A Question of Intervention: American Policymaking in Sierra Leone and the Power of Institutional Agenda Setting

by Christopher R. Cook

Abstract

This article is an examination of American foreign policy towards Sierra Leone in 1999 and 2000. Hopefully it will contribute to the literature of Sierra Leone while shedding theoretical light on types of humanitarian intervention. It seeks to answer two questions about American policy: First, why did the Clinton White House become involved in this particular West African civil war? Secondly, what factors led the U.S. to give financial and logistical help but not military aid? These types of limited interventions have usually been ignored by American foreign policy scholars. To understand Sierra Leonean decision making, it examines four key policy decisions using primary interviews with Clinton officials and looking at internal documents from the White House, Defense and State Departments. I contend that a theory of international institutional agenda setting can best describe American policy. This argument explores how constructivist norms (i.e. human rights and sovereignty) are transmitted, magnified or mitigated by international institutions. By bringing neo-liberal institutional literature back into constructivism we can show how ‘institutional identity’ influences and shapes state policy preferences– not only in decisions to intervene but in shaping the size and scope of UN peacekeeping mandates.

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Christopher R. Cook is an assistant professor of political science in Pennsylvania State University at Erie (The Behrend College), whose research focuses on American foreign policy and humanitarian intervention. His current interests involve American support for the intervention of other nations and international organizations to stop gross human rights abuses and dealing with complex human emergencies.

Acknowledgement: The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their suggestions; particularly the link between constructivism and liberal institutionalism.