Global Issues >> Globalization


International Intervention in the Internal Affairs of States

To address global problems, a strong majority supports international intervention in the internal affairs of countries under various circumstances. Support is particularly strong for intervention to stop atrocities or when civilians are suffering as a result of war.

Polls have found that strong majorities favor having international institutions intervene in the internal affairs of countries to address certain global problems. PIPA's January 2004 survey asked respondents to choose between two statements about the general principle. Sixty-eight percent supported the argument, "To deal with global problems such as terrorism and environmental dangers, it will be increasingly necessary for international institutions to get countries to change what they do inside their borders." Only 27% endorsed the statement, "What countries do inside their borders is their own business. International institutions should not try to tell countries what they should do." This represented even more support for intervention than the same question found in October 1999, when 60% favored that argument and 35% preferred the hands-off approach.

As noted in the Terrorism section of Americans and the World, overwhelming majorities of Americans would like to give the UN Security Council extensive powers to intervene in the territory of member states in the effort to track down terrorist groups (see Terrorism: Empowering the UN in the War on Terrorism). Nearly 3 in 4 even favored "Sending in an international military force to capture the suspected terrorist group, if the country refuses to do so." [1]

Support for international intervention is particularly strong in situations where atrocities are being committed. In July 2005, Pew found that 69% agreed “that the U.S. and other Western powers have a moral obligation to use military force if necessary, to prevent one group of people from committing genocide against another.” Just 21% disagreed. In the October 1999 PIPA poll an overwhelming majority supported the idea that international intervention should occur when governments commit atrocities. Seventy-seven percent agreed that "If a government is committing atrocities against its people so that a significant number of people are being killed, at some point the countries of the world, including the US, should intervene, with force if necessary, to stop the killing." In addition, a March 1999 Greenberg Research poll also found 62% favored the US trying to stop foreign wars involving atrocities by "using force and sending troops as part of an international force." Just 36% opposed doing so. [2] When offered two alternatives in a Mark Penn poll in September 1999, only 38% thought the US "should be willing to use military force against other countries only when they directly threaten US security." Fifty-nine percent agreed with the competing statement that, "ethnic killing and human rights abuses in other countries can also be a reason to intervene." [3]

Support for taking action in cases of genocide is also strong in the context of intervention under the auspices of the UN, and when a specific case is mentioned. For example, in a December 2004 PIPA poll 74% said the “members of the UN should…step in with military force and stop the genocide in Darfur, Sudan.” Just 17% said the UN should not intervene. In the same poll, 60% felt the US should be willing to contribute troops to such an effort. [3a]

Indeed, polls have found that a majority thinks nations not only should intervene in such cases, but that they also have a right to do so. In November 1999, Harris found that 77% thought that in principle "there are some times when other countries have the right to intervene to protect people from their own government." Only 15% rejected that principle. Of the 77% who thought countries had the right to intervene, 71% of them (55% of the total sample) felt that countries have a duty to intervene, not just the right to do so, when a government commits terrible atrocities against its own people. [4] More specifically, in March 1999, as NATO planes bombed Serb targets in Belgrade and Kosovo in the effort to stop ethnic cleansing there, the Los Angeles Times asked whether "NATO has the right to intervene in a sovereign country's internal conflict, or not." Reacting to that concrete case, 56% said NATO did have the right, while just 31% said it did not. [5]

A strong majority rejects the principle of non-interference when it comes to atrocities, even when the traditional norm is clearly stated in the question. A National Opinion Research Center poll in August 2004 found that 75% favored the argument, “If a country seriously violates human rights, the United Nations should intervene.” Only 18% chose the argument that “even if human rights are seriously violated, the country's sovereignty must be respected, and the United Nations should not intervene.” When respondents were asked to choose between two opposing arguments in an April 1999 PIPA poll, 62% agreed with the argument that "while respect for national borders is important, when large-scale atrocities such as genocide are being committed, this justifies military intervention by the international community." Just 29% agreed with the opposing argument that "as a general principle, even if atrocities are being committed within a country, the international community should not intervene with military force because this would be a violation of the country's national sovereignty." Also, in the November 1999 Newsweek survey, more than two-thirds (68%) agreed that the "old idea of national sovereignty which did not allow foreign interference in the domestic affairs of any country, even if it killed many of its own people, is no longer acceptable and must change." Only 22% disagreed. [6]

The public has supported intervention in the event of atrocities for nearly a decade at least. In a February 1994 PIPA poll, Support was overwhelming for sending in UN peacekeeping forces "when atrocities are being committed against large numbers of people" (83%), or when "gross human rights violations are being committed against large numbers of people" (81%). [7]

Short of using troops, Americans also show support for international humanitarian intervention in cases of war and civil conflict. Consistent with the general preference for the US to act in concert with other countries, support was higher for multilateral intervention than for the US acting alone. The March 1999 Greenberg Research poll also found that a strong majority (59%) wanted to see more "intervention from the international community" to deal with civilian hardships during war, such as "being cut off from food, water, medical supplies, or electricity." Just 32% wanted less intervention and 6% wanted no intervention. By contrast, support for unilateral US intervention was much lower - only 39% wanted to see more unilateral intervention by the US, while 58% wanted to see less intervention (50%) or no intervention (8%). [8]

Polls have also found support for direct intervention within states by international organizations, not just groups of states or states acting through the UN. In July 2004 CCFR poll, 78% favored “giving the World Health Organization the authority to intervene in a country to respond to a crisis that threatens world health, even if that country disagrees.” Eighteen percent opposed granting such authority. [9]