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Moral Obligations and Military Intervention

In his speech outlining U.S. policy towards Afghanistan, Donald Trump assured the public that he shared their frustration with a foreign policy that did not pursue U.S. “security interests over all other considerations.” This laser-focus on achieving U.S. security at all costs echoes realists from Thucydides to Thomas Hobbes to George Kennan, who have long represented the conventional wisdom when it comes to the way that states should or do interact with other states. From this view, political reality must be intertwined with power and self-interest — morality is simply a sideshow against this theoretical backdrop.

Trump’s ends-justify-the-means rhetoric and concern with public opinion date back to campaign promisesthat his policy towards the use of torture would depend on whether “Americans feel strongly about bringing back waterboarding and other tactics.” But, is President Trump right to assume the public shares his frustration with a foreign policy focused on anything other than the narrowly defined promotion of U.S. security interests? Our research, published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, suggests the opposite is the case. Moral obligation plays an important and overlooked role in U.S. public attitudes towards military action.

In this research, we recruited a national sample of U.S. adults to participate in a survey experiment that examined whether support for humanitarian interventions is grounded in moral concerns about protecting foreign civilians or more instrumental, national interest-focused concerns about costs and consequences. In the post-Cold War period, half of the United States’ military interventions have taken the form of humanitarian interventions, the use of force across borders for the primary purpose of saving foreign civilians. The 1990s were the heyday of U.S.-led humanitarian interventions, referred to by critics as a foreign policy of “social work.” Examples from this period include the Somalia intervention in 1992–1993, Bosnia in 1995, and Kosovo in 1999. However, more recent interventions in Libya and Syria also carried humanitarian overtones, suggesting that the practice is alive and well in this decade.

Findings show that these humanitarian overtones actually increased public support for humanitarian intervention scenarios compared to “realpolitik”-style operations such as restraining an aggressive state. However, higher levels of support for these interventions derived not from the assumptions about costs in blood and treasure that shape responses to security interventions but from moral motives. Faced with the prospect of a humanitarian crisis, individuals were drawn to support military action out of a sense of moral obligation and belief that the US and its allies “ought” to intervene on behalf of foreign civilians.

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