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Ottaway Lacina International Interventions and Imperialism

Ottaway Lacina International Interventions and Imperialism

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Published by: intlconflict on May 11, 2009
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SAIS Review
 vol. XXIII no. 2 (Summer–Fall 2003)
Marina Ottaway is a Senior Associate in the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and an AdjunctProfessor in the African Studies Program at Johns Hopkins School of  Advanced International Studies. Bethany Lacina is a Junior Fellow in thesame project at the Carnegie Endowment.
International Interventionsand Imperialism:Lessons from the 1990s
Marina Ottaway and Bethany Lacina
The increasing frequency and changing nature of UN interventions over thecourse of the 1990s led to concern over a new imperialism. In this period, theinternational community showed an increasing willingness to disregard thenotion of sovereignty, and thus anticipated the more extreme doctrine of pre-emptive intervention recently adopted by the Bush administration. But theexperience of the 1990s also shows that, far from imposing a new imperial order, international interventions have had a surprisingly limited ability tobring positive transformation to targeted countries, a dilemma that U.S.unilateralist interventions are likely only to aggravate.
uring the 1990s, words that had practically disappeared fromthe discourse of contemporary international relations—wordssuch as imperialism, protectorate, and trust territory—came intouse again as the international community sought ways to copewith a growing number of civil conflicts around the world. Many of these conflicts did not fit easily into the dominant vision of thepost-World War II international system, leading to internationalinterventions that challenged the principles on which the UnitedNations was built.The international system currently rests on the assumptionthat the world is constituted of independent, sovereign states,equal in their rights and prerogatives though greatly differing intheir size, degree of development, and military strength. All coun-tries, however, are assumed to possess the basic attributes of stateness, particularly the capacity to control and administer a ter-
SAIS Review
2003ritory clearly defined by fixed borders. From this basic assumptionabout state sovereignty flows the premise that other countries, oreven international organizations, should not intervene in the in-ternal affairs of sovereign states.The initial post-World War II reality did not correspond tothis vision because much of the world remained under colonialdomination. But in the ensuing decades, as the colonial empiresdisbanded and a host of newly independent states emerged, thesituation changed rapidly. Membership in the UN increased fromfifty-one states in 1945 to ninety-nine in 1960 and 159 in 1990.
In March 1990, Namibia was the last major country to move fromcolonial status to formal existence as an independent, sovereignstate.For reasons that will be explored below, a considerable num-ber of these independent states sunk into civil war and, during the1990s, became the target of intervention by the UN and other in-ternational organizations. In extreme cases, intervention led to theimposition of an international administration. These develop-ments sparked debate concerning whether such multilateral inter- ventions were legitimate humanitarian missions or essentially im-perial acts. Now, this debate has been revived and transformed by the prospect of a project of unilateral interventions by the UnitedStates, which may already be unfolding in Afghanistan and Iraq.This paper seeks to make a modest contribution to this com-plex issue by looking at the evolution of international interven-tions in the 1990s. It argues that changes in UN interventions overthe course of the 1990s reveal an increasing willingness by the in-ternational community to disregard the notion of sovereignty and,in fact, anticipate the even more extreme posture recently takenby the Bush administration. But the experience of the 1990s alsoshows that, far from imposing a new imperial order, internationalinterventions have had a surprisingly limited ability to bring posi-tive transformation to targeted countries, a dilemma that U.S.unilateralist interventions are likely only to aggravate.
Declining Sovereignty 
By the time an international system based on the vision of a con-stellation of sovereign states was being completed, four concurrentdevelopments had already begun to undermine it. The first was theend of the Cold War and the disintegration of the Soviet Union.With the Soviet Union went the deterrence regime that not only 
prevented war between the United States and the Soviet Union, butalso precluded UN-sanctioned multilateral intervention in many conflicts. The rivalry between the superpowers had also made itdifficult for external actors to challenge severe violations of humanrights, even in weak states, because most had a superpower patron.Second, growing evidence showed that many sovereign stateshad no capacity to control or administer their territories. Statessuch as Somalia and Liberia became battlefields for multiple fac-tions, often with hazy leadership, organizational structures, andpolitical programs.The phenomenonof state collapse orfailure, which firstclaimed wide at-tention in Somalia but quickly be-came evident inmany countries in Africa and beyond,created a strongdemand for inter-national interven-tion. These failedstates raised new questions about when the UN, other interna-tional organizations, or individual countries might legitimately intervene in a country’s internal affairs. When no real
governmentwas in place, the idea that intervention constituted a violation of sovereignty unless requested by the government appeared outrightabsurd.Third, the breakup of Yugoslavia bred a number of conflictsthat straddled the line between civil war and interstate conflict. Thecomplex mix of newly recognized states and non-state political en-tities, such as Republika Srpska or Kosovo, made defining sover-eignty over and responsibility for a territory intensely problematic.Fourth, a growing body of legal and academic writing justi-fied international intervention in defense of human rights,
argu-ing that the fundamental human rights of subject populationswere more important than the sovereign rights of the state. Thispolicy camp supported intervention to protect citizens where a sovereign state was violating human rights. As a result of these developments, the 1990s witnessed anunprecedented number of UN interventions, most of them in in-
The phenomenon of state collapseor failure, which first claimedwide attention in Somalia butquickly became evident in manycountries in Africa and beyond,created a strong demand forinternational intervention.

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