What Is Interventionism? Definition and Examples

U.S. troops tighten control of Iraq border with Iran.
U.S. troops tighten control of Iraq border with Iran.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Interventionism is any significant activity intentionally undertaken by a government to influence the political or economic affairs of another country. It may be an act of military, political, cultural, humanitarian, or economic intervention intended to maintain international order—peace and prosperity—or strictly for the benefit of the intervening country. Governments with an interventionist foreign policy typically oppose isolationism

Key Takeaways: Interventionism

  • Interventionism is action taken by a government to influence the political or economic affairs of another country.
  • Interventionism implies the use of military force or coercion. 
  • Interventionist acts may be intended to maintain international peace and prosperity or strictly to benefit of the intervening country. 
  • Governments with an interventionist foreign policy typically oppose isolationism
  • Most arguments favoring intervention are based on humanitarian grounds.
  • Criticisms of intervention are based on the doctrine of state sovereignty.



Types of Interventionist Activities 

To be considered interventionism, an act must be forceful or coercive in nature. In this context, intervention is defined as an act that is uninvited and unwelcomed by the target of the act of intervention. For example, if Venezuela asked the United States for help in restructuring its economic policy, the United States would not be intervening because it had been invited to intervene. If, however, the United States had threatened to invade Venezuela to force it to change its economic structure, that would be interventionism.

While governments can engage in a variety of interventionist activities, these different forms of interventionism can, and often do, occur simultaneously.

Military Interventionism 

The most recognizable type of interventionism, military interventionist actions always operate under the threat of violence. However, not all aggressive acts on the part of a government are interventionist in nature. Defensive use of military force within a country’s borders or territorial jurisdictions is not interventionist in nature, even if it involves employing force to alter the behavior of another country. Thus, to be an act of interventionism, a country would need to both threaten to use and use military force outside its borders. 

Military interventionism should not be confused with imperialism, the unprovoked use of military force solely for purposes of expanding a country’s sphere of power in the process known as “empire-building.” In acts of military interventionism, a country might invade or threaten to invade another country to overthrow an oppressive totalitarian regime or to force the other country to change its foreign, domestic, or humanitarian policies. Other activities associated with military interventionism include blockades, economic boycotts, and the overthrow of key government officials.

When the United States involved itself in the Middle East following the April 18, 1983, terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut by Hezbollah, the goal was not directly to restructure that the governments of the Middle East but to resolve a regional military threat that those governments were not dealing with themselves.

Economic Interventionism

Economic Interventionism involves attempts to change or control the economic behavior of another country. Throughout the 19th and early 20th-centuries, the USA used economic pressure and the threat of military intervention to interfere in economic decisions across Latin America.

In 1938, for example, Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas seized the assets of nearly all of the foreign oil companies operating in Mexico, including those of U.S. companies. He then barred all foreign oil companies from operating in Mexico and moved to nationalize the Mexican oil industry. The U.S. Government responded by enacting a compromise policy backing efforts by American companies to obtain payment for their seized properties but supporting Mexico’s right to seize foreign assets as long as prompt and effective compensation was provided.

Humanitarian Interventionism

Humanitarian interventionism occurs when a country uses military force against another country to restore and safeguard the human rights of the people living there. In April 1991, for example, the United States and other Persian Gulf War Coalition nations invaded Iraq to defend Kurdish refugees fleeing their homes in northern Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Labeled Operation Provide Comfort, the intervention was conducted mainly to deliver humanitarian aid to these refugees. A strict no-fly zone instituted to help bring this about would become one of the main factors allowing for the development of the autonomous Kurdistan Region, now the most prosperous and stable region of Iraq.

Covert Interventionism

Not all interventionist acts are reported in the media. During the Cold War, for example, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) regularly conducted covert and clandestine operations against governments considered unfriendly to U.S. interests, especially in the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa.

In 1961, the CIA attempted to depose Cuban president Fidel Castro through the Bay of Pigs Invasion, which failed after President John F. Kennedy unexpectedly withdrew U.S. military air support. In Operation Mongoose, the CIA continued to pursue its efforts to overthrow the Castro regime by conducting various assassination attempts on Castro and facilitating U.S.-sponsored terrorist attacks in Cuba.

President Ronald Reagan holding a copy of the Tower Commission report on the Iran-Contra scandal
President Ronald Reagan Addresses the Nation on the Iran-Contra Scandal.

 Getty Images Archive

 In 1986, the Iran-Contra Affair revealed that President Ronald Reagan's administration had secretly arranged for the sale of arms to Iran in return for Iran’s promise to help secure the release of a group of Americans being held hostage in Lebanon. When it became known that proceeds from the arms sale had been funneled to the Contras, a group of rebels fighting the Marxist Sandinista government of Nicaragua, Reagan’s claim that he would not negotiate with terrorists was discredited. 

Historical Examples 

Examples of major foreign interventionism include the Chinese Opium Wars, the Monroe Doctrine, U.S. intervention in Latin America, and U.S. interventionism in the 21st century. 

Opium Wars

As one of the earliest major cases of military intervention, the Opium Wars were two wars waged in China between the Qing dynasty and forces of Western countries in the mid-19th century. The first Opium War (1839 to 1842) was fought between Britain and China, while the second Opium War (1856 to 1860) pitted forces of Britain and France against China. In each war, the more technologically advanced Western forces were victorious. As result, the Chinese government was forced to grant Britain and France low tariffs, trade concessions, reparations, and territory.

The Opium Wars and the treaties that ended them crippled the Chinese imperial government, forcing China to open specific major seaports, such as Shanghai, to all trade with imperialist powers. Perhaps most significantly, China was forced to give Britain sovereignty over Hong Kong. As a result, Hong Kong functioned as an economically lucrative colony of the British Empire until July 1, 1997. 

In many ways, the Opium Wars were typical of an era of interventionism in which Western powers, including the United States, tried to gain unchallenged access to Chinese products and markets for European and U.S. trade.

Long before the Opium Wars, the United States, had sought a variety of Chinese products including furniture, silk and tea, but found that there were few U.S. goods the Chinese wanted to buy. Britain had already established a profitable market for smuggled opium in southern China, American traders soon also turned to opium to ease the U.S. trade deficit with China. Despite the health threats of opium, the increasing trade with the Western powers forced China to buy more goods than it sold for the first time in its history. Settling this financial problem eventually led to the Opium Wars. Similar to Britain, the United States sought to negotiate treaties with China, guarantying the United States many of the favorable port access and trade terms awarded to the British. Mindful of the overwhelming might of the U.S. military, the Chinese readily agreed.

Monroe Doctrine 

Issued in December 1823 by President James Monroe, the Monroe Doctrine declared that all European countries were obligated to respect the Western Hemisphere as the United States’ exclusive sphere of interest. Monroe warned that the United States would treat any attempt by a European nation to colonize or otherwise intervene in the affairs of an independent nation in North or South America as an act of war.

The Monroe Doctrine was the declaration by President James Monroe, in December 1823, that the United States would not tolerate a European nation colonizing an independent nation in North or South America. The United States warned it would consider any such intervention in the Western Hemisphere to be a hostile act.

The first actual test of the Monroe Doctrine came in 1865 when the U.S. government exerted diplomatic and military pressure in support of Mexico’s liberal reformer President Benito Juárez. The U.S. intervention enabled Juárez to lead a successful revolt against Emperor Maximilian, who had been placed on the throne by the French government in 1864.

Nearly four decades later, in 1904, European creditors of several struggling Latin American countries threatened armed intervention to collect debts. Citing the Monroe Doctrine, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed the right of the United States to exercise its “international police power” to curb such “chronic wrongdoing.” As a result, U. S. Marines were sent into Santo Domingo in 1904, Nicaragua in 1911, and Haiti in 1915, ostensibly to keep European imperialists out. Not surprisingly, other Latin American nations viewed these U.S. interventions with distrust, leaving relations between the “great Colossus of the North” and its southern neighbors strained for years.

The Soviet freighter Anosov, rear, being escorted by a Navy plane and the destroyer USS Barry, while it leaves Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
The Soviet freighter Anosov, rear, being escorted by a Navy plane and the destroyer USS Barry, while it leaves Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Underwood Archives / Getty Images


At the height of the Cold War in 1962, the Monroe Doctrine was invoked symbolically when the Soviet Union began building nuclear missile-launching sites in Cuba. With the support of the Organization of American States, President John F. Kennedy established a naval and air blockade around the entire island nation. After several tense days known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Soviet Union agreed to withdraw the missiles and dismantle the launch sites. Subsequently, the United States dismantled several of its obsolete air and missile bases in Turkey.

American intervention in Latin America

The Rhodes Colossus: Caricature of Cecil John Rhodes
The Rhodes Colossus: Caricature of Cecil John Rhodes. Edward Linley Sambourne / Public Domain

The first phase of American intervention in Latin America began during the Cold War with the CIA-sponsored coup d'etat in Guatemala in 1954 that deposed the democratically elected leftist Guatemalan president and helped lead to the end of the Guatemalan Civil War. Considering the Guatemalan operation a success, the CIA tried a similar approach in Cuba in 1961 with the disastrous the Bay of Pigs invasion. The massive embarrassment of the Bay of Pigs forced the U.S. to increase its commitment to fighting communism across Latin America. 

During the 1970s, the U.S. supplied weapons, training, and financial aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. While the regimes the U.S. supported were known to be human rights abusers, Cold War hawks in Congress excused this as a necessary evil in stopping the international spread of communism. During the late 1970s, President Jimmy Carter tried to change this course of U.S. intervention by denying aid to gross human rights violators. However, the successful 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua along with the 1980 election of extreme anti-communist President Ronald Reagan changed this approach. When the communist insurgencies that existed in Guatemala and El Salvador turned into bloody civil wars, the Reagan administration providing billions in dollars of aid to the governments and guerillas militias fighting the communists insurgents.

The second phase took place in the 1970s when the United States became serious about its long-running War on Drugs. The U.S. first targeted Mexico and its Sinaloa region known for its massive marijuana and production and smuggling operations. As U.S. pressure on Mexico increased, drug production shifted to Colombia. The United States deployed military ground and air drug interdiction forces to fight newly formed Colombian cocaine cartels and continued implementing coca crop eradication programs, often harming poor indigenous peoples who had no other source of income.

As the United States was helping the Colombian government fight the communist guerilla FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), it was simultaneously fighting the drug cartels that were smuggling tons of cocaine into the United States. When the United States and Colombia finally defeated Pablo “King of Cocaine” Escobar and his Medellin cartel, the FARC formed alliances with Mexican cartels, mainly the Sinaloa cartel, which now controls the drug trade.

In the final and current phase, the United States provides significant foreign assistance to Latin American countries to support economic development and other U.S. objectives, such as promoting democracy and open markets, as well as countering illicit narcotics. In 2020, U.S. aid to Latin America totaled over $1.7 billion. Almost half of this total was for helping to address the underlying factors, such as poverty, driving undocumented migration from Central America to the United States. While the United States no longer dominates the hemisphere as it has in the past, the U.S. remains an integral part of Latin American economies and politics.

21st Century Interventionism

In response to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush and NATO launched the War on Terror, which featured military intervention to depose the Taliban government in the Afghan War, as well as the launching of drone strikes and special forces operations against suspected terrorist targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. In 2003, the U.S. along with a multi-national coalition invaded Iraq to depose Saddam Hussein, who was ultimately executed for crimes against humanity on December 30, 2006.

More recently, the United States supplied weapons to groups attempting to overthrow the autocratic regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and launched air attacks against the ISIS terrorist group. However, President Barack Obama was unwilling to deploy American ground troops. Following the November 13, 2015, ISIS terrorist attacks in Paris, Obama was asked whether it was time for a more aggressive approach. In his response, Obama prophetically emphasized that an effective intervention of ground troops would have to be a “large and lengthy” one.

Justifications 

The predominant justification for intervention, as expressed in UN Security Council Resolution 1973, is “to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack.” Adopted on March 17, 2011, the resolution had formed the legal basis for military intervention in the Libyan Civil War. In 2015, the U.S. cited Resolution 1973 in assisting Libyan forces in fighting the militant terrorist group ISIS.

Most arguments favoring intervention are based on humanitarian grounds. It is assumed that human beings have a moral, if not legal, obligation to stop gross violations of human rights and inhumane treatment of innocent people. Often, this standard of humanitarian civil conduct can only be enforced through intervention with the use of military force. 

When oppression reaches the point that the connection between the people and the government ceases to exist, the argument of national sovereignty in opposition to intervention becomes invalid. Intervention is often justified on the assumption that will save more lives than it will cost. For example, it has been estimate that U.S. interventions in the war on terror may have prevented more than 69 September 11, 2001-scale attacks over the past two decades. An estimated 15,262 American military members, Defense Department civilians, and contractors died in these conflicts—a much lower toll. On a theoretical level, the war on terror could be justified through the far greater number of lives saved through aid to Afghanistan’s health system.

The longer conflict and human rights abuses within a country continue without intervention, the greater the probability of similar instability in the neighboring countries or region becomes. Without intervention, the humanitarian crisis can quickly become an international security concern. For example, the United States spent the 1990s thinking of Afghanistan as a humanitarian disaster zone, overlooking the fact that it was in fact a national security nightmare—a training ground for terrorists. 

Criticisms 

Opponents of interventionism point to the fact that the doctrine of sovereignty implies that interfering with the policies and actions of another country can never be politically or morally right. Sovereignty implies that states are required to recognize no higher authority than themselves, nor can they be bound by any superior jurisdiction. UN Charter Article 2(7) is fairly explicit on states jurisdiction. “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state…” 

Some realist scholars, who see the state as the principal actor in international relations, also argue that the international community has no legal jurisdiction over the citizens of another state. The citizens of each state, they argue, should be free to determine their future without outside intervention.

Positions both for and against intervention are rooted in strong moral arguments, making the debate passionate and often borderline hostile. In addition, those who agree on the humanitarian necessity of intervention often disagree on details such as the purpose, magnitude, timing, and costs of the planned intervention.

Sources:

  • Glennon, Michael J. “The New Interventionism: The Search for a Just International Law.” Foreign Affairs, May/June 1999, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/1999-05-01/new-interventionism-search-just-international-law.
  • Schoultz, Lars. “Beneath the United States: A History of U.S. policy towards Latin America.” Harvard University Press, 2003, ISBN-10: ‎9780674922761.
  • Mueller John. “Terror, Security, and Money: Balancing the Risks, Benefits, and Costs of Homeland Security.” Oxford University Press, 2011, ISBN-10: ‎0199795762.
  • Haass, Richard N. “The Use and Abuse of Military Force.” Brookings, November 1, 1999, https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-use-and-abuse-of-military-force/.
  • Henderson, David R. “The Case Against An Interventionist Foreign Policy.” Hoover Institution, May 28, 2019, https://www.hoover.org/research/case-against-interventionist-foreign-policy https://www.hoover.org/research/case-against-interventionist-foreign-policy.
  • Ignatieff, Michael. “Is the Human Rights Era Ending?” The New York Times, February 5, 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/02/05/opinion/is-the-human-rights-era-ending.html.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Interventionism? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Dec. 21, 2021, thoughtco.com/interventionism-definition-and-examples-5205378. Longley, Robert. (2021, December 21). What Is Interventionism? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/interventionism-definition-and-examples-5205378 Longley, Robert. "What Is Interventionism? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/interventionism-definition-and-examples-5205378 (accessed October 6, 2022).