The Moral Hazard of Humanitarian Intervention: Lessons from the Balkans


Author's note: The author gratefully acknowledges past financial support from the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs, MIT’s Department of Political Science, the University of Southern California’s Center for International Studies, the U.S. Institute of Peace, Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, the Institute for the Study of World Politics, the Harvard-MIT MacArthur Transnational Security Fellowship, and the Brookings Institution. He thanks Barry Posen, several anonymous reviewers, and those who commented on previous versions of this article at more than a dozen conferences and seminars.


This article explores a perverse consequence of the emerging norm of humanitarian intervention, or “Responsibility to Protect,” contrary to its intent of protecting civilians from genocide and ethnic cleansing. The root of the problem is that such genocidal violence often represents state retaliation against a substate group for rebellion (such as an armed secession) by some of its members. The emerging norm, by raising expectations of diplomatic and military intervention to protect these groups, unintentionally fosters rebellion by lowering its expected cost and increasing its likelihood of success. In practice, intervention does sometimes help rebels attain their political goals, but usually it is too late or inadequate to avert retaliation against civilians. Thus, the emerging norm resembles an imperfect insurance policy against genocidal violence. It creates moral hazard that encourages the excessively risky or fraudulent behavior of rebellion by members of groups that are vulnerable to genocidal retaliation, but it cannot fully protect against the backlash. The emerging norm thereby causes some genocidal violence that otherwise would not occur. Bosnia and Kosovo illustrate that in at least two recent cases the moral-hazard hypothesis explains why members of a vulnerable group rebelled and thereby triggered genocidal retaliation. The article concludes by exploring whether potential interveners could mitigate genocidal violence by modifying their intervention policies to reduce moral hazard.