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Book Reviews

The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs About the Use of Force

by Martha Finnemore

Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 2003
192 pages, US$25.00

Reviewed by Andrea Charron

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Book CoverMartha Finnemore has written many articles and books with great success. One of the main reasons for this success is her constructivist approach that focuses on the ‘how’ or ‘how possible,’ rather than the ‘why’ questions, thus leaving her audience with a more satisfactory sense of ‘I see.’

Finnemore does the same with this latest book, in which she investigates ‘how’ states have come to accept different beliefs about what constitutes a legitimate reason for the use of military intervention. Today, primarily because “notions about order have become increasingly legalized and rationalized,” the reasons for intervening have changed significantly. For example, war is far less valued now by some than it was hundreds of years ago, when it was an end goal in itself.

Finnemore states that the dominant argument in security studies would expect these changes “[in attitude towards the use of force] to be the result of material factors such as alterations in the balance of power or in the offense-defense balance.” What has changed is not the number of guns or weapons defence systems a state possesses. Rather, what has changed is the “[states’ understanding] about the purposes to which they can and should use force.” Therefore, states are still the primary actors, and a state’s continued existence is still paramount. However, whether a state is democratic, authoritative, or industrialized does not seem to influence the overall pattern of intervention accepted as legitimate by the majority world view. This is rather revolutionary thinking, because it has always been accepted by the neo-liberalists, the liberalists, and the realists that interests are static – it has always been about economics, or values, or geostrategy. What Finnemore posits, however, is that collectively, states have rejected certain purposes for intervention, and they have embraced others. Traditional security studies’ theories cannot account for this universal behaviour, which makes the book a significant contribution to the literature.

Finnemore examines three cases of systemic change and intervention behaviour. They are: 

  • Intervention for debt collection;

  • Humanitarian, multilateral military intervention; and

  • Intervention because of threats to international peace and security.

While it was quite common to use a state’s army to collect debts owed their citizens from another state, this is no longer considered acceptable or cost effective. The practice ceased in the 20th Century, when international law began its ascendancy. The increased presence of lawyers at conferences and treaty negotiations meant that legal solutions tended to be favoured over the use of military force.

The second case examined by Finnemore is that of multilateral interventions for the purpose of protecting individuals. While this is not new as a practice, protecting non-white and non-Christians is a new element of it. Furthermore, states, as a rule, will only intervene multilaterally and with the express authorization of an international organization. Finnemore is essentially summarizing the findings of Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society by Nicholas Wheeler, which is also well worth reading.

Her final case is plotted in chart form on pages 97 and 98 – a particularly handy element of the book that one should keep close to hand. Whereas intervention was once a means to an end to obtain territory, commercial advantage, and/or dynastic glory, legitimate reasons for intervention have changed over the ages. Finnemore summarizes these reasons, beginning with the 18th Century balance of power, the 19th Century concerts, the Cold War spheres of influence, and finally, the present day global situation. A challenge to the strategic studies community will be to define what exactly constitutes “present day.” 

Using interventions as a lens through which to examine conflict, while obvious, is no trivial task. And yet, Finnemore does it expertly and in less than 200 pages. This book answers the question, “What is the purpose of force?” For anyone interested in strategic studies, it is a must read.

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Andrea Charron is a PhD candidate in the War Studies program at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston.