17.478 | Fall 2013 | Graduate

Great Power Military Intervention


Course Meeting Times

Seminars: 1 session / week; 2 hours / session


The permission of the instructors is required to take this seminar.

Course Overview

The primary purpose of this seminar is to examine systematically, and comparatively, great and middle power military interventions, and candidate interventions into civil wars from the 1990’s to the present. These civil wars were high on the policy agenda of western states during the 1990’s. Yet, these interventions were usually not motivated by obvious classical vital interests. Given the extraordinary security enjoyed by the great and middle powers of the west in the Cold War’s aftermath, these activities are puzzling. A secondary purpose of the seminar is to ask what the experiences of the 1990’s can teach us about similar, but not identical, subsequent interventions and candidate interventions.

The United States played a significant role in most of the cases. The interventions required the employment of significant military power in actual combat operations, and/or sustained peace enforcement operations, which cost real money. They often resulted in modest casualties for the interveners, and sometimes significant casualties for the objects of their intervention. The interventions were controversial, at least in the United States. These civil wars and the interventions they precipitated required considerable attention from policymakers. They were, in short, not “cheap.”

The interventions to be examined are the 1991 effort to protect the Kurds in N. Iraq; the 1993 effort to ameliorate famine in Somalia; the 1995 effort to end the conflict in Bosnia Herzegovina, the 1999 NATO war to end Serbia’s control of Kosovo, the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the 2011 intervention in Libya. By way of comparison the weak efforts made to slow or stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and the murderous conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan will also be examined.

The seminar approaches these interventions with a range of questions:

  • What were the broad policy arguments in favor of or opposed to these interventions?
  • Who were the principal players arguing for intervention?
  • What is known, or believed, about the basic nature of these civil wars—their causes, dynamics, and implications?
  • What military strategies have outside powers tried to employ to achieve specific results in these civil wars, and which ones have proven most effective?
  • What political strategies have been recommended for the reconstruction of these riven states?
  • In each case, do we judge the intervention a success or failure, and how do we explain the success or failure?

These interventions command attention for both theoretical and policy scientific reasons. Theoretically, an examination of these interventions may tell us something about broad trends in international politics. They may shed light on such questions as the nature of “unipolarity,” or the erosion of sovereignty norms. An examination of these interventions is also necessary in light of the September 11 attack. Security related discussions now often focus on the counter terror war. Were the interventions of the 1990’s merely an interlude, while states awaited bigger threats? Or do they tell us something about the future of international politics? From a policy science point of view, these interventions all amounted to “limited wars” for the intervening powers. What do they tell us about how to conduct limited war? What have they taught us about modern conventional military power? What have they taught us about differences among the military organizations and capabilities of the western powers?


This is a seminar. All who show up for class are expected to participate, whether they are taking the course for credit or not. All should do the reading, or the seminar format cannot work. The Professor will serve as discussion leader. Depending on numbers, one or more students per week will be asked to make a ten-minute presentation outlining the key issues raised in the reading. All students taking the course for credit will present some work during the final class meetings of the semester. Auditors working on related projects are also encouraged to present their work during these final meetings.


Those taking the course for credit can satisfy the requirement for written work in one of two ways: a typical class paper, or, a pair of review essays. See the Assignments section for further details.


The following books are required readings for this seminar.

Finnemore, Martha. The Purpose of Intervention: Changing Beliefs about the Use of Force. Cornell University Press, 2004. ISBN: 9780801489594. [Preview with Google Books]

Kuperman, Alan J. The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda. Brookings Institution Press, 2001. ISBN: 9780815700852. [Preview with Google Books]

Petersen, Roger D. Western Intervention in the Balkans: The Strategic Use of Emotion in Conflict. Cambridge University Press, 2011. ISBN: 9780521281263. [Preview with Google Books]

Lyons, Terrence, and Ahmed I. Samatar. Somalia: State Collapse, Multilateral Intervention, and Strategies for Political Reconstruction. Brookings Institution Press, 1995. ISBN: 9780815753513. [Preview with Google Books]

Prunier, Gérard. Darfur: A 21st Century Genocide. 3rd ed. Cornell University Press, 2008. ISBN: 9780801475030.

Bowden, Mark. Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War. Grove Press, 2010. ISBN: 9780802144737.

For additional readings, see the Readings section.

Course Info

As Taught In
Fall 2013
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments
Instructor Insights