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Myths and Lessons of Liberal Intervention: the British Campaign for the Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade to Brazil

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This article takes issue with recent references to the British nineteenth century campaign for the abolition of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to Brazil that serve to bolster interventionist or imperialist agendas. In particular, such accounts reproduce two and a half myths about the campaign: that it can serve as a model for the present age; that the success of the campaign can be explained through the actions of the intervening party alone (with a corresponding neglect of those of the ‘target’ state); and the half-myth that the campaign’s success was due to military action (at the expense of institutional (legal) and normative factors and the capacity of the target state). I argue instead that this case - and interventions more generally - would benefit from an analysis that considers the role of force in relation to a series of residual institutional and cultural constraints within the liberal state and to political conditions in the target state. In light of the complexities and contingencies that these factors present the underlying lesson is that military force should be used sparingly, if at all.

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