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 Is the interventionist moment over? Bismarck would not have approved of Blair's intervention in conflicts like the Yugoslav wars (Credit: Getty images)

The crisis in Syria has placed the issue of humanitarian intervention squarely back on the world's agenda. A brutal government mercilessly repressing what started as peaceful protest by its people. Perhaps 100,000 dead and 2 million refugees. A savage civil war, with sectarian and Islamist dimensions. The clear danger of the rest of the region being dragged in. And while there is now apparent agreement on chemical weapons, the UN Security Council remains deadlocked on the more central issue of what to do about the Assad regime. 

The case for international intervention in such circumstances was put by Tony Blair in his famous 1999 Chicago speech — once described as the most thoughtful speech ever delivered by a serving prime minister. Blair set out a carefully articulated argument that "we are all internationalists now". In a globalising world we cannot turn our back on even far away conflicts and breaches of human rights because sooner or later they will have a direct impact on us. The old rule that you do not interfere in the internal affairs of other states needs adjustment. In certain carefully defined circumstances intervention for humanitarian reasons is both right and necessary. Bismarck's coldly realistic view that disturbances in the faraway Balkans were "not worth the bones of a Pomeranian grenadier" no longer works in today's world. 

In fact the "Blair doctrine" is not entirely new. Between the Napoleonic wars and the watershed of 1991 there have been ten or so major international military interventions claimed to have been motivated by humanitarian concerns. These claims are of varying plausibility — the Vietnamese attack on Cambodia in 1978 was much more the result of simmering ethnic differences than any noble desire to end the "killing fields". But in at least a handful of these cases — the Russian intervention to end the Bulgarian atrocities of 1877, the Indian military campaign to end the massacres in East Pakistan in 1971 — humanitarian motives seem to have been at the forefront. For an Englishman a particularly proud example is the campaign of the Royal Navy between 1807 and 1867 to end the transatlantic slave trade. The justification was entirely moral horror at the trade, and the campaign was conducted at considerable risk to Britain's other international interests. It was in Britain too that in 1859 John Stuart Mill, anticipating Blair, made the first attempt to describe the circumstances in which humanitarian intervention might be justified. Much of what he wrote then remains strikingly relevant, applying in particular to the situation we now face in Syria (where, on his own criteria, Mill would have supported intervention). 

Nevertheless, up to the end of the Cold War, the Bismarckian view remained predominant. States could act to protect their own security but otherwise should not interfere in each other's internal affairs. Under the UN Charter military action against another country is illegal unless either they attack you or the Security Council gives its assent. In a world where the US and the USSR had opposing dogs in every fight, and vetoes in the Security Council to deploy on their behalf, the Council gave assent to very little. And neither superpower was prepared to upset its delicate relations with the other for merely humanitarian motives. 

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