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Should we send weapons or troops? The ethics of supplying arms vs. military intervention

By James Pattison

Western states are less likely to wage major wars in the future. This is for (at least) four reasons. First, despite several ongoing conflicts, the world is generally becoming more peaceful. There are fewer mass atrocities and conflicts to which to wage war in response. Second, the US and UK’s misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have severely diminished any public appetite for large-scale war or humanitarian intervention. The significant public opposition to the mooted intervention in Syria indicates that any Western leader is likely to have to go against public opinion.

Third, in the wake of the financial crisis and neoliberal austerity measures, there have been significant cuts to military expenditure, further reducing the ability of Western powers to undertake large-scale military operations abroad. Fourth, in the future it will be more difficult to secure international support for major wars and military interventions, most notably from the UN Security Council, which is often an important factor in their legitimacy and ultimately effectiveness. It is widely expected that the BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—will rise in global influence and there will be a relative decrease in the power of the US and Europe. The BRICS are notoriously much more noninterventionist, at least in their rhetoric, and often define their foreign policy agendas in opposition to Western interventionism. It seems likely, then, that any potential Western interventions will have to navigate carefully the positions of the BRICS and, if they oppose the intervention, potentially endure significant reputational and other political costs. It won’t be so easy to intervene on a whim.

Although less likely to engage in direct military intervention, major Western powers will still, of course, attempt to secure their foreign policy goals by other means. Some of these measures have already been subject to ethical analysis, namely, the use of force short of war, such as targeted strikes and drone warfare. However, measures that don’t involve the direct use of kinetic force have been subject to far less ethical analysis (although I’m currently trying to address this). They raise several important ethical issues and include the use of economic sanctions, diplomatic criticism, and various forms of humanitarian, financial, and military assistance. In the rest of my remarks in this blog, I’ll focus particularly on one form of military assistance: the supply of military equipment to insurgents. I’ve considered elsewhere the general permissibility of arming rebel groups. Here I want to consider a specific issue: how does supplying arms to rebel groups compare to direct military intervention? So, for instance, in response to the mass atrocities and civil war in Syria, would it have been better to arm the Free Syrian Army or intervene militarily? And, as the West seems less likely to engage in major wars and interventions in the future, should it fill this void by supplying arms or should it attempt to retain some notable capacity to intervene, such as by increasing the pooling of resources between states?

I’ll consider three potential principled reasons why arming the rebels might appear to be preferable. These reasons largely stem from a clear and obvious difference to direct military intervention, and which largely explains its popularity as a foreign policy option for states supplying arms to rebels in Syria, Libya, Ukraine, the Balkans, and beyond: the arming of rebels doesn’t involve sending troops to fight beyond the borders of the state.

“in response to the mass atrocities and civil war in Syria, would it have been better to arm the Free Syrian Army or intervene militarily?”

First, does it matter that sending arms is a lot cheaper and doesn’t risk one’s soldiers coming home in body bags? I think that this provides some, small reason to prefer arming the rebels. Suppose, for example, that there are two ways that France could address a brutal regime in Guinea that is engaged in mass atrocities. On the one hand, it could intervene militarily, risking the lives of soldiers at great expense. This would be more effective overall at tackling the mass atrocities. On the other, it could supply military hardware to a rebel movement, at much cheaper cost and not risk the lives of French soldiers. This option would still be likely to tackle the mass atrocities, but not as quickly. In the meantime, some innocents in Guinea would die. Which option should France choose? The supplying of arms might be preferable (depending on the overall number of lives saved). This is because of the (albeit limited) special obligations that France has to favour the interests of its citizens. That is, states have special obligations to promote the interests of their citizens, even if this will not be directly optimal overall in advancing human rights worldwide. As such, providing weapons to rebel groups may be a morally justifiable form of risk transfer in that it transfers risks to noncitizens—i.e. rebels—letting them carry the burdens of fighting rather than citizens.

However, I think that this provides only a minor reason in favour of arming the rebels. Although states should give greater weight to the interests of their citizens, they still need to factor in the effects on the interests of individuals beyond their borders. Moreover, the amount of additional weight that they may give is small: they cannot permissibly give much greater weight to the interests of their own citizens compared to the interests of those beyond their state. Accordingly, partiality tips the balance only in borderline cases, such as the France case above, where the arming of rebels will be similarly proportionate (impartially considered) to direct military intervention.

A second potential argument focuses on humanitarian intervention and runs as follows. Rebels more clearly consent to fight in their own defence than intervening soldiers. This is because (i) humanitarian intervention involves the coercion of those fighting, since, it’s claimed, soldiers only agree to sign up for national defence and (ii) a rebellion is more likely to be fought by volunteers. Thus, considerations of individual autonomy render it preferable to arm rebels than to intervene. This is because, although (as I’ve argued elsewhere) while it may be all-things-considered permissible to force some to fight when there is no other option, it would be better not to force individuals to fight and instead look to the alternatives to doing so, such as arming the rebels.

Is this argument plausible? It is, of course, a contingent matter whether rebel forces are made up of conscripts or volunteers. Some clearly do involve coercion (e.g. the rebels in Liberia and LRA in Uganda), but others (the anti-apartheid rebels in South Africa) are based on voluntary participation. But it does seem that rebels often need to be based on voluntary participation because conscription is very costly. These costs include policing and tackling attrition, the negative effects for the success of the rebellion due to desertion on the battlefield, and the alienation of the civilian population. However, it’s also the case that wars and humanitarian interventions are also often based on volunteers: soldiers can expect when they sign up that their state will engage in humanitarian interventions. Indeed, enlistment documents typically don’t distinguish between the types of wars that those enlisting will be required to fight. Hence, there doesn’t seem to be sufficient basis for a general presumption in favour of arming the rebels because of the individual autonomy of those fighting.

Third, does it matter that the rebel soldiers benefit from the action against their state? The thought is this: arming rebels is preferable to intervening directly because the rebels are potential beneficiaries of the action. That is, they may benefit, for instance, from the overthrow of their repressive government. For example, if successful, providing weapons could mean that the Free Syrian Army benefit from a stable, human rights-respecting government instead of the brutal Assad regime. By contrast, intervening soldiers are much less likely to benefit in this way. By arming rebels, rather than intervening, states transfer risks to those who may benefit from these risks being undertaken.

I don’t think that this provides a weighty (or likely) reason in favour of arming rebels. This is because, obviously, benefiting doesn’t depend on anything about individual responsibility for the conflict that means that it is acceptable to impose significant costs on the rebels who ‘benefit’. Furthermore, the rebels being ‘benefited’ in this context might still be significantly disadvantaged, such as being under an authoritarian leader (e.g. through no fault of their own, they’ve already had to endure years of rule by Assad). Although their situation may improve, it will have often started at a very low level (e.g. subject to poverty and human rights abuses). Those who haven’t been benefited by the overthrow of their authoritarian government (e.g. British, American, and French soldiers) may often be far better off. In fact, if we hold that many of those who bear the burdens of mass atrocities or an authoritarian leader aren’t morally responsible for this situation, then, given that these individuals already bear the costs of the mass atrocities or their authoritarian leader, it may seem fairer that others should bear the costs of tackling the situation.

To be sure, being benefited may have some moral relevance when those benefited already have their just entitlement. For example, it might be relevant when rebels are generally much better off than the regular soldiers from other states, when the latter are extremely poor, subject to various abuses in their home state, and so on. However, it seems generally that rebels will be in an even worse situation. Therefore, although it is conceivable that being benefited may provide a reason to prefer arming rebels, it is unlikely to be relevant in practice.

By arming rebels, rather than intervening, states transfer risks to those who may benefit from these risks being undertaken.

The upshot is this: the principled reasons for preferring arming rebels to direct military intervention are either unlikely to apply or not very weighty. The most notable principled reason concerns limited partiality towards fellow soldiers, but the import of this concern seems relevant only for borderline cases. More important is the (i) likely efficacy of supplying arms to rebel groups, in terms of helping them to achieve just goals, such as tackling the conflict or removing an oppressive regime. Also crucial is, of course, (ii) whether there are likely to be negative effects of arming the rebels in terms of harms to innocents, such as from rogue rebels who target civilians, escalation of the conflict, and the diffusion of arms. It seems that (i) the efficacy of supply arms is generally very questionable, in large part because any arms supplied are likely to be matched by arms supplied to the state opposing the rebels, and (ii) the likely negative effects (in terms of harms to innocents) will be more pronounced than those of direct military intervention. These effects will often be worse because intervening forces can exert greater control over the military forces that they deploy than the arms that they supply. By contrast, supplying arms to rebel groups puts undue hope on the prospect of rebels fighting justly and destroying the weapons at the end of the conflict.

Ultimately, then, providing arms to rebel groups is even more dangerous than engaging in direct military intervention, and offers potentially fewer countervailing benefits, even if there is some minor principled reason in favour of it. Accordingly, in the face of decreased ability to undertake wars and interventions, major Western powers shouldn’t provide arms to rebel groups instead. Rather, they should seek alternative, more peaceful means, such as naming and shaming, arms embargoes, and targeted financial sanctions. And, if there is still, on occasion, a choice between undertaking direct military intervention and arming rebels, it seems more likely that the former—direct military intervention—will be the better option.

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.


  1. Emma Cunliffe

    Thank you for this very interesting and timely article, providing a thought-proking framework form which to view western actions and debates.
    However, I hope you wil permit me a minor comment – a decrease in war (as evidenced in the article you link to) is not the same as an increase in peace. Whilst this is obviously dependent on how you define peace, I am using the Global Peace Index Report, who have found “Over the past eight years the average country score deteriorated 2.4 percent, highlighting that on average the world has become slightly less peaceful. ”

    (It may be that you view 2.4% as a minor change, but in that case the best that can be said is that overall levels of peace have remained stable, rather than improved).
    This is just a minor comment, however, and in no way detracts from your arguments or post.

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