Can Peace be achieved with Military Interventions?

Norwegian Peacekeeping forces relax during an inspection (Photo: Forsvarets Mediesenter/Taral Jensen)
Norwegian Peacekeeping forces relax during an inspection (Photo: Forsvarets Mediesenter/Taral Jensen)

Author: Annika Borgert - Edited by: Giacomo Toffanello and Michael R. Zieniewicz

“Si vis pacem, para bellum” can be freely translated as If you want peace, prepare for war. Maintaining or even encountering peace by the use of military means is, hence, no idea deriving from the comparably modern times of the past few centuries. But can peace be achieved with military interventions? Is the literal act of fighting for peace more than hypocrisy but a necessity instead? In this essay Annika Borgert, a Master’s Student in International Security and Law, will provide us with a comprehensive analysis on the subject.

“Si vis pacem, para bellum”[1] can be freely translated as If you want peace, prepare for war. Maintaining or even encountering peace by the use of military means is, hence, no idea deriving from the comparably modern times of the past few centuries. Quite contrarily, this suggestion is deep-seated in the history of human beings, which is clearly noticeable in regard to the above mentioned citation and its background. “Si vis pacem, para bellum”[2] is taken from a piece called Epitoma rei militaris, which originates from the Later Roman Empire and was written by a man called Publius Flavius Vegetius Renatus, who, in this work, focused on military organization and how to react to occasion of war. Evidently, debates on war are indispensably attended by debates on peace. Ever since, situations of peace are not necessarily tried to be accomplished by peaceful means. Still, the answer to whether peace through strength is a legitimate and effective concept remains contested. Can peace be achieved with military interventions? Is the literal act of fighting for peace more than hypocrisy but a necessity instead?

First of all, in order to engage with the concept of peace through military strength, one has to accord with a rather narrow definition of peace itself. Peace has to be seen as nothing but a cease-fire between two or more opposing sides that have been or remain involved in a situation of war or armed conflict. The establishment of peace by a military intervention can, hence, solely lead to the installation of negative peace, which refers to the absence of violence[3]. However, the concept of negative peace in a broader sense entails the termination of something undesirable occurring[4]. In this understanding, not even negative peace can be fully achieved by military means. The termination of the undesirable is not completed. Instead, one could argue that one undesirable situation is simply replaced by another equally undesirable situation. This applies especially to internationally guided military interventions, in which an external force seeks to cease an internally occurring conflict.

Examples for this approach are the frequently held peacekeeping missions by the United Nations, whose personnel are often referred to as Blue Helmets. Looking at the plain definition, peacekeepers wish to create conditions that favor lasting peace[5]. These conditions shall be established in so called post-conflict areas and include “activities in the areas of police, justice and corrections, mine action, the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of ex-combatants and security sector reform”. From a superficial point of view, there is, hence, no apparent need for a military aspect within peacekeeping missions. However, the United Nations do mainly send soldiers from national armies to post-conflict areas. Additionally does the UN, since 1994, coordinate its peacekeeping missions with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization[6], which is, by definition, a military alliance. According to the United Nations themselves, there, the Blue Helmets “work alongside UN Police and civilian colleagues to protect personnel and property; maintain close cooperation with other military entities in the mission area; and work to promote stability and security”. What does this protection look like? Do peacekeeping missions work as smoothly as presented by their initiators?

When scanning any common search engine the Internet has to offer, it becomes apparent that UN troops are not as immaculate as they seem to be. Contradictory to the attempt of working “with the local community” and “[bringing] about greater mutual understanding”, one notices reliable international media reporting on a clearly negative facet of the Blue Helmets. In 2007, the BBC News released an article under the headline “UN troops ‘traded gold for guns’”. This publication revealed the fact that Pakistani UN troops have traded in gold and sold weapons to the very militia groups they were sent to disarm. Yet other scandals regard sex crimes and corruption[7], which are, apparently, no exceptional cases. Already in 1996, a report, written by Graça Machel[8] on behalf of UNICEF, draws attention to the fact that “in 6 out of 12 country studies, the arrival of peacekeeping troops has been associated with a rapid rise in child prostitution”. Albeit the United Nations Organization tries desperately to maintain a positive image of its peacekeeping attempts, even popular culture takes the topic of UN failures in peace missions on. Exemplary is the in 2010 released thriller The Whistleblower, based on true events in post-war Bosnia. The movie tells the story of Kathryn Bolkovac, who worked as a UN International Police Force monitor, discovered wrongdoing by her colleagues and, ultimately, reported them[9]. However, her attempts to better the situation and, somehow, create justice, did result in her losing the job. Obviously, such a mighty organization as the UN does not want to lose face and, neither, having its attempts to resolve post-war conflicts put in question.

Such abuses of existing power constellations are nothing but betrayals of confidence and, although UN peacekeeping missions do not solely have a military component, they are undoubtedly positioned within a military framework. A breach of trust, in this case, does not entail a shift in interstate relations, but rather a deeply anchored distrust by local communities towards members of foreign troops. Further scandals do not decrease this distrust and neither does military presence in general. This presumption becomes apparent, when visualizing how it must be for a local to encounter a fully equipped foreign soldier. Although not portraying soldiers on a peace mission, but instead on going to war in Afghanistan, the movie Armadillo includes sequences, in which Danish soldiers face civil Afghans. One senses the tension between soldiers and civilians, as well as certain insecurities on both sides. There are language barriers, as well as cultural divergences that hinder smooth communication and mutual understanding. Alongside, the question of how the local community should be able to distinct peace troops from any other rises. Hence, it is not difficult to understand the problems that come along with foreign military engagements in domestic conflicts or post-conflict situations.

One additionally has to bear in mind that military interventions do not solely occur in terms of peacekeeping missions. Quite contrarily, the classic military intervention entails foreign military engagement during, instead of posterior to the conflict. These interventions are, in contrast to the above mentioned peacekeeping attempts, “an extremely violent and drastic measure” to solve a war or warlike situation. Taking an example from the recent past, the US invasion of Iraq can be seen as symbol for such interventions. On the 19th March, 2003, the former US president George W. Bush launched a military invasion of Iraq[10], in which troops, not only from the United States themselves, but also from coalition partners such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Poland, invaded Iraq. Although the reasons given for the military action in Iraq might have been understandable – the so called Operation Iraqi Freedom has been conducted in order to end the oppressive regime of President Saddam Hussein[11] – the invasion itself has not at all been legally backed up. As there is no international framework in place for such military interventions[12] the US-American deed in March 2003 has clearly been “an illegal act that contravened the UN charter”. Furthermore, one has to bear in mind that this unilateral decision to take military action in Iraq did not have a purely altruistic character to it. In fact, the United States and its coalition did intervene not least in a matter of self-protection. Due to the assumption of Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction and having ties to al-Qaeda[13], it was, especially when considering the September 11 attacks, selfishness and revenge that caused this military action. Apart from the lack of any legal background, it is evident that this intervention did not at all bring peace, but contrarily cause war, namely a war that has ultimately lasted for seven years.

Yet another type of military interventions is the very recent Russian invasion in Ukraine. Posterior to the events of the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution, Russian armed forces did take over the Crimean Peninsula, which legitimately belonged to Ukraine. This invasion did clearly have no other- or even self-protecting grounds at all, although President Putin claims to be acting on behalf of the Russian descended population in Crimea, as it was nothing but an attempt to enlarge Russian territory. By means of demonstrating strength through military presence, Russia does not establish peace. It tears an already loose population even further apart and, hence, originates an even higher conflict potential than before. One can detect that not only the peace within Ukraine and between Russia and Ukraine is put in danger. Moreover, peace inside of the whole international community is jeopardized. How should international organizations sanction Russia? Do these sanctions have any remarkable effect on Russia and its government? Although the United States and Europe have issued travel bans and asset freezes against Russian officials and businessmen, experts do neglect the possibility of them making any difference[14] and putting any pressure on Russia.

However, military interventions themselves are not the only form of using military means in order to engage in peace. The phrase and concept of peace through strength entails a lot more, as another implementation of the idea can be witnessed in regard to the Cold War. In the aftermath of World War II, the relationship between the West and the East, primarily between the United States and the USSR, has been highly tensed[15]. Neither of the two opposing sites ever fought the other in reality, but there have been insurmountable deviations between both. On the one hand, there have been conflicts of ideology, of the Western countries being capitalist and of the Eastern nations being communist. On the other hand, the dispute between the United States and the USSR did clearly have a dimension of power struggle to it. At the time, both of them have been great world powers fighting for further influence all around the globe, an example of which is the Vietnam War. Now, what does the Cold War have to do with achieving peace? Ultimately, the two world powers, who once started to rearm, had attempted to keep up with each other in order to create a balance of power that would ensure a stable situation, in which none of them would ever attack the other. In this sense, mutual build-up of arms created insurances for both and an apparent situation of peace for American and Soviet citizens. When it comes to the long-term feasibility of such a peace establishment, one can easily detect its weaknesses. What if one of the actors did use his highly destroying weapons? What if the situation escalated? Considering these uncontrollable possibilities, which remain, even though mutual reaming occurs, it becomes evident that peace through mutual strength is not even a long lasting guarantor for the absence of the usage of weapons.

Another controversy deriving from the idea of peace through strength is, whether a society, in which militarism is deeply rooted, can ever be a peaceful society. Although there is a clear difference in the degree of damage between having militaristic ideas and actually intervening in a country, while, alongside, demonstrating military presence and even using weapons, one can reasonably debate that topic. As a basic principle, there have to be militaristic ideas within a population in order to enable its leader to initiate military aggression. Hence, militarism within a society can be seen as a first attempt to back up further military actions that might possibly take place in the future. A society, which embraces militarism, can never be essentially peaceful, as the only ground for a positive attitude towards the military is a positive attitude towards its operation. Accordingly, military operations themselves can never be peaceful, as all armies in the world exist to exercise or at least demonstrate power, not least by making use of violence. Now, does a society or do the inserted troops need to be peaceful themselves in order to establish peace?

First of all, this question brings about a broader definition of the concept peace. Here, not only violence that is acted out, but already the tendency to act violently is seen as putting peace at risk. According to Dijkema, “peace does not mean the total absence of any conflict. It means the absence of violence in all forms and the unfolding of conflict in a constructive way. Peace therefore exists where people are interacting non-violently and are managing their conflict positively – with respectful attention to the legitimate needs and interest of all concerned”. In this sense, peace cannot even be brought by an exterior force. Dijkema talks about peace as a situation in which people are managing their own conflict, in which the sides involved in the conflict, start to respect each other and work positively for a betterment of the situation as a whole. How could, hence, foreign people ever bring peace, regardless of them being organized as military troops?

Even if the so called international community may react in order to protect a country’s population from war, how could it possibly do so? Foreign presence does not prevent violence from happening; it does not circumvent women being raped and neither does it guard from corruption and claims to power. When a state is failing, when a civil war is on the rise, foreign input does not help. What truly ceases a conflict is a mind change coming from within the state’s population. An example of successful mind change is to be seen in the documentary film Pray the Devil Back to Hell[16]. It documents a peace movement of a group of women in Liberia called Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace. The movement actually achieved to bring an end to the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003 and was fully non-violent. Instead of demonstrating physical strength, the women staged silent non-violent protests including sex strikes and forced peace talks to take place. Unified, regardless of religion and class differences, the women were united by their wish to cease the war and, symbolically, by their collective white clothing. After a 14-year civil war, the women did not only achieve the resignation of President Charles Taylor, who was found guilty for, amongst others, sexual violence and terrorism, but also helped bringing the first elected female president of the whole continent into office, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. Hence, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace is also responsible for monitoring the elections at the end of the war. This is called peacekeeping.

Now, no military or any other foreign intervention could have ever achieved what this Liberian activist group did bring up. No foreign action can ever be as strong as an internal one. As motivated as troop members or foreign assistants try to understand the local culture by language study or scholarly readings, they will never sense a foreign country’s dynamics, especially not in devastating times of war or conflict. Keen[17] discusses in his article Greed and grievance in civil war that the former might be one of the very frequent reasons for civil wars to start. Now, how to understand this internal dynamic of greed and personal aims from a superficial, external point of view? An intervention comes, by definition, forcefully and hardly ever involves locals. In her book Shadows of War, Carolyn Nordstrom[18] describes how the UN tried to set up peaceful and democratic elections in Mozambique in 1994. First of all, Nordstrom, who was part of the international monitoring group herself, “noticed that most were European”[19] and that, within the framework of electoral help, a lot of money was spent, although no one really knew who to benefit and, as a matter of fact, how to create internally smooth elections. Not only are the personnel involved in peacekeeping or similar missions ethnically and culturally unilateral; besides, a great number of them do not even root in the mission’s initiator. A lot of the military, monitors or security employees are, instead, private contractors[20], who are probably not even honestly dedicated to the mission itself.

In conclusion, it becomes clear that peace is more than keeping two opposing sides from killing each other. Above all, the sides have to make sure themselves that they seek to end the conflict they are in or at least try to continue the conflict in a peaceful manner. If they need foreign help, they have to call for it themselves. The so called Western world cannot continue usurping conflicts in other parts of the world and trying to solve them by applying a standardly proceeded intervention, even if it is under the disguise of peacekeeping. No foreign nation, no international community has the right to impose peace violently, as peace is, essentially, the complete opposite of military intervention.

[1]Vegetius, P. F. (end of 4th century). Epitoma rei militaris.


[3]Dijkema, C. (2007, May). Negative versus Positive Peace. Retrieved March 27, 2014, from


[5]United Nations. (n.d.). United Nations Peacekeeping. Retrieved March 27, 2014, from United Nations:

[6]Chilton, P. (1994). NATO, Peacekeeping and the United Nations. British American Security Information Council.

[7] Newman, A. (2013, October 15). UN “Peacekeeping” Troops Face Scandals on Sex Crimes, Corruption. Retrieved March 27, 2014, from The New American:

[8]Machel, G. (1996). Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. UNICEF.

[9]Diu, N. L. (2012, February 6). What the UN Doesn’t Want You to Know. Retrieved March 27, 2014, from The Telegraph:

[10]Salazar Torreon, B. (2012, December 28). U.S. Periods of War and Dates of Current Conflicts. Retrieved March 27, 2014, from Congressional Research Service:


[12]Debate. (n.d.). History and Debate of Military Intervention. Retrieved March 27, 2014, from Debate:

[13]Cohn, M. (2013, March 19). Iraq: A War of Aggression. No WMDs, No Connection to Al Qaeda. Retrieved March 27, 2014, from Global Research:

[14]Arutunyan, A. (2014, March 24). Russia won’t be hit hard by sanctions, experts say. Retrieved March 27, 2014, from USA Today:

[15]History Learning Site. (n.d.). What was the Cold War? Retrieved March 27, 2014, from History Learning Site:

[16]Reticker, G. (Director). (2008). Pray the Devil Back to Hell [Motion Picture].

[17]Keen, D. (2012). Greed and grievance in civil war. International Affairs 88, pp. 757-777

[18]Nordstrom, C. (2004). The Problems With Peace. In Shadows of War (p. 202). University of California Press.

[19]ibid.: 202.

[20]Singer, P. (2001, February). Corporate Warriors. International Security 26, pp. 186-220.


One thought on “Can Peace be achieved with Military Interventions?

  1. I finally found the time to read it. Very interesting. Thanks for the insight!

    Questions I still may have: What to you think of interventions in cases e.g. Rwanda etc. Where it is very clear, that an internally conflict (civil war) is one-sided and will result in genocide. Is intervention “good” then, legitimized?

    When peace must come from within the conflict parties, how can it be enhanced from the outside? In what way would trade, humanistic support, “role-modelling” have an effect? (Contrary however e.g.: weapons-trade, “dictator support” etc., for one of the conflict parties.)


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