When to Intervene: What Would John Stuart Mill Do About Syria?

by Michael Doyle – November 20, 2015

Foreign Affairs

France intensifies its airstrikes against the Islamic State (or ISIS) in Syria after the November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, the question of when to intervene—that is, to forcibly come between another government and its subjects—is once again pertinent. We’ve dealt with this question before. Think of Russia and the United States as they began to arm their allies and intervene in Syria; or France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and other NATO allies inLibya in 2011; or, the failure to intervene in a timely or sufficient manner in Rwanda in 1994 or in Bosnia before 1995.

But where you stand on intervention depends in part on your approach.

If you believe that there is a humanitarian commitment to save the lives of people around the world, you are likely an interventionist. If you assume that there is a right to national self-determination and sovereignty, you are likely to be a noninterventionist. And, if you regard national security as a responsibility that no government can fully cede to an international organization, you will want to intervene when it is necessary for your own national security, but not otherwise.

But what if you think that all three of these approaches should influence a decision to intervene? Then you are in the very good company of the great, nineteenth century philosopher, John Stuart Mill, who made a landmark attempt to reconcile these values with his 1859 essay, “A Few Words on Nonintervention.”

In my recent book, The Question of Intervention, I analyze Mill’s arguments, defending some, rejecting others, and refining a few. His classic treatment of nonintervention helps us begin to unravel two fundamental puzzles that arise when determining when to intervene and when not to.


The first puzzle is reconciling human rights and democracy with nonintervention, which Mill argues should be the default norm. Why not enforce basic human rights, democratic government, and beneficent administration abroad?

Mill’s view of mankind regards humans as sentient beings who are fundamentally similar, capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, and recognizing good and bad. Compassion should thus drive us in making decisions that maximize the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

This philosophy leads, in turn, to two guiding principles when it comes to governance. The first is to maximize equal liberty: Permit all individuals to live without coercion and develop their potential freely, as long as they do not interfere with the rights of others. Second, support representative government: Collective decisions should indirectly reflect the will of the majority through elected representatives.

One might think that these principles, when applied to an international framework, would resemble a global version of the U.S. Constitution’s “Guarantee Clause,” which promises a representative, republican form of government to all states.

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