Plato’s Republic and Humanitarian Intervention



"I am not an Athenian or a Greek, but a citizen of the world. "[1]



            The most controversial issue in contemporary US foreign policy debate is the question of American participation in humanitarian intervention. Humanitarian intervention, for the purposes of this debate, is defined as military intervention for the purpose of saving lives in the face of gross human rights violations when there is no obvious, tangible national interest at stake. One side of the debate, generally identified as conservative or realist, claims that military force should only be employed when, in the words of former Secretary of Defense Weinberger, ‘a vital national interest is at stake.’ The realists defer to George Washington’s advice in his farewell address to avoid “entangling our peace and prosperity in the toils of European (or any foreign country’s) ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice” when arguing that our armed forces are provided for in the Constitution only “for the common defense.” [2] The opposing side, generally identified as liberal or idealist, claims that the US should use its military might to intervene when, in the words of President Clinton, “someone comes after innocent civilians…and it is in our power to stop it, we will stop it,” even if a vital national interest is not obviously at stake. [3] They invoke the Declaration of Independence’s recognition of mankind’s “unalienable Rights” to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness when arguing that the US should selflessly enforce democratic values overseas.


What’s Missing? 


“America is never wholly herself unless she is engaged in high moral principle.”

                                                                        -President George Bush, Sr


            Despite the prolific references to America’s founding figures and guiding documents there is something conspicuously absent from the debate. The missing element is a substantive discussion of the moral component of foreign policy. The US doesn’t articulate a moral vision for its foreign policy except in the most vague terms. The Clinton Administration’s Policy on Reforming Multilateral Peace Operations, which explicitly states general criteria for deciding when to involve US troops in peacekeeping, fails to mention that morality will play a role in these decisions. This despite the fact that every official justification of the use of US military force has, even in the heyday of imperialism when Americans believed they had to carry Rudyard Kiplings’ “white man’s burden” of civilizing far off  ‘barbarians’ like the Filipinos, historically had two equally important components, a national interest and a moral principle. A recent example is President George Bush’s justification of the use of force in the Gulf War. He explained to the American people that there was a vital national interest at stake, interruption of the world’s oil supply, and a moral imperative, that Iraq’s international aggression across sovereign borders be stopped.


            Our current political leaders have inadequately addressed the tension between morality and self-interest. From where does our penchant for ‘high moral principle’ concerning foreign policy come? Several philosophies come to mind: the Judeo-Christian ethic of charity, the rights-based morality embodied in our democratic government, and Ethical Humanism. Although all these philosophies can stand alone as justification for participation in humanitarian intervention, none will satisfy the ‘realpolitik’ self-interest of the realists.

            This paper will attempt to help bridge the gap between morality and self-interest in the argument over humanitarian intervention through the application of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato’s thought as found in his book “Republic”. Platonic thought is of course central to the western intellectual tradition and his idealism has had a very real, lasting effect on American foreign policy. The most evident example of this is the degree to which philosopher-president (or maybe the first American philosopher-king) Woodrow Wilson’s international political millennialism is beholden to Plato. As one commentator has said, Wilson saw progress as a “journey toward moral perfection” and understood “ultimate reality to be found in the kingdom of the ideal.”[4] Both of these ideas are undeniably Platonic. In turn, it is hard to understate Wilson’s influence on the eventual establishment of the successor to his League of Nations, the United Nations. With Plato’s lasting legacy in mind, it is worthwhile to examine how Platonic thought might be further applied to the contemporary problem of humanitarian intervention. 




“Aren’t clever but unjust people like runners who run well for the first part of the course but not for the second? They leap away sharply at first, but they become ridiculous by the end and go off uncrowned.”




            This paper claims that Plato’s main argument in the Republic, that “just things are profitable,” supports the idea that the US should participate in international humanitarian interventions because it will make the US a stronger republic. [5]  As noted previously humanitarian interventions, by virtue of being ‘humanitarian’ (promoting human welfare), do not directly serve the ‘realist’ national self-interest, but are typically defended as charitable, ‘idealist’ efforts to alleviate suffering. Plato’s argument, however, asserts that less tangible, moral benefits do result from participation in ‘just’ humanitarian interventions and that it ultimately, although indirectly, serves the national interest and make the republic stronger. The intent of this paper is not necessarily to show that Plato’s argument is valid or sound, but rather to attempt to construct the argument as Plato would if he understood the modern global context.


            The purpose of this paper is twofold. First, to help identify common moral ground between the realists and idealists in the debate on humanitarian intervention. Second, to encourage those who teach and study philosophy and international relations to apply Platonic thought to contemporary foreign policy problems in order make the corresponding debate more productive.

            The argument will flow through three main points. First, that being a 'just' nation in the Platonic sense would mean participating in humanitarian interventions. Second, Plato would argue that participation in 'just' humanitarian interventions is profitable because "by moderating foes in a friendly spirit" America will engender a cosmopolitan spirit in its citizens that will promote global stability. [6] Third, that Plato would support the idea that participation in 'just' humanitarian interventions is 'profitable' because just wars (or armed interventions) develop in the republic the "spirited part of the soul…so that its presence makes the whole soul fearless and unconquerable."[7] The argument concludes with a brief discussion of how Plato's Republic is relevant to contemporary America.


What is Justice and in What Sense Did Plato Think It Profitable?


“He puts himself in order, is his own friend, and harmonizes the three parts of himself like three limiting notes in a musical scale-high, low, and middle. He binds together those parts and any others there may be in between, and from having been many things he becomes entirely one, moderate and harmonious. Only then does he act. And when he does anything, whether acquiring wealth, taking care of his body, engaging in politics, or in private contracts in all of these he believes that the action is just and fine that preserves this inner harmony and helps achieve it, and calls it so, and regards as wisdom the knowledge that oversees such actions. And he believes that the action that destroys this harmony is unjust, and calls it so, regards the belief that oversees it as ignorance.”

                                                -Republic, Book IV, 443


Plato spent the bulk of the Republic trying out different definitions of justice, and by his own admission, never settled on one. For the purposes of this paper, a ‘just’ person or action is defined in a way that is consistent with Plato’s thoughts on justice throughout the Republic, which is that justice ‘benefits other’. This definition is derived from Socrates' argument in Book I of the Republic that the virtue or craft of ‘justice’ is only capable of making others ‘just.’[8] This idea applied to foreign policy can mean that when a ‘just’ nation is capable of assisting a foreign people in need through humanitarian intervention, that nation will do so.   


            The idea that a ‘just’ nation would participate in humanitarian intervention is certainly a positive interpretation of Plato’s justice, but it is also appropriate because another aspect of platonic justice is the idea that just acts are profitable because they lead to harmony in the soul. For Plato, just action is progress towards the universal ideal, or ‘form’, of perfect virtue, without which man never be truly happy or fulfilled. Achieving happiness or fulfillment through justice, virtue, and wisdom is a central theme in all Platonic philosophy.


In the Republic, Plato founded this idea of human fulfillment through justice on his theory of the ‘tri-partite’ soul. The theory holds that the soul is made up of three parts, each with its own corresponding desire. The appetitive part desires physical pleasures. The spirited part desires honor. The rational part desires reason. Plato conceived ‘justice’ as having a harmonizing effect on a soul or a city because it allows the constructive philosophic desires to moderate the spirited desires and overrule the potentially destructive appetitive desires. It follows that if the appetitive part of the soul, wholly concerned with self-interested behavior, is allowed to flourish, it will eventually dominate the soul and lead to its demise. It follows that Plato would deny a foreign policy based solely on national self-interest.


            Justice, reason, happiness, and fulfillment are therefore inextricably linked for Plato. This is more of an insightful perception and opinion about human nature than a philosophy. This means that Plato's argument is circular in that he says to be ‘just’ is 'profitable' because it makes you 'just.' Not surprisingly, Plato never does expressly prove this argument in the Republic, but the reader cannot resist the power of his philosophic insight into the nature of man. It is certain that Plato really did believe that 'justice' would have more benefits than injustice, and it seems that this idea would lead him to believe that participation in a humanitarian intervention would be a ‘just’ action that would be in concert with his philosophy that a person or nation serves itself well, or profits, when it acts justly.


            The next section leaves the ethereal level of Plato’s conception of justice and ‘profit’ in order to examine what the Republic might offer as more practical evidence of the ‘profitability’ of humanitarian intervention.


Humanitarian Intervention, Global Security, and Cosmopolitanism


             “It seems to me that as we have two names, “war” and “civil war,” so there are two things and the names apply to two kinds of disagreements arising in them. The two things I’m referring to are what is one’s own and akin, on the one hand, and what’s foreign and strange, on the other. The name “civil war” applies to hostilities with one’s own, while “war” applies to hostilities with strangers”

                                                            -The Republic, Book V, 470


            Plato’s Greece was a community of interdependent city-states that as a whole existed in a world of competing powers. These city-states were often at odds as well, but Plato recognized that it was not in Athens’ self interest to completely destroy its neighboring city-states. He even offered rules that should govern warfare between city-states to limit internal lasting damage to the Greeks. He didn’t think these same rules should apply to unrestricted warfare with the ‘barbarians.’ Obviously, Plato didn’t see the fate of the non-Greek nations as affecting the Greeks. This is why Plato is considered at face value to have an isolationist stance on foreign relations, but this guidance was meant for an ancient world. Modern nations have become more interdependent with each passing day.  The integration of a true world economy, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and knowledge that damage to the environment isn’t limited by national borders has insured that no one nation is wholly insulated from the ill fate of another.  Any conflict in the modern world would fit Plato’s definition of “civil war.” Plato’s advice for conduct between the Greek city-states is reinvigorated and made relevant to contemporary debate when applied to the conduct of interdependent 21st century nations with each other. So, whereas in the Republic Plato advised that conduct with nations that are “foreign and strange” be unlimited war, he would today advise “moderating foes with a friendly spirit”[9] (in our case participating in humanitarian intervention), because to not do so will mean that, like the ancient Greeks risked “being enslaved by the barbarians,” we shall be ‘enslaved’ by the barbarians of global economic collapse, nuclear holocaust, and environmental apocalypse. [10]


            Another even less tangible aspect of this advice is the idea that being ‘just’ for Plato means that the people of his Republic will share in a belief that all humans, or at least the philosopher-kings that rule the Republic, share a concern for the common good that springs from a species survival ethic at the bottom end and an acknowledgement that there is a universal ‘form’ of justice that guides their conduct with one another at the high end. Plato’s belief that there exists an ideal ‘form’ of every particular object and concept is integral to his advice that justice is profitable. Plato believes that by acting justly, which is acting in accordance with our ‘highest’ desires guided by reason, helps us discover the true ‘form’ of justice. In this light, Plato would see participation in humanitarian intervention as a way to reinforce the populace’s belief that there exists a collective human purpose as revealed by the ‘form’ of justice, consequently strengthening international cooperation and decreasing the threat of global hostilities. This idea would seem to induce a cosmopolitan attitude amongst the inhabitants of the Republic and make them more loyal to ‘international’ solidarity than to their own state, however, Plato is unequivocal in his acknowledgement that the Republic will always exist in a world of competition for limited resources that limits cross border benevolence and necessitates a need for “defense of the city’s substantial wealth.”[11] This idea of loyalty to the republic while still retaining an attitude of international brotherhood later found expression in American political thought in Thomas Jefferson, who wrote, “My affections were first for my own country, and then, generally, for all mankind.”


Civic Spirit


"Or haven't you noticed just how invincible and unbeatable spirit is, so that its presence makes the whole soul fearless and unconquerable?"

                                                            -Socrates question to Glaucon, Book II


            Plato makes an analogy in the Republic between the three parts of the soul and the three parts of a city. He compares the appetitive part to the moneymakers, the spirited to the guardians, and the rational to the rulers. He goes on to argue that the best state and the best individual will become just in the same way, by “developing the best part of the soul” or state. Plato conceives of the guardians as being the heart of the Republic because they embody the patriotism, selflessness, and military virtues that are necessary for the Republic’s defense and survival. But Plato’s conception of human nature predicates the existence of effective patriotism on belief in a ‘just’ cause. We see evidence of this belief when Plato suggests the invention of a ‘noble falsehood’ to properly motivate the citizens of the Republic.[12]  The ‘noble falsehood’ is a story concocted to convince the citizens of the Republic that they were delivered by divine providence to their land. Plato reasons that if someone attacks their land they will defend it as “their mother and nurse and think of the other citizens as their earthborn brothers.”[13] It is this same need for moral justification to motivate the populace to accomplish national goals that Platonic thought suggests humanitarian intervention would provide. In this vein, when America conducts a just humanitarian intervention in the name of spreading freedom and democracy, patriotism and national unity are increased.


            Plato is right that war has always been a source of patriotic unity, oftentimes even when the purpose was evil or suspect at best. Dictators are particularly astute to this phenomenon, Hussein and Milosevic in recent examples. But the irony of this is that although war in itself is a horrible thing, ‘just’ wars also have the same unifying effect on the populace. As one of America’s most insightful pacifists, Randolph Bourne, said in reference to his opposition to the patriotic fever during WWI, “War is the health of the State…the nation in war-time attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values culminating at the undisputed apex of the State ideal, which could not possibly be produced through any other agency than war.”


            Plato would be pleased with the moral progress of America concerning the use of force; Vietnam forced on us a maturation of our ideas about the permissible purposes for waging war. But Plato’s overarching concern was not that his republic conduct just war, but rather that it maintain its national unity and strength. So if Plato’s republic had progressed to the point where waging a war of aggression was perceived to be a crime, he would think participation in just humanitarian interventions would be an opportune way to combine the powerful effects of creating a noble national purpose and cultivating the spirited part of the state that flourishes during armed conflict.




“There has not been a time like this since the high days of Rome, and even Rome could not claim that final strength. It would be odd if the Americans decided to stroll through this period self-centeredly pursuing their own interests, rather than helping to spread the ideas (freedom and democracy) they did more than anybody else to create. History records an awful lot of missed opportunities, but this would be the most spectacular of them all.”

                                                            -Economist, January 6, 2000


            The preceding passage makes the sobering point that America is currently in a position, whether it sought to be or not, to unilaterally influence the course of humanity for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, while the percentage of American families considered in the upper middle class has risen from one quarter in 1970 to two-fifths today, America still exists in a world where 40, 000 children die each day from malnutrition and disease, 3 billion people live on less than three dollars a day, and the ten wealthiest nations are 72 times as rich as the ten poorest.[14] The gap between rich and poor is increasing daily. Forty years ago the 10 wealthiest nations were only 30 times as rich as the ten poorest.[15] In the coming decades, 90 percent of the world’s population growth is predicted to occur in the cities of the developing world.[16] With this picture in mind, cold war ideas about conventional threats to America’s national security become less relevant than a subtle understanding of the effects of our willingness to be a beneficial member of the world community and promote global prosperity through engagement and intervention. 


            So how are Plato and his Republic relevant to the contemporary debate on American participation in humanitarian intervention? It takes only a shallow reading of Plato’s Republic to discern that many of his ideas about how to govern and conduct foreign policy are hopelessly impractical and oppressive. In many ways Plato can be perceived as the most ruthless realist when it comes to the practical conduct of government in the republic, and this paper has ignored his disregard for the values of the individual. But the real value of the Republic is Plato’s perceptive psychological picture of mankind. Contemporary American society is a largely secular and empirical one that distrusts a foreign policy that pursues intangible goals. The permanence and power of Plato’s argument in the Republic that “justice is more profitable than injustice” should aid us in questioning the value of our foreign policy objectives and re-evaluate what is really in our national self-interest.


[1] Cicero, Tusculan Disputations, (5.108)

[2] United States Constitution, Article I, Section 8

[3] Bob Davis, “Cop of the World? Clinton Pledges U.S. Power Against Ethnic Cleansing, but His Aides Hedge,” The Wall Street Journal, 6August 1999, p. A12.

[4] Ralph Henry Gabriel, The Course of American Democratic Thought (New York: Ronald Press Co., 1940), pg 337.

[5] Plato, Republic (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992) 589b.

[6] Ibid, 471a.

[7] Ibid, 375d.

[8] Ibid, 332c.

[9] Ibid, 471a.

[10] Ibid, 469b-471a.

[11] Ibid, 373e.

[12] Ibid, 414c.

[13] Ibid, 414d.

[14] “Bush’s America,” The Economist, 20 January 2001, p. 25.

[15] “Averting Our Eyes, “ US News and World Reports, 25 Sept 2000.

[16] World Resources 1996-97 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) p. ix.

 [MP1]Insert citation about the development of the best part of the soul from endnote 4