In a pair of recent papers, Allen Buchanan has outlined an ambitious account of the ethics of revolution and its implications for military intervention. Buchanan’s account is bold and yet sophisticated. It is bold in that it advances a number of theses that will no doubt strike the reader as highly controversial; it is sophisticated in that it rests on a nuanced account of how revolutions unfold and the constraints that political self-determination places on intervention. He argues that, despite the importance of political self-determination, humanitarian intervention may be permissible without the consent of the rebelling population. Indeed, given certain structural features of revolutions, there are often reasons to disregard the consent of the population oppressed and intervene before the revolution starts. More controversially, he argues that military force may be employed to nullify the democratic constitutional choice of the newly liberated population and impose a particular form of democratic government, if this is necessary to guarantee the conditions for the future exercise of self-determination. In this paper, I further elaborate Buchanan’s account of political self-determination and argue that once correctly understood, it places tighter constraints on intervention than Buchanan allows. Thus, his bold conclusions should be resisted.
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