Promoting Justice Across Borders

The landscape of global politics has changed significantly in recent decades. So, the political theory of global politics must change too. Once, perhaps, global politics was simply a series of interactions among states employing the conventional tools of foreign policy. But this is true no longer. Recent history has witnessed a proliferation of new political actors with new capabilities for exerting influence on the global stage. This reality gives rise to a host of moral questions that much existing literature on global justice overlooks.

In an increasingly interconnected world, myriad political actors—including individuals, NGOs, activist networks, corporations, and states—have the opportunity to exert influence in societies beyond their own. They can do so using a variety of different means—ranging from persuasion and advocacy, to boycotts and divestment campaigns, to coercive sanctions and military force.  Moreover, such attempts are often publicly justified in the name of justice promotion. This raises the question: when, if ever, are attempts to promote justice in other societies justified? This may be an old question, but my dissertation seeks to give it a new valence by recognizing the full range of ways in which different political actors can influence foreign societies, expanding beyond the existing literature’s typical focus on states employing coercive foreign policy.

I develop a set of principles meant to guide our moral judgments about justice-promoting foreign influence. I argue that, while some such influence falls prey to the powerful objections often leveraged against foreign “intervention,” not all of it does. The kinds of justice-promoting influence that are immune from these objections can, if undertaken by the right actors in the right ways, constitute a powerful mode of emancipatory politics. Thus, my principles not only provide a critical standard against which to evaluate actual instances of foreign influence, but also highlight the ways in which we are permitted (even obligated) to make the achievement of justice worldwide the object of our political engagement. In so doing, they unsettle received notions of who has standing to engage in politics with whom, where, and to what ends, ultimately vindicating the idea that achieving justice is and should be humanity’s collective project.

I use the term reform intervention to signify any attempt by any political actor to promote justice in a foreign society. This, of course, is a very broad category. Military strikes like those NATO launched in Libya in 2011, conditioned aid and trade deals like those powerful states routinely induce others to accept, boycotts like that opposing Apartheid in South Africa, and the education and advocacy programs of NGOs could all qualify as reform interventions.

In the dissertation’s first chapter, I develop the concept of reform intervention. I construct a typology that distinguishes among kinds of reform intervention and highlights how they vary along several morally significant dimensions, including the means interveners employ (for example, whether they involve force or coercion, and how extensively they interfere with the operation of recipient societies’ existing institutions), the urgency of their objectives, and the gravity of the risks to which they expose recipients. Using this typology—and persistent examination of several real-world cases—as a guide, I examine how different kinds of reform intervention implicate the core political-moral values of toleration, legitimacy, and collective self-determination.

I devote a chapter to each of these values, which are frequently invoked as grounding (often conclusive) objections to intervention. However, I argue that different kinds of intervention in fact implicate these values very differently. For instance, non-coercive interventions are less likely than their coercive counterparts to be objectionably intolerant or to wrongly interfere with recipients’ collective self-determination. Similarly, while interventions aimed at overthrowing a recipient society’s institutions may only be justified when the latter are wholly illegitimate, those using less disruptive means may be justified even when recipient institutions are partially or fully legitimate.

For example, when several Latin American countries submitted amicus briefs to the US Supreme Court opposing Arizona’s immigration law, SB 1070, they engaged in reform intervention—but they worked within the rules of American political institutions, meaning their intervention was justifiable even assuming those institutions had legitimate authority. My examination reveals that certain kinds of intervention aren't vulnerable to the standard objections. The result is a set of normative principles that tells us when different types of reform intervention are and aren't justified.

The fifth and final substantive chapter outlines the practical difficulties with implementing the principles developed in previous chapters. It focuses specifically on the problems produced by a lack of strong global institutions, and the risk of reform intervention bringing about negative unintended consequences.

Ultimately, my dissertation seeks to provide a novel, sustained theoretical treatment of reform intervention broadly conceived. It offers principles that can both guide our thinking about future attempts at reform intervention and provide a critical standard against which to evaluate the common claim that actual interventions are justified because they aim to promote justice. It contributes further to the global justice literature by demonstrating that there are morally permissible (and responsible) ways to take political action aimed at achieving justice worldwide. In this way, it helps illustrate that the pursuit of global justice isn’t only a utopian aspiration, but is also of practical import. In the process, the dissertation unsettles received notions about the proper bounds of political contestation. Finally, as the dissertation addresses what each of the core values listed above (toleration, legitimacy, and collective self-determination) has to tell us about the ethics of reform intervention, it develops new understandings of these values that have implications for political theory more broadly.