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Motives of U.S. Intervention: Democracy, Human Rights and Terrorism

       The following analysis is from Volume 1, Issue 5 of the Peace Science Digest

This study analyzes the degree to which the United States uses their military to respond to threats to democracy, human rights abuses and terrorist activity in foreign countries. The researchers evaluated the relative importance U.S. foreign policy pays to the respective threats.

Democracy, human rights, and terrorism are popular topics in American foreign policy, but do political leaders care about one more than others when considering sending the military to respond to a threat? By analyzing how the United States prioritizes these issues, this study provides an assessment of the nation’s intervention policy agendas.

The authors provide three hypotheses characterized by common theories in Political Science:

  • Realist Hypothesis: Higher terrorist activity in a country should make U.S. military intervention more likely.
  • Liberal Hypothesis: Higher human rights abuses in a country should make U.S. military intervention more likely.
  • Hybrid Hypothesis: A lower level of democracy in a country should make U.S. military intervention more likely.

The study conducted an international data analysis of 164 countries between 1981-2005 to compare the reasons used in U.S. interventions based on threats to democracy, human rights abuses and terrorist activity in foreign countries. Since military interventions vary by definition and scope, the study classifies military intervention as “the movement of regular troops, or the forces of one country into the territory or territorial waters of another country, or forceful military exploits by troops already stationed by one country inside another” (Pearson & Baumann, 1993). To differentiate major military interventions from minor border encounters, this definition’s use of ‘regular troops’ does not include paramilitary forces and ‘military exploits’ does not include actions by border guards or police.

The analysis showed the U.S. has intervened in response to all three of the above threats, but the protection of human rights was the incentive that stood out the most. In general, nations base their decision to intervene not only on an observed threat but also on the implications to its foreign and domestic policy. As an example, a country will be more likely to intervene if their military ally is at risk or if there is a threat to an economic resource such as oil. Even with these factors considered, the study found that the United States is most likely to engage in a military campaign for humanitarian reasons that focus on the protection of human rights, as opposed to security reasons such as threats to democracy or terrorist activity.

This study is a slight revelation into U.S. decision making behind military intervention. Understanding the motivating principles driving political leaders to make the decision of sending armed troops will provide their constituents, and the global community, with a better lens through which to evaluate their decision.

Contemporary Relevance:

This study is an important contribution of data-based research efforts to understand U.S. military intervention. It finds that the United States is more likely to engage in a military campaign to protect human rights than for threats to democracy or terrorist activity. This is an important finding, but equally important to consider is the difference between official narratives behind U.S. intervention and the underlining motivations that may not be available to the public. As an example, the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq was based largely under the pretense of protecting Iraq and its neighbors from weapons of mass destruction. These claims have since been heavily scrutinized by national and international actors, most claiming the threat of weapons of mass destruction was an excuse to justify a U.S. invasion, not the motivating factor behind the decision. As the authors acknowledge, such “real” motivations are hard to measure, but over time measurable data connected to historical and more in-depth narrative data on motivations for military intervention will provide a clearer picture.

Talking Points:

  • The U.S. military is more likely to engage in a campaign to protect human rights than for security reasons, such as threats to democracy or terrorist activity.
  • The U.S. military is less likely to intervene in democratic countries.

Practical Implications:

The United States preference to intervene militarily for humanitarian reasons provides an opportunity to evaluate what a constructive and affective humanitarian intervention looks like. The so-called Responsibility to Protect (R2P) is a global commitment to address the most severe  crimes against humanity. While R2P primarily relies on non-military measures, it also allows for the use of military force to protect those facing atrocities. Since this research suggests the abuse of human rights as a prerequisite motive for military intervention, it is very important that the short and long-term impact and outcomes of these interventions be closely examined. Too often do the debates around responding to atrocities include only military intervention or complete inaction. Instead, practitioners should compare the human, social, political and economic costs of military interventions for the sake of protecting human rights to the many viable nonviolent alternatives. 


Choi, S. W., & James, P. (2016). Why Does the United States Intervene Abroad? Democracy, Human Rights Violations, and Terrorism. Journal of Conflict Resolution.

Continued Reading

  • Escalating U.S. Role in Reckless Intervention, U.S. Launches First Direct Strikes Against Rebel Targets in Yemen by Gabe Murphy. (
  • Humanitarian Intervention: The Gift That Keeps on Giving to U.S. Imperialism by Ajamu Baraka. (
  • Alternatives to military intervention in Syria by David Cortright. (
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