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Intervention and Revolution

By Fernando Tesón

It is widely held that violent revolution can be justified to end tyranny. It is equally widely held that foreign intervention is not justified to end tyranny. Intervention is justified, if at all, in a much narrower range of cases – perhaps to halt massacre or genocide, but not to end ‘ordinary’ oppression. On this view, state oppression may be sufficient to furnish internal revolutionaries with a just cause for violence, but simultaneously insufficient to generate a just cause for outside parties to do the same. Can this difference be justified?

In a forthcoming OUP volume, Debating Humanitarian Intervention [with Bas van der Vossen], I answer in the negative: the just cause for humanitarian intervention is exactly the same as the just cause for revolution, and both are subject to the same principles of proportionality (call this the equivalence thesis.) On my view, there may be cases in which intervention is impermissible while revolution is permissible, but this is simply because, for contingent reasons, the intervention will be disproportionate while the revolution will not. Their differential moral status does not depend on a difference between their respective just causes.

This is because war, like any form of violence, is justified only to defend persons and their rights. The traditional view (call it the non-equivalence thesis) suggests that remedying rights violations justifies violence, but only by some people (the victim’s compatriots) and not others (outside interveners). This is arbitrary.

Writers who favor domestic revolution (and reject foreign intervention) appeal to the value of political self-determination. The idea is that the body politic has a collective right to determine its own destiny without outside interference. This concept has received varied interpretations in the literature, from Walzer’s nationalist view to milder voluntarist versions animated by social contractarianism.  Nationalists claim that political entities as such have moral standing (and thus are protected against foreign intervention). For Ned Dobos  (who follows Walzer on this point) states have moral standing because they express a distinctive political culture. Voluntarists, by contrast, claim that political entities have moral standing (and are thereby protected against intervention) when citizens have delegated authority to such entities. An appeal to self-determination supports the non-equivalence thesis because revolutions are assumed to be compatible with self-determination, whereas foreign interventions are not. Justified revolutions, it is thought, constitute the expression of a political culture (nationalist view) or a withdrawal of consent-based support for the regime (voluntarist view). Revolutions affirm self-determination; outside interventions deny it.

“war, like any form of violence, is justified only to defend persons and their rights. The traditional view suggests that remedying rights violations justifies violence, but only by some people  and not others. This is arbitrary.”

But in my judgment the appeal to self-determination is flawed.  The nationalist version should be rejected. There is no such thing as an individual right to a state that expresses one’s own culture and, consequently, there is no collective right to such a state. Hence, states do not have rights to non-intervention on grounds of protecting culture. The difficulties with the nationalist view are many. One is the status of those members of the population who do not endorse the tenets of the culture. If culture is the foundation of the state, as the nationalist position would have it, then cultural dissenters are not, in a moral sense, members of the state. If a society has an authoritarian culture (which can only mean that a majority of its members are authoritarians), then liberal dissenters are out of luck. They can be legal citizens, of course, but if the reasons that a given state X is legitimate are cultural reasons, then someone who does not share in the culture fails to share in the reasons that make her a member of X. She is not a full citizen, as it were, since peoplehood is defined by a trait she does not possess. The idea that culture defines membership is dangerous because it easily leads to exclusion, discrimination, and ethnic conflict. If this conclusion is sufficiently repugnant to warrant rejection of the nationalist view of states’ right to non-intervention, we cannot appeal to the nationalist view to support the non-equivalence thesis.

The voluntarist version of self-determination, based on consent, is better because it narrows the range of legitimate collective entities (as only voluntary entities have moral standing, and so rights against outside intervention). Under the voluntarist view, revolution is justified when the government breaches the terms of the social contract. Voluntarism, however, fails for a couple of reasons. First, as A. J. Simmons and Michael Huemer have shown, no actual state or other collective political entity rests on consent.  Subjects of any state, even the most benign, have not agreed to their particular institutions or the exercise of political coercion.  So, if voluntarism is the basis of states’ right to non-intervention, no real-world states in fact possess such rights. Given this, these rights cannot be invoked in defence of the non-equivalence thesis.

Second, it is doubtful whether voluntarism really supports the non-equivalence view in the first place. What reason do voluntarists have to reject foreign intervention in aid of revolutionaries trying to overthrow a government who no longer abides by the social contract? As Locke and many others have argued, an originally-legitimate government that turns against its own citizens forfeits whatever standing it had (including its right to non-intervention). There is no reason to think that the subjects of any state have agreed to exclude foreign help when their government tramples upon their liberties. In other words, whenever a state forfeits its right against internal revolution, it also forfeits its right against external intervention. Voluntarism thus seems to favor the equivalence thesis.

More generally, supporters of political self-determination tend to think that just as individual autonomy is a value, so group autonomy is a value. Of course, groups can have value for their members. But the analogy is metaphorical at best. An individual has a mind that makes plans and weighs options, alternatives, values, and goals. Groups, on the contrary, do not have minds. They are collections of individuals where some cooperate but others dominate, exploit, and prey on others. More often than not, appeals to political self-determination mask the human propensity to coerce others in morally impermissible ways.

“More often than not, appeals to political self-determination mask the human propensity to coerce others in morally impermissible ways.”

If political self-determination is a specious reason to oppose intervention, we are left with this: people have rights. Severe violation of those rights by the government justifies resistance, just as Locke said. But the intensity of that resistance is morally constrained by the principles of proportionality.  Roughly speaking, violent resistance against tyranny will not be justified if it causes excessive damage (I cannot pursue here the complexities of that notion). The same justification and constraints apply to foreign intervention to help subjects of a state to resist tyranny. Ending tyranny is a just cause for intervention, just as it is for revolution. But if the intervention, but not the revolution, will make things worse, then revolution will be permissible but not intervention. But by the same token, a disproportionate revolution would be morally wrong, whereas a foreign intervention may conceivably comply with the strictures of proportionality. The difference is largely practical and empirical in nature. It is not a deep moral difference.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Ethical War Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations. 

Published 13th January 2017

Fernando Teson

Tobias Simon Eminent Scholar at Florida State University College of Law

Fernando is the author of Justice at a Distance: Extending Freedom Globally (Cambridge University Press, 2015) [with Loren Lomasky] and Humanitarian Intervention: An Inquiry into Law and Morality , 3rd ed. (Transnational Publishers 2005).

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