King's College London

Research portal

Agonising choices: Tragedy and International Relations – a tragic vision of humanitarian intervention in the Bosnian War

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Catherine Offelen, M. L. R. Smith

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)495-513
Number of pages19
JournalReview of International Studies
Issue number4
Early online date29 Apr 2020
Accepted/In press20 Apr 2020
E-pub ahead of print29 Apr 2020
Published1 Oct 2020

King's Authors


Tragedy is one of the oldest metaphorical lenses of International Relations. The tragic vision of politics, from Thucydides to contemporary realist theorists, lies at the core of classical realism. However, it is striking how rarely the concept of tragedy has been applied to the discourse of humanitarian intervention. This lacuna is a weakness on both the intellectual and political levels, as nowhere are clashes between competing ethical perspectives more glaring. An examination of the concept of tragedy, as conceived from its Greek origins, can illuminate an understanding of the morally contradictory imperatives created by armed intervention. Using the Bosnian War as a case study, Greek classical tragedy provides a framework to grasp the agonising choices and insoluble ethical dilemmas brought about by humanitarian intervention, in contrast to mere narratives of salvation. The argument conveyed in this article seeks to reconcile a tragic vision with the idea of progress and political action. It concludes by suggesting that the fundamental lessons that lie at the heart of tragedy should be associated with another major concept in Greek culture, namely, the Aristotelian idea of phronesis or 'practical wisdom'.

View graph of relations

© 2020 King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS | England | United Kingdom | Tel +44 (0)20 7836 5454