Intervention vs. Nonintervention in International Relations

Instructor: Lori Jones

Lori has a degree from Stanford, was Principal of a K-12 private school that she started, has a Master's degree, and taught at the high school level.

Throughout history, nations around the world have intervened in the affairs of other nations. Many wonder, however, if this is the best policy in international relations. In this lesson, we will examine intervention types, how they are used, and their benefits and consequences.

Intervention vs. Nonintervention

If your neighbor was suffering financially, under attack, or needed some food or supplies, you would probably come to his aid if you had the ability to do so. The unwritten laws of human decency dictate to us that we must help our fellow man when he is in need, if we can. But there are certain situations when it is better to allow your neighbor to learn on his own and benefit from the growth of solving his own problems. 

This is a dilemma that countries throughout history have faced nearly every day. Is it better to intervene in another nation's affairs? Or will that nation become stronger by solving its own problems and rising above its struggles unaided? Let's take a look at intervention and nonintervention in a little more detail and when each one might be the better policy. 



In international relations, intervention is defined as using force to interfere in another nation's affairs in a way that affects that nation's control over its territory or population. Intervention can take on many forms, depending on the conflict or issue that's occurring. 

Types of Intervention

While military force is the most well-known and historically used form of intervention, there are several different ways that forcible intervention is used.

Military Intervention

The most well-known and historical form of intervention is military intervention, the use of armed forces to resolve a conflict occurring in another nation. Throughout history, militaries were frequently used to assist a nation in protecting or expanding its territories or sovereignty. The French assisting the United States during the Revolutionary War in 1778 and the U.S. involvement in World War I in 1917 are examples of military intervention.

The frequent use of military intervention, however, diminished after the first use of nuclear weapons during WWII in 1945. This event ushered the world into the nuclear age and was the catalyst for nonintervention becoming the standard in international law.

Despite this standard, military intervention still occurs. During the past 40 years, the United Nations and several western nations such as the United States, Great Britain, and France, have used the military to intervene by providing aid or protection during economic troubles, human rights violations, and political uprisings around the world.

UN Troops in Somalia
UN Troops in Somalia

Economic Sanctions

Since the Cold War, economic sanctions have become the most commonly used form of intervention. Economic sanctions are actions taken against a nation with the goal of harming that nation's economy. Let's take a look at some types and examples of economic sanctions.

  • Trade restrictions, cutting off all trade and commerce with a country (called embargoes), are the most common type of economic sanctions. Two of the most well-known embargoes are the U.S. embargo on Cuba since 1962 for its communist regime, and the UN's embargo against North Korea for its possession of nuclear weapons.
  • Prohibiting investments by companies in a nation's economy can also be an effective type of sanction. In the 1980s, U.S. companies withdrew their investments from South Africa because of its racial policy of apartheid. These withdrawals had a negative effect on the South African economy, leading to the end of apartheid.
  • Reductions in foreign aid can also put pressure on a nation. Foreign aid (often in the form of a grant or low interest loan) can strengthen a country's military, improve its infrastructure and industries, or reduce poverty.

Political Intervention

Political intervention occurs when a nation uses pressure, money, or technology to influence the political structure of another nation. This can be in the form of backing one political party over another, launching a campaign in favor of or against one party, or tampering with another nation's political elections, called electoral intervention, which is the most widely used form of political intervention.

For more than 70 years, the United States and Russia have been the two most prominent players by intervening in approximately 177 elections around the world, with the United States intervening in 81 of those elections.

For example, in the 2000 election in Serbia, the United States funded and helped with the campaign for the non-incumbent candidate, who ended up winning the election. And in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Russia hacked and released thousands of emails from presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Some believe this was a deciding factor in Clinton's loss of that election.

Consequences of Intervention

Despite the economic, political, and national security benefits that intervention has had throughout history, it often comes at a cost.

Loss of Sovereignty

Intervention can rob a nation of its identity and sovereignty. When military intervention is used to solve a problem or end a conflict, a nation can be deprived of the opportunity to learn, grow and develop on its own.

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