The limitations of using hard power for humanitiarian intervention by the United Kingdom
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This thesis makes a post-positivist historical analysis of the place of humanitarian intervention as a foreign policy tool for the UK. It starts by asserting that the UK wishes to behave in a visibly moral manner. It explores this claim, and offers a history of the development of humanitarian intervention over the last several centuries and its overlap with the just war tradition, leading to the modern concept of ‘responsibility to protect’ (R2P). It identifies a link, based on a ‘just’ approach to war, between humanitarian intervention and the preparedness to conduct post-intervention stabilisation; in essence, why a ‘just’ intervention only remains legitimate when a ‘just’ outcome is achieved. All stabilisations do not necessarily involve lengthy and resource intensive efforts, however this thesis argues that because it is extremely difficult to predict what might happen in the aftermath of a humanitarian intervention, an intervening actor must be prepared to commit to stabilisation of the most complex kind, rather than token or limited efforts, in order to have any chance of achieving a measurably ‘just’ outcome. A number of criteria by which to measure the ‘just’ nature of humanitarian intervention are identified. This thesis contains two historical case studies: The first examines the UK’s efforts to counter the transatlantic slave trade in the nineteenth century. It focuses on the costs, in blood and treasure, and on political factors at home and abroad. It provides a useful example of how a morally-justified action can become protracted by the need to achieve a ‘just’ outcome, and how other national interests also exert a significant competing influence on such an aim. The next case study, on the failure to achieve a ‘just’ outcome in Libya after intervention in 2011, shows what can happen when there is no preparedness to conduct meaningful stabilisation. In order to understand why the UK might be unwilling to commit in the future to a long-term complex stabilisation, this thesis goes on to explore the nature of modern stabilisation, and identifies why, whilst stabilisation can take many forms, the most complex and comprehensive form of stabilisation is a potentially lengthy costly activity, using an empirical analysis of the costs of recent stabilisation operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Next, the relevance of humanitarian intervention in the current geopolitical climate is examined, with reference to the West’s and others’ actions in Syria. This thesis then introduces the concept of upstream intervention as a potentially attractive alternative, but, points out that the concept is both undeveloped and untested. It finally asks therefore, what place humanitarian intervention has as a foreign policy tool for the UK.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
Embargo Date: 2026-12-07
Embargo Reason: Thesis restricted in accordance with University regulations. Electronic copy restricted until 7th December 2026
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