Can intervention work?

Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus: Can intervention work? (2011). Photo: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2011
Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus: Can intervention work? (2011). Photo: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2011

Can intervention work?. Photo: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2011"Can Intervention work?" is the new book by ESI founding chairman Gerald Knaus and British member of parliament Rory Stewart.

The book discusses issues that remain at the heart of the global political agenda. These issues have also been central to the work of ESI since 1999: the legitimacy and dangers of interventions; the limits of international power and knowledge in state building missions; the temptation of liberal imperialism; the impact of international war crimes tribunals; how to get others to "want what you want" in building institutions; what outsiders can and cannot do.

The book has come out in the US in August 2011 as part of the Amnesty International Global Ethics Series, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of one of the world's leading human rights organisations. It will come out in Europe in September 2011.


"Can we intervene in foreign countries and do good? Can we stop wars and genocides and get rid of evil dictators? Can we then build modern, democratic states that thrive in our wake? ... Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus are well placed to pose and answer these questions ... From rather successful interventions, defined as Bosnia and Kosovo, the authors convey an important lesson: that is, the experience garnered in one place is generally not much use elsewhere."

The Economist

"I devoured this brilliant Burkean tract at a sitting. Is it too much to hope that it will be read not just in Downing Street and the Foreign Office, but also the State Department and the White House?"

The Telegraph

"In "Can Intervention Work?" Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus provide a fresh and critically important perspective on foreign interventions."

The Washington Post

"Timely lessons in when to intervene"

Financial Times

"A fine new book"

The Wall Street Journal

"Stewart, a British member of parliament famous for his walk across Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion, and Knaus, the chairman of the European Stability Initiative, take a bulldozer to the theoretical underpinnings of humanitarian intervention–the idea that the international community can save lives and transform societies if only it applies the proper resources and plans."

Council on Foreign Relations

"Two experienced authors effectively identify what those who decide to make such interventions require for success, that what is required often does not exist and that brute force is not a viable alternative."

Kirkus Book Review


"We can give a clear and reassuring answer to the question this book asks: Can intervention work? Yes, it can, because it did. The killing fields of Bosnia were transformed in the course of one decade in an unexpected and surprising manner. It was within the gift of outsiders not only to bring this war to a temporary end, but also to then build a peace that has since lasted for more than fifteen years. One lesson we learned in the early 1990s is that there is a high price, in human, moral, and strategic terms, of not attempting to intervene when this seems possible and within our power in the face of mass atrocities. People are still haunted by the ghosts of Rwanda and Srebrenica."

(From Can Intervention Work)

The futility school and the Balkans

"Cato analysts were wrong in 1992: when the United States did intervene in the end it did not stumble into another Vietnam but ended a war without any U.S. casualties. They were wrong in 1995: Radovan Karadzic did not in the end emerge triumphant, and Bosniaks and Croats did not restart fighting. They were overly pessimistic in 1998: large-scale return of minorities did take place. No intervention achieves all of its objectives; perhaps most interventions fail to achieve most; and some might fail across the board. It is the distinction between these cases, and between policies that make one outcome more likely than the other, that is the most important question facing policy-makers. To this the futility school offers no answers."

On "failure is not an option"

"The difficulty is to show people how intervention – with its elaborate theory, intricate rituals, astonishing sacrifices and expenditure; its courage and grandeur and fantasy – can often stand comparison with the religion of the Aztecs or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; to show how bad intervention can be: how far more absurd, rotten, counter-productive, than any satirist could suggest or caricaturist portray. And that even when all the leaders have recognized that a policy is not working, how impossible it often seems for them to organize withdrawal."

Politics and Prose in DC – Rory Steward: Can intervention work (15 August 2011)
Politics and Prose in DC – Rory Steward: Can intervention work? (15 August 2011)
Can Intervention Work? © ESI. All rights reserved.

Can Intervention Work – in the media

Acknowledgements from Gerald Knaus

"Many of the ideas in this book emerged from joint work with my colleagues at the European Stability Initiative (ESI), the best team I ever came across when it comes to developing new ideas. I want to thank all of them for their inspiration; in particular Piotr Zalewski for his help as editor; Kristof Bender and Minna Jarvenpaa for detailed feedback to many drafts; and Marcus Cox, Kristof Gosztonyi, Eggert Hardten, Verena Knaus, Felix Martin, Alex Stiglmayer and Besa Shahini for many intense debates on all the issues discussed here.

The actual writing took place during my time with the Harvard Kennedy School, first as a visiting and then as an associate fellow at the Carr Center on Human Rights Policy. I am grateful to the school, the center, colleagues, other fellows and all of our impressive students. It was a privilege to work alongside all of them. Special thanks to Charlie Clements, and of course to Rory, for persuading me to come to the US, agreeing to take up the challenge of a joint book and then finding time to work long nights – in Istanbul, Scotland, Cumbria and London – despite the demands of a political career. I am also grateful for the enormous patience and encouragement of everyone at Norton, Jake Schindel, Brendan Curry and Roby Harrington."