Developing Countries and Western Military Intervention

-Jasjit Singh, Director, IDSA


Like many other terms, military intervention may also mean differently to different people. It is necessary for our examination, therefore, that the use of terms be clarified, as much as possible. The basic assumption in the present study is that military intervention by definition, is carried out without the consent of the target country. Military intervention may or may not result in war, but would involve, and, in fact, be centred on, the active use of military force.* Military intervention may be undertaken by a state unilaterally. Multilateral intervention may be under the UN auspices and/or authority, or could be undertaken independent of the UN. In the context of the present examination, Western military intervention would imply military operations undertaken in another country essentially by a Western country or a coalition consisting only of Western countries. There could, of course, be occasions of the West cooperating with the UN and/or developing countries in carrying out military intervention. But these would strictly fall outside the definition of a "Western" military intervention.

Military interventions could result from a variety of reasons. The most likely reason for such intervention is the perceived national strategic and security interests of the country (and/or its allies) carrying out intervention. Many interventions in recent years have been initiated and/or sustained for humanitarian purposes. There is, of course, a view that there is no such thing as a strictly humanitarian intervention since such intervention would inevitably lead to political tasks.1 In recent years we have observed that many humanitarian interventions altered under pressure of local opposition or turmoil to different stages requiring military intervention.

The reactions of the developing countries to Western military interventions in their countries and regions will be influenced broadly by four factors: (i) specific circumstances leading to the intervention; (ii) the perceived legitimacy of such action in the perceptions of the larger international community; (iii) the historical memories and experiences to the extent that they continue to shape the relationship between the erstwhile colonial powers and the colonies (which now constitute the bulk of the developing countries); and (iv) the responses of the regional countries, especially the larger ones.

The Historical Legacies

The incidence and frequency of Western (and industrialised socialist bloc countries) military intervention in developing countries was much higher during the Cold War period as compared to that since the confrontation ended. During the Cold War, many developing countries welcomed--and some even sought--Western military interventions in their countries and regions for a variety of reasons. Propping up regimes or to support legitimacy of the regime, perceived national security interests, or as counter-weight against another (bigger?) power in the vicinity were the most common of these. But, overall, the attitude of the developing countries was almost inevitably negative to such interventions. Often, the Soviet Union was able to exploit this negative reaction for its own geo-strategic purposes. The result, however, has been that a deep-rooted suspicion of the motives and goals of Western countries became entrenched in the developing world.

Colonial Rule and Military Intervention

At the outset, of course, the obvious still needs to be stated that the developing countries, often referred to as the Third World, (or the more respectable term: South), do not constitute a homogeneous or composite group. Their own historical experiences and geo-political realities have accordingly conditioned their responses. More important, especially in relation to the Western military intervention, has been the historical experience (and even grievance) of colonisation by Western countries of most countries and regions of the South through the past three centuries. It is often ignored that the establishment and spread of colonial empires in the South came about as a result of metropolitan powers' military interventions, many of which were justified in terms of civilising the Asian, African, and Latin American countries. Alien rule for centuries bred its own suspicion and mistrust of the rulers. For many, these experiences also contained bitter memories. The very struggle for independence was an attempt to undo the effects of military interventions that had created the colonial system.

It is important to note that today's Western countries are mostly the colonial powers of yester-years or their allies. Even a few decades after decolonisation became a widespread phenomenon, the mistrust generated during the earlier colonial ruler-ruled relationship, which was aggravated in many cases by violent struggles for independence from the colonial masters, continues to shape attitudes and responses of the developing countries. The erosion of this distrust has been further deferred (or even reversed at times) by Western military interventions in the developing world in the post-colonial phase, especially when they clearly did not carry adequate legitimacy and credibility in the perceptions of the developing world. The continuing disparities in economic and industrial developmental levels (which was the reason, for example, why the developing countries sought a New International Economic Order) and ad-hoc technology denial cartels and policies are perceived in most developing countries as pursuit of neo-colonialism.

The policy and strategy of non-alignment adopted by India and its subsequent pursuit by a large number of decolonising countries added to the divergence of perceptions between the developing countries and the Western world. Non-alignment was chosen to be an instrument of foreign policy by its founders, like India, in order that they might give fuller meaning and content to their newly achieved political independence. Formal transfer of political power was, by itself, not perceived as an adequate framework which would allow autonomous policy choices to protect and promote national interests. In many ways the seeds of tension between the Western powers and the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) were laid in the process of decolonisation and independence in political and economic terms from the regime established by the colonial and imperial powers. Non-alignment and NAM were seen by the metropolitan powers (who were the primary colonial powers) as anti-West because of the efforts of the non-aligned countries to break out of the regime. This factor has clouded the objective understanding of the purpose and goals of non-alignment in the West, and provided the basis of anti-West rhetoric in the developing world.

Cold War and Interventions

The West, led by the USA, also seemed to believe that the use of force in the aftermath of colonial rule was required for a variety of reasons. Of these, the Franco-British military adventure in the Suez Canal perhaps is the most notable example of military intervention to resist change and the legitimate aspirations of nationalism among developing countries. But Western interventions were also sought to be justified as necessary to check what was perceived as expansion of Soviet influence. It is not surprising, therefore, that the United States has been the main practitioner of military forms of interventions during the past half century. Consequently, military intervention came to be accorded ideological rationalisation under the concept of "extended containment" of the Soviet Union. The Soviets, of course, indulged in their own interventionary strategies. More often than not, a process of competitive interventions came into play, although the target of interventions was not always the same country. But where it was, asymmetric means of intervention (like those in Vietnam, Afghanistan, etc.) were adopted.

The perceived strategic objectives of rival military blocs during the Cold War were a major factor for military intervention in the developing countries. The extension of "containment" logic to military intervention in internal political struggles has had a complex set of effects; the most important and lasting one has been the sustaining of a deep distrust of Western intentions. The non-aligned group of countries was almost synonymous with the list of developing countries. Non-alignment also became a response to such competitive intervention. It was inevitable, therefore, that, since most of the interventions were undertaken by the Western countries (unilaterally or multilaterally), the schism between the West and NAM, already high because of the ruler-ruled relationship, grew further and still continues to shape perceptions and attitudes.

New Threats

Additional factors have added to the traditional mistrust in the post-Cold War world. The articulation of an Islamic threat by the Western democracies has inevitably led to reaction not only in countries with Muslim populations but in the developing world at large. Concepts like that of "Clash of Civilisations" which inevitably also draw the fracture lines along the Western civilisation and the other (developing) world have been seriously propounded in recent years. Future conflict has been interpreted in terms of wars of conscience and wars of interests defined in terms of "we" and "they" (essentially making the dividing line as one between the Western countries and the developing world).2 There has been widespread articulation by the strategic community of the Western countries of the threat from the "South". The most powerful state on earth at present, that is, the United States, has been arguing that in the absence of traditional (that is, Eastern bloc) threats, uncertainty is the threat. And this is sought to be linked to defined and undefined threats from "rogue" and other states essentially from the developing world. These factors have all been adding to the polarisation of perceptions that weigh toward mistrust of the Western powers in the minds of the developing countries. The inability of the developing countries to influence and mould such perceptions or their articulation in and by the Western powers only tends to add to the frustrations arising out of the traditional weakness and vulnerabilities of the developing countries.

In short, what we need to take note of is that the suspicions of the developing countries regarding the intentions of the Western countries in relations toward them have, if anything, increased rather than reduced since the end of the Cold War. As much as the Western countries increasingly believe to be the irresponsible behaviour of the developing countries requiring all forms of controls and ad-hoc regimes of denial, the developing countries' confidence in an objective and equitable relationship with the developed countries has also eroded in recent years. The increasing role played by the OIC (Organisation of Islamic Countries) in the post-Cold War era is a clear example. Larger countries like India may not allow the mistrust of Western powers to play a larger than life role. But for most developing countries, these underlying suspicions, attitudes and perceptions are likely remain an important ingredient of factors shaping their responses in future.

Post-Cold War Interventions

One of the most important factors shaping the attitudes of the developing countries will continue to be that of legitimacy of Western interventions. The reactions of the developing countries to Western interventions are likely to be influenced greatly by the nature of the intervention and its characteristics. Many such interventions are undertaken purely under national authority, whether in a unilateral or multilateral framework. Others are authorised and/or managed by the UN. Western powers dominate the UN Security Council with four out of five permanent veto-wielding powers from the West. Notwithstanding this, military interventions under the UN flag continue to be more acceptable as legitimate than those that do not have UN authority to back them.

The greatest opposition to Western military interventions may be expected to emerge in cases of unilateral interventions in the developing countries. Unilateral military interventions are a crime under international law and norms. Article 2(4) of the UN Charter specifically forbids it. The experience of Vietnam has also convinced the US that unilateral interventions carry less payoffs and greater costs. This, in fact, had influenced the shift toward multilateral approaches and even the use of what came to be known as cooperative forces. Chapter VII defines the framework of international intervention. Any military intervention outside this framework suffers seriously from lack of legitimacy.

Legitimacy would be higher if the intervention took place at the request of another state seeking self-defence. This is obviously authorised by the UN Charter. The US-led coalition's intervention for the liberation of Kuwait, for example, carried a high level of legitimacy even though many people in the developing countries felt that efforts to find a peaceful settlement had not been exhausted before the US coalition started military action. Others have believed that a UN force (particularly since the permanent members of the UN Security Council were willing to cooperate and the intervention drew its legitimacy from UN Security Council) would have offered better alternatives and reduced the suspicions about Western intentions of the true nature of the intervention.

The case of Kuwait also represented what may perhaps now well be a rare phenomenon in future: the leadership of a developing country seeking Western intervention to either sustain the regime or safeguard national security. Saddam Hussein's invasion of a sovereign state that had been a member of the UN Organisation as such for decades was a unique case. Blunders by other leaders may well be made again. For the Muslim states, another concern was added: that a more powerful neighbour had suppressed the sovereignty of one of them, and they did not have the power to oppose the violator individually, and did not have the political and diplomatic skills and will to forge a collective response. And nor did they have the military capability even under the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) framework to cope with Iraqi aggression. It is also possible that many states of the region preferred the US to take the lead so that they could avoid the responsibility of having to act militarily against a "brotherly" Muslim state. But the possibility of a similar situation arising again is extremely remote. Most countries of the region were deeply concerned about Saddam Hussein's violation of Kuwaiti sovereignty and the international norms that it shattered. Even under these circumstances, a great deal of anguish and resistance persisted in the developing countries, especially the Muslim countries, including those that provided troops for the intervening coalition. The example of Western intervention in (and for) Kuwait should, therefore, not be treated as a representative model. On the other hand, the continuing presence of Western military forces (desired by some states like Saudi Arabia) in the region is undoubtedly feeding suspicions and hostility. Terrorist attacks and violent protests in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have been fuelled by such concerns.

On the other hand, the developing countries' support for military intervention by the West, when undertaken under UN auspices, has been more spontaneous and widespread. But problems remained in cases where intervention was pushed more directly by the Western powers and the UN was left, so to say, holding the baby. Somalia clearly fell in this category.

Future Interventions and Likely Reactions

The likely reactions of the developing countries for the foreseeable future are likely to be strongly influenced by most of the factors noted above. In general, therefore, we may expect continuing distrust of the intentions and actions of the Western interventions. The developing countries may be expected to harbour strong reservations about such interventions, especially where little or no consultation with the developing countries takes place before the intervention is undertaken. Larger countries of the South are also likely to be sensitive about Western intervention in the regions close to them. For interventions sanctioned by the UN Security Council, it is likely that China will play an increasing role in the decision-making process.

The type of circumstances that led to intervention in the Persian Gulf in 1990-91 is unlikely to be repeated. For any situation less ambiguous than that of 1990-91, direct and indirect resistance and objections from the developing countries are to be expected. It may be relevant to recall that even at the time of Desert Storm, influential leaders like the Pakistan Army Chief, General Aslam Beg, were propagating the concept of "strategic defiance" (as symbolised by Saddam Hussein).

The developing countries are likely to persist with the fairly high level of cynical approach to Western interventions. This is likely to lead to errors of judgement in many cases. For example, the more generalised assessment that the West (and specifically the United States) does not have the will or capability to intervene militarily in most circumstances where they may have to incur human costs in the shape of casualties has scope for error on both sides. As it is, there is little credibility in the formulation and articulation of Western policy of interventions. For example, most of the circumstances under which the United States claims it will use force can hardly be considered realistic.

US Intervention?

The then US Ambassador to the UN and current US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright in a 1993 lecture at the US National War College had cited four problems that might require the use of force by the United States: (i) spread of weapons of mass destruction (WMD); (ii) terrorism; (iii) ethnic violence; and (iv) fall of democracy. Even a cursory examination would indicate that the use of military force by the United States could hardly be accepted as credible in any of these contingencies.

The US claims it will use military force in pursuit of its strategy formulated under the rubric of "counter-proliferation." It is clear that such force is not likely to be used against any industrialised country of the North. But what are the circumstances under which it could use it against a country of the South, especially unilaterally, or even in a coalition with other Western countries? Will the United States use military power against its erstwhile ally Pakistan, or its strategic friend Israel? Can it realistically consider using military force (even for a "surgical strike") against India? Or against China? US compromises and concessions to North Korea were adequate proof, if any was needed, that it would not use military force against so-called rogue states either.

Similarly, what are the circumstances where the US may be expected to intervene militarily in an ethnic conflict? If current ethnic conflicts (in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Kurdish areas of Turkey, Iraq and Iran, etc.) are any sign, the possibility of a US government committing troops inside a developing country to deal with an ethnic conflict are remote indeed. The scenario of US use of military force in case of fall of democracy is similarly unrealistic. The prospect of fall of democracy is possibly the greatest in former socialist bloc countries where a reversal in the current trend toward democracy could take place. Such fall is most likely to take place as a consequence of acute socio-economic crises. This is hardly a scenario where the US will interject its troops into such a country. The other possibility is of fall of democracy to non-democratic and non-secular forces in the developing world. Unless such a country is very small and located in the immediate neighbourhood of the United States (like Haiti) or Western Europe, there is little likelihood of a Western military intervention in future to restore democracy. The agonising that the US went through before it intervened in Haiti recently and the legitimacy that it sought through the UN reinforce our conclusion.

Alternately, where and how can the United States possibly use military force in response to what, perhaps, is often considered a more likely scenario: international terrorism? The Western countries categorise countries like Lybia, Iraq and Iran as "rogue states" which sponsor terrorism in other countries. India has ample evidence, made available to the West, that Pakistan has been sponsoring terrorism in India for the past 15 years. But there appears little likelihood of any use of military force against any of these states. Mere repetition of threats of military intervention and use of military force erode the credibility of commitment to do so without in any way reducing the possibility of the necessity to do so.

It is, therefore, difficult to accept as credible the scenarios where the US claims military force will be used by it. The same assessment applies to West Europe. The absence of credibility does not necessarily mean that the West will not actually intervene at a future date. But there is a significant potential here of an error of judgement being made by either the West itself, or by a developing country. In fact, Saddam Hussein seems to have made such a mistake when he assumed that the West would not intervene in any meaningful way. Some people would also argue, perhaps, that the US Ambassador to Iraq appeared to have provided confirmation of this perception, precipitating the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Western Intervention

If US interventions in future for reasons most often cited are not likely to carry any credibility, what about Western intervention without the US? It is possible that a Western state may intervene in a developing country in future. But more often than not, this would take place in the territories of the former colonies of these powers. France has intervened in the past in Africa on this basis. But progressively such interventions will lose their credibility and will generate increasing criticism, if not opposition, from the developing countries. Every possible assessment since the Vietnam war suggests that unilateral interventions have not provided payoffs, except perhaps in cases like Grenada and Panama.

In recent years there have been some efforts to discover a rationale for intervention under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) flag. The Bosnian example seems to have provided some of the supporting rationale. But the failure of the UN (essentially because the key NATO powers were not supporting it adequately) in Bosnia cannot be treated as representative of future interventions. Broader based multilateral interventions may stand higher chance of success, especially in situations where such interventions have been sharp, brief and the goals have been clearly defined and enjoy broad acceptability. But such coalitions are not easy to cull together, and any broad-based coalition comes close to being a UN or UN mandated intervention. As the Franco-British intervention in the Suez Canal showed, much also depends upon the attitude of other key actors on the world scene. One country that is likely to champion the cause of the developing countries against Western intervention in future is China. It is highly unlikely that the West will be able to ignore the Chinese position on any intervention across the world in the future.

Reaction to Western Military Intervention

The increasing belief, promoted mostly in the Western strategic thought and literature, that governments (especially of the more developed states) have a right bordering on a responsibility to intervene in the affairs of other sovereign states has tended to reinforce the memories of colonial rule. It is adding to the mistrust of the West in the developing countries where sovereignty is seen as critical to the nation-state building process. It is ironic that interventions are sought to be justified through violation of the central logic of the UN Charter, which upholds national sovereignty. This is not to suggest that intervention is not justifiable under any and all circumstances. But it would be natural to expect that the developing countries, which sought independence as a way to undo the effects of past Western military interventions, would respond to Western interventions not without a critical approach. This is even more so in the post-Cold war era. The key factor is whether such interventions are carried out after due consultations with the developing countries.

The reaction of the developing countries to Western (as distinct from UN) interventions will be governed largely by the factors of legitimacy and credibility of such actions. But, as discussed above, given the historical and current levels of lack of trust in the West, the central and dominant reaction of the vast majority of the developing countries to Western military interventions in the developing world is likely to be negative. The West could well dismiss this reaction as rhetoric or posturing, or ignore it because the developing countries are too weak to respond in any concrete terms. But the existing polarisation between the North and South would continue to deepen in this process with long- term implications for international cooperation in wide ranging areas of human activity. The developing countries are also likely to seek countervailing influences to reduce the perceived negative impact on their own national interests of interventionary policies. During the Cold War, NAM had been largely able to act in such a capacity. The erosion of the movement (contributed in no small measure by Western attitudes) after the end of the Cold War has almost completely negated the ability of the non-aligned group of nations to find countervailing leverages.

This has been one of the reasons for the surge in the activities and role played by the OIC since the end of the Cold War. This inevitably led to the interpretation of national interests being closely aligned to political goals as defined by religious ideologies. At the same time, with the rise of China as a global power, and the shift of the geo-political and geo-economic epicentre to Asia, we may expect an Asian identity as a countervailing influence. More important is the likely trend of China assuming the mantle of the protector of the interests and rights of the developing countries in the 21st century.

In more specific terms, we may expect that some developing countries may adopt strategies of direct and indirect confrontation and opposition to Western intervention. Religious ideologies or nationalist fervour could be a strong bonding factor for such postures. But failing to possess physical capabilities to resist intervention, conflict response may be escalated to a different plane. Resort to use of terrorism as a tool may, therefore, gain in strength. It may be recalled that responsible people in an otherwise moderate Islamic country like Pakistan have long interpreted and cited the Holy Quran as legitimising and requiring terror as a weapon to achieve victory against an enemy.3 The phenomenal spread of small arms and light weapons in the world has placed at the disposal of states and sub-state and non-state groups the ability to impose high costs on any interventionary force relying on human contact. It is well recognised that popular (essentially domestic) support has become an important pre-requisite for intervention by democracies. But this support can erode rather rapidly (as happened in the US with respect to Somalia) if the costs of intervention can be raised. This was why Saddam Hussein fired Scud missiles into population centres of Israel and Saudi Arabia; and this is why acts of terrorism would be seen as an option by countries and groups attempting to find a violent response to Western military interventions in the developing countries.

In the final analysis, it is possible to be optimistic and conclude that military interventions in the coming years (except in pursuit of national strategic interests) are likely to be less frequent than what we have witnessed in the past. UN peace-keeping operations have not only reached a plateau, but are declining in frequency and levels of commitment. Compared to over 76,000 personnel involved in UN peace-keeping two years ago, only about 25,000 are now deployed. Interventions in pursuit of national strategic interests are also likely to be restricted to ensuring access to energy resources (which now are centred on the Central Asia/Persian Gulf region). As part of the same trend, military interventions by the West, especially in the developing countries, are less likely in future, and more likely to be resisted, through regular or irregular means.



1. Michael Mandelbaum, "The Reluctance to Intervene," Foreign Policy, no. 95, Summer 1994, p. 4.

2. The Economist, September 5, 1992.

3. Brigadier S.K. Malik, Quranic Concept of War (Lahore: Wajidalis, 1978).