What is Interventionism in Politics? - Definition, History & Examples

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Interventionism is legally and morally dubious, even in the best of circumstances. So, how do people keep justifying it? In this lesson, we'll look at these questions and explore examples of interventionism from around the world.


Everyone wants to be respected, right? You make a decision, you live your life how you want to, and you accept the consequences of your own actions. As long as you're 18, you're generally expected to have that right. But at what point is it okay for other people to intervene? When can a parent or friend question your lifestyle choices? When can the government give you laws you have to follow?

These same questions can be applied on a much larger scale. We generally expect every country to have the right to conduct its own affairs, but can this have a limit too? At what point can other governments intervene, and tell that country what to do? The policy of becoming involved in another country's internal affairs is known as interventionism. Sure, everyone just wants to be left alone, but at what point does interventionism become acceptable, or even mandatory?

Defining Interventionism

So what exactly is interventionism, in the political sense? In international relations, interventionism involves an action beyond the government's normal jurisdiction, achieved through coercion or threat of force. Basically, if Japan asked China to help restructure its national budget, China would be not be intervening. It was invited to interfere. If China used a threat of invasion to force Japan to change its economic structure, however, that would be intervention.

Interventionism can take many forms, but for the sake of consistency, we're going to look at them all through the experiences of the United States. Keep in mind that these different forms of interventionism can, and often do, occur simultaneously.

Political interventionism involves influencing or manipulating the legal actions of another government. For example, the United States intervened in Japan after the end of World War II. Through military occupation, the USA helped Japan re-write its constitution and set up its new government, regardless of how the Japanese people felt about it.

After WWII, the USA occupied Japan and played a large role in restructuring its government

Military interventionism may look similar in some regards but is different. When the United States involved itself in several Middle Eastern nations to fight terrorism, the goal was not (directly) to restructure most of these governments but to resolve a military threat, that the governments of the Middle East, was not dealing with themselves.

Economic interventionism involves controlling the way another nation's economy works or behaves. Throughout the 19th and early 20th-centuries, the USA used economic pressure and the threat of invasion to interfere in economic decisions across Latin America. Notably, whenever Mexico tried to nationalize its oil production, the USA would threaten to invade (and once did).

Cultural interventionism is a tricky one to study since cultural influence doesn't always come with the threat of force. American cultural influence is widespread, perhaps even aggressive, but it's not always coercive. Still, we see examples of this. When the USA used the threat of force to try and get Native American nations like the Lakota Sioux to adopt farming over semi-nomadic hunting, that was cultural intervention.

Changing Native American cultures through threat of force was an example of cultural interventionism in the past

Finally, humanitarian interventionism occurs when a country violates the sovereignty of another state in order to safeguard the rights of citizens living there. When the USA intervened in Libya, for example, it was largely because of a dictator who was suppressing the Libyan people's rights. The US interfered to stop a state-sanctioned massacre of Libyan protestors.


Interventionism is extraordinarily complicated. Even in the clearest of circumstances, it's legally and morally controversial. So, how do states justify interventionist policies? Let's see some examples.

Historically, the biggest justification for interventionism has been protecting your own interests. According to political realist theories, the primary moral responsibility of a government is to make itself stronger and to protect its own interests. That justifies intervening in another nation if their economy, culture, or political structures could threaten yours. Throughout history, this has been used to justify imperial expansion, as well as interventionism without direct conquest. For example, Great Britain intervened heavily in Egypt after Egyptian independence, because Egypt controlled an important trade route that the British Empire needed access to.

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