In roughly the last 20 to 25 years, debates about America’s foreign policy have often included discussions of “humanitarian military interventions” as a possible moral obligation given the superior strength of American armed forces. The “humanitarian” qualifier refers to an intervention by a foreign state (or states) to end massive human rights violations arising from war or internecine strife. A closely related notion in the parlance of the United Nations is the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), the execution of which may involve UN troops. Important reference points in this policy discussion include the civil war in Syria; crises in the 1990s in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Rwanda, and Kosovo; and similar ones earlier in the twentieth century, such as the widespread slaughter of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, the destruction of European Jewry from 1939 to 1945, and the mass murders in Pol Pot’s Cambodia from 1975 to 1978.

Political and moral catastrophes such as these raise many questions about state sovereignty, the purpose and efficacy of international institutions, and strategies to avoid similar outcomes in the future. Despite scholarly engagement across different disciplines, several matters in these discussions are often overlooked or slighted. Focusing on those matters yields a more accurate assessment of what the United States can accomplish and whether it should feel obliged to assume a special burden as “the great protector” in the community of nations.

Such an assessment appears here in the form of five theses. Taken together, they provide reasons to oppose American preeminence in the realm of humanitarian interventions, especially if it means acting unilaterally. It would be less problematic for the United States to participate in humanitarian military interventions as part of multinational coalitions, but our nation should not universally or routinely lead such coalitions. Furthermore, to show its commitment to international human rights, the United States should adopt policies such as promoting religious liberty abroad that would offset or counteract those factors that seem most responsible for massive human rights violations.

As a sovereign nation with formidable military power, it is tempting to think that the United States can “go at it alone” and undertake humanitarian military interventions by itself. The idea is flawed, but it is crucial to understand its genesis and development and why some people still embrace it. So before presenting the five theses, a brief historical review is in order.


Scholars such as Gary Bass and Alan Dowd have shown that humanitarian intervention has a surprisingly long history in the West and the United States, going back to the nineteenth century.[1] In the US, that history was largely forgotten during the Cold War, when both the United States and the Soviet Union competed for allies around the globe. But the idea of humanitarian intervention always needed a theoretical justification.

Even before R2P was introduced at the United Nations in 2005, the main theoretical elements were already in place. In Just and Unjust Wars (1977), Michael Walzer reminds us that the principle of state sovereignty in international affairs has limits.[2] He argues that states exist to provide basic legal rights and protections to persons under their jurisdiction. There is an implied or metaphorical contract between the governors and the governed, usually (though not always) based on a shared history and language. But when governors broadly violate the rights of the governed, the contract no longer binds, and if the governed face massacre or enslavement, other states may intervene to protect them.[3]

Notice that Walzer asserts that other states may intervene to stop a massacre or enslavement. He does not say that they are morally required to intervene. How, then, does the proponent of humanitarian interventions move from “may” to “ought”?

In our current political milieu, in which the discourse of rights-based individualism is so powerful, the significance of this question is apparent. Most civic duties require us to refrain from certain actions, as seen in prohibitions on killing, maiming, or dispossessing others. Affirmative legal duties to help those in desperate circumstances are rare, as seen in the paucity of “good Samaritan” or “duty to rescue” laws in the American states.[4] Today, however, leading scholars and commentators believe that the United States has in some circumstances an affirmative duty to thwart massacres, enslavement, and genocide.

An important development in the sphere of ideas was the publication of Samantha Power’s remarkable book “A Problem from Hell”.[5] Power maintains that the United States was culpable for its repeated failure in the twentieth century to stop genocide where it could have done so. To use theological language—not found in Power’s work—this was a recurring “sin of omission.” The nation’s failure to act was blameworthy, laying the ground for a new kind of critique of American foreign policy.

Most persons on the left who criticized American foreign policy in the second half of the twentieth century focused on actions. She focuses on inaction. Hers is a distinctive voice, with a perspective partaking of both realism and idealism, and her critique helped to set foreign policy priorities, with Power serving as the US Permanent Representative to the United Nations in the second Obama administration.

Power seeks to distill the core issue into the book’s epigraph. It came from Lincoln: “We—even we here—hold the power and bear the responsibility.”[6]

Power also stresses the legal obligations that the United States has under international law, especially the Genocide Convention, ratified by the Senate in 1986. But she does not satisfactorily discuss how nation-states evade various obligations under international law. Many scholars have documented this problem, which arises because there is no duly constituted system of enforcement or police force for the world.

This does not imply that international law is meaningless. States sometimes have incentives to meet their obligations under international law, and those incentives may lead a state to do what is required by law. But the high costs of fulfilling certain legal obligations can be a significant disincentive and will often prompt states to ignore international laws.[7]

Power evidently thinks that her attention to international law and the moral viewpoint expressed in the book’s epigraph would sustain the central argument of “A Problem from Hell”. To judge from the book’s commercial success and critical reception, she may have been correct.

However, and notwithstanding its moral passion, Power’s analysis suffers from an overarching flaw. With seemingly little reflection on the matter, she assumes that the great military power of the United States by itself imposes special obligations on the nation. Yet she never fully explains why the former entails the latter. Hence, the first thesis:

  1. Arguments for American leadership or preeminence in humanitarian military interventions entail a kind of “samaritanism” and need a moral or theological grounding to justify this special burden, but that grounding is often missing.

Many persons in the United States today would agree that strong nations with superior military force are obliged to succor or even rescue weak and vulnerable populations during times of war and intense civil strife. Christians especially could and should affirm this as a presumptive duty in American foreign policy, as Alan Dowd argues in these pages last year. Focusing on scriptural passages such as the parable of the Good Samaritan, chapter three of Proverbs, and chapter twelve of the Gospel of Luke, Dowd provides key resources for a moral and theological foundation for humanitarian intervention.[8] And like Power, Dowd accepts the idea of American preeminence in this realm.

Power, however, seems uninterested in the theoretical or theological grounding of her overall argument. She may think that all morally decent people would agree that the privileged have duties to help the less fortunate, but this matter is not so straightforward. In the pre-Christian West, for example, the “privileged” cared very little about the welfare of the socially less privileged or desperate but rather evinced a mindset radically at odds with the worldview that would develop in the Christian West, emphasizing the dignity of all persons and the principle that “the privileged” have substantial obligations to the less fortunate.[9]

Power’s analysis throughout her book seemingly rests on Christian principles like those cited by Dowd. But she does not say as much. This silence amounts to a serious gap in her argument, while suggesting gaps in her knowledge of Western history. It may also portend problems in the future application of her ideas. Hence the second thesis:

  • The increasing secularization of American society makes it less likely that the American people will support humanitarian military interventions involving the United States.

The secularization of the United States is evident in several areas, including the American intelligentsia’s growing indifference or antipathy to religious freedom, the greater public interest in libertarian thought (with its superficially attractive though untenable vision of individual self-sufficiency), and the emergence or reemergence of “blood and soil” nationalist groups.

Even if the connection is not immediately apparent, the growing secularism of our society does not bode well for a foreign policy in which the United States commits itself to using its military power to stop massacres around the world. Such interventions typically require the ultimate sacrifice that one can make, namely, one’s own life. But secular currents of thought in the United States (and the West more generally) lack a compelling spirit or ethos of self-sacrifice, and it is questionable whether classical or contemporary liberalism ever had the resources needed for such an ethos, given liberalism’s preoccupation with the welfare of the individual and its very modest support for laws that require any kind of samaritanism.[10]

On any fair reckoning, Christianity has the resources to promote such an ethos. But to use a boxing metaphor, it has been on the defensive in the West since the Enlightenment, and it has consistently been on the ropes in the United States since the movement for same-sex marriage began in the 1990s. As a result, any defense of a humanitarian intervention on overtly Christian grounds is today both hard to imagine and unlikely to persuade most Americans—a point that Alan Dowd seems to miss.[11]

Some persons will find this question about the ultimate grounding for humanitarian intervention irrelevant. They will say that many secular persons have shown support for the views that Power champions, as reflected in the wide readership of her book and her role in the Obama administration. The support for her views is real, but its ultimate source or grounding should still be probed. It appears to be a vestige of a Christian worldview, now repudiated or disavowed by cultural and intellectual elites and many ordinary persons in the United States, leaving only fragments of that worldview.

A moral grounding with no reference to religion is of course possible, but philosophic arguments in favor of humanitarian intervention have up to now been broadly unpersuasive.[12] Appeals to “multiculturalism” also do not take us very far, because the presence of a multiplicity of cultures around the world tells us nothing about how each culture and its members should be treated by other states.

Even those who support humanitarian intervention understand that war inherently involves grave dangers. While the pledge taken by our professional and all-volunteer military personnel includes an implicit acceptance of the possibility of ultimate sacrifice, such sacrifice is to protect the nation, not to rescue foreigners from conflicts that do not involve vital national security interests. In the face of the grave risk undertaken by our military, any deployment of military force must account for and be worthy of the possible costs. Hence the third thesis:

  • However well intentioned, any humanitarian military intervention has risks, and those risks tend to be played down by those favoring such interventions by the United States.

Most Americans understand that any military operation involves the potential loss of life, especially if troops are going to be “on the ground.” This matter was widely discussed when the United States was considering military interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. Furthermore, superior firepower and more advanced weaponry do not ensure an easy victory—or any victory. Somalia in 1992 and Libya in 2011 show this, as does Vietnam. Why, then, is there not more candor from proponents of humanitarian military intervention about the costs of fighting wars, let alone the price of possible failure?

Those who advocate for intervention must be scrupulously and publicly honest about these tangible consequences—even in victory. One reason they must do so is because the American people can already anticipate the costs. Indeed, they pay these costs themselves, as do their sons and daughters, close friends, neighbors, and associates. The currency levied is death, bodily maiming, and moral and spiritual trauma. Interventionists must make an accounting of, and advocate for, the worth and necessity of such costs. This will always be a difficult task, especially in light of the fourth thesis:

  • The bonds of “humanity” are rarely as strong as the bonds that exist among families and friends, and typically not as strong as those joining members of a political community.

Both Christianity and classical liberalism display universalist elements. In the New Testament, one thinks of Galatians 3:28 (“In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female”) or the same sentiment in Colossians 3:11. In the liberal tradition, the Declaration of Independence stands out. But neither Christianity nor classical liberalism suggests that there is anything problematic about close attachments to family members and friends. Moreover, the bonds of kin, kith, and country are typically stronger than the bonds of “humanity.”

It is unclear whether Power fully appreciates these points. The cosmopolitan orientation she demonstrates is attractive but should not be overstated. It is morally appropriate that a country takes care of its own. American citizens, especially those with loved ones serving in the nation’s military, are right to have strong views about the deployment of US forces when the nation’s security is not at risk.

National security interests and “the interests of humanity” may sometimes coincide, but this is more the exception than the rule. This distinction between national security interests and “the interests of humanity” ought to be the key premise in deliberations about humanitarian military interventions and leads to the fifth thesis:

  • The aspiration to American preeminence in humanitarian military interventions must be weighed against more urgent priorities in US foreign affairs.

No moral norm—Christian or otherwise—requires America to be the global leader in humanitarian military interventions. Even if America is the preeminent power in a “unipolar” world, we must establish foreign policy priorities. We cannot do all we might want to do, or all that should be done. Focus is needed. In the years since Power’s book was published, the topic of humanitarian intervention has absorbed an undue amount of intellectual time and attention on the part of American thinkers and policymakers. Meanwhile, other geopolitical conundrums have become even more daunting. The growing crises with North Korea and Iran stand out, as does the broader problem of nuclear proliferation—including the need for strategies to deny terrorists access to nuclear weapons or radioactive material. If intellectual resources had not been preoccupied with intervention, we might have made progress on these critical issues.


Clearly, in the light of America’s responsibilities and priorities, giving attention and support to humanitarian interventions is folly when they are unilateral and don’t involve a vital national security interest. American scholars and foreign policy analysts must refocus on such interests.

Being frank about these matters does not imply indifference to the suffering associated with massive human rights violations. Indeed, it might spark new solutions. As Dowd and others remind us, our nation can abate human suffering in different ways short of a military intervention.[13] In addition, the United States could contribute significantly more to UN peacekeeping forces.We could also develop two broad strategies to prevent these catastrophes from occurring in the first place.

As the political theorist George Kateb argues, massive human rights violations tend to correlate with starkly dualistic modes of thought. Kateb calls this the “we/they” distinction in politics, and argues that it is the principal source of “political evil,” meaning the deliberate infliction of mass suffering.[14] If Kateb is correct, our government should seek to minimize conspicuously dualistic modes of thought abroad, especially by striving to develop civil society in less developed countries.[15]

A second strategy relates to religious conflict. Five of the seven case studies in Power’s book involve political communities with religious conflicts. Many liberals see this as evidence of the irrationality and destructive tendencies of religion, but the most prominent secular states in the twentieth century—such as the Soviet Union, a veritable Olympian in starkly dualistic thinking—lacked exemplary human rights records. Thus, liberals who truly care about the protection of basic human rights for all should be promoting religious freedom for all, not fantasizing about a world without religion.

The irony here is apparent. For roughly two decades, Samantha Power has forcefully argued for international human rights, even while her own political party steadily abandons its commitment to religious liberty here and abroad.

[1] Gary J. Bass, Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention (New York: Knopf, 2008); Alan W. Dowd, “In the Interest of Humanity,” Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, no. 7 (Spring 2017): 54–62.

[2] Michael J. Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977). The book is now in its fifth edition.

[3] Ibid., chapter six.

[4] Vermont and Minnesota are two states that require a bystander to help someone whose life is in danger, if rendering help would not jeopardize the bystander’s life. This kind of law must be distinguished from those that merely provide immunity from civil liability for bystanders who try to help someone whose life is in imminent danger. See Alexa Renee, “Do you have a legal duty in California to help in an emergency?” KXTV, July 21, 2017,

[5] Samantha Power, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

[6] Abraham Lincoln, Second Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862.

[7] See Oona A. Hathaway, “Two Cheers for International Law,” The Wilson Quarterly (Autumn 2003).

[8] Dowd, “In the Interest of Humanity,” 59.

[9] On these matters, see, for example, David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).

[10] Perhaps the most influential philosophic defense of abortion in Anglophone liberalism characterizes the moral dimension of abortion essentially as a question of samaritanism. Even if that characterization is wrong, it is important evidence about contemporary liberalism’s wariness of laws mandating any form of samaritanism. See Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defence of Abortion,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 1971.

[11] Dowd’s essay does not mention the growing secularization of the United States.

[12] See, for example, Michael L. Gross, “Risking Our Lives to Save Others: Puzzles of Humanitarian Intervention” in Gross’s Moral Dilemmas of Modern War (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[13] See: Dowd, “In the Interest of Humanity,” especially at 56–7 and Benjamin Valentino, “The True Costs of Humanitarian Intervention,” Foreign Affairs (November-December 2011).

[14] George Kateb, “On Political Evil” in The Inner Ocean (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992).

[15] See Joseph Nye’s Soft Power (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), chapter five.