Adam Smith and Military Intervention

prudence international relations war international law art of war military intervention statesmanship grand strategy

Edwin van de Haar for AdamSmithWorks

In Smith’s mind, military interventions should always be exceptions: never a duty, and almost never a right.
Although the Scottish Enlightenment was a time of incredible progress, this did not mean that the Scots were very certain about their place in the Union with England (formed in 1707), or in European and world politics generally. One of the points of debate and contention among them was defense, in particular the debate on a standing army versus a Scottish militia (with Smith as a lukewarm supporter of the latter). Other issues were for example empire, trade, the merits of the balance of power, and of course: war. 
Smith was no pacifist, certainly not when it came to (justified) war for defense. The central topic of this essay are his views on offensive wars or interventions, in particular those fought for humanitarian reasons. 

Moral and social theory were an important part of the philosophy of Smith. He had strong positions on wrong and right in society and in contemporary debates on international affairs. Questions about interventions in other countries were sometimes implicit in these debates. Important in this context is Smith’s valuation of the strength of the relations between people, which can be found in his ideas about sympathy and justice.

Sympathy was a core feature of human nature, it was ‘the natural inclination of humans for fellow-feeling with any passion whatsoever’ and hence a central mechanism for evaluation of inter-human relations. Fellow feeling was a product of the imagination, in particular the capacity to put oneself in the place of another person. This allowed for judgements on the ‘propriety’ of certain behavior, for feelings of compassion, and also for hatred. Every person had an innate imagined ‘impartial spectator’ as a constant judge of one’s actions.  
Important for the discussion here is that sympathy between people could not be stretched beyond certain limits. Fellow-feelings were strongest between people nearby, and looser with people from other geographies or nations who were strangers. It was natural for people to put family, friends and nation first, also in that particular order. Smith gave the example of the occurrence of an earthquake in China. At first people would be genuinely shocked to hear of the dreadful news, but they would quickly continue with their own lives. They would always be more concerned with smaller events with a direct effect on themselves. Hence, sympathy was bounded, and so were the actions that were guided by it. 
No duty to intervene
Human conduct was not normally driven by a concern of the well-being of humanity as a whole. Smith distinguished between ‘love of our own country’ and ‘love for mankind’. Both existed independent of each other, but Smith argued that countries were loved for their own sake, not as a part of the ‘great society of mankind’. Individuals would do best to direct their love towards their own country, which he saw as the outer limit for meaningful emotional attachment for an individual, beyond the extended family, clan, city or region. Humans had the duty to mind the happiness of their relatives, friends and country. The administration of the great universal system, the protection of happiness of all rational and sensible beings, was solely the business of God.  
Not surprisingly, Smith never wrote about moral obligations to initiate military or humanitarian interventions on behalf of others, or to protect natural rights elsewhere. 
Justice in international affairs
But how about the right to intervention, for example in case of a temporary outburst of fellow-feelings over long distances make people really desire ‘to do something’ (as happens so often in our times)? A closer look at the principle of justice is helpful in this context. Smith’s definition of justice was about restraint; justice was a negative virtue requiring people not to hurt others, or as he wrote ‘we often fulfill all the rules of justice by sitting still and doing nothing’. Smith also distinguished a difference between the rules of justice in domestic and international politics. In the latter realm, these were limited to rules for starting and waging just war, and a few regulations between independent states to provide for ‘security from injuries’. At the international level, these limited principles of justice did not even have the same force as in domestic politics either. They were ‘often little more than mere pretension and profession’ and violations were hardly ever punished, Smith remarked with dismay. Therefore, international justice could hardly be a guide for military intervention either.  
Some (possible) exceptions
Smith’s ideas about the limited application of sympathy and justice in international politics seem to indicate that he did not see any room for military intervention. Yet he was a more subtle thinker on international affairs than that, inspired as he was by the ideas of natural law thinkers such as Grotius. As a rule, the sovereignty of other nations should not be breached. Of course interventions could easily upset the international balance of power, or international order in general. Smith would never endorse intervention lightly, but still, there are cases where he would have allowed them.
The only direct evidence of Smithian support for a form of military intervention, is his support for military action in clear cases of (foreign) conspiracy, or when a threat to a territory was detected before a war was declared. Admittedly, the difference between ‘forward defense’ and ‘military intervention’ is hard to draw in these cases, but it is clear he was prepared to go some way in the direction of intervention as a response to a threat to the nation.   
Grotius also allowed for intervention in case tyrants committed atrocities against their subjects. This was meant as punishment against that ruler rather than as action to fully protect the people. Nevertheless, this could fit with Smith’s thought, especially his ideas on statecraft and prudence among leaders of state. Smith’s ideal ruler, the ‘man of public spirit’, had considerable room for maneuver in international affairs. It is not stretching the evidence and interpretation too far to argue that if these prudent leader(s) would have decided for such a Grotian-inspired, or other careful intervention, Smith would have agreed. 
To sum up: in Smith’s mind interventions should always be exceptions: never a duty, and almost never a right. His normal rule was restraint. Yet if reason of state or prudence called for it, leaders could in exceptional circumstances decide in favor of a military intervention, for example as punishment for genocide. 
All in all, some rather good advice for our leaders today…       


Fonna Forman-Barzilai (2010), Adam Smith and the Circles of Sympathy. Cosmopolitanism and Moral Theory, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
John Robertson (1985/2009), The Scottish Enlightenment and the Militia issue, Edinburgh: John Donald. 
Adam Smith (1981),  An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund.
Adam Smith (1982), Lectures on Jurisprudence, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund
Adam Smith (1984) The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Indianapolis: Liberty Fund. 
Edwin van de Haar (2009), Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory. Hume, Smith, Mises, Hayek. New York and London: Palgrave Macmillan. 
Edwin van de Haar (2013a), ‘Adam Smith on Empire and International Relations’, in Christopher Berry, Maria Pia Paganelli and Craig Smith (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Edwin van de Haar (2013b), ‘David Hume and Adam Smith on International Ethics and Humanitarian Intervention’, in Stefano Recchia and Jennifer M. Welsh (eds), Just and Unjust Military Intervention. European Thinkers from Vitoria to Mill, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 154-175.

Related Links:

Edwin van de Haar, "Adam Smith and International Relations"
Adam Smith, Lectures on Jurisprudence, Part V: Of the Laws of Nations