argument does not seem very convincing, considering the moral weight and power people generally grant to the majority opinion, however it does not seem to be an integral part of Buchan- an’s overall argument for early intervention, so a refutation does not seem necessary.

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