Conceit of Humanitarianism

Conceit of Humanitarianism December 1, 2015

You get the gist of Rajan Menon’s argument from the title of his forthcoming book: The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention.

The position he opposes is based on the assumption that the end of the Cold War fundamentally altered geopolitical conditions, and that our contemporary interconnected world is converging toward a new notion of sovereignty in which nations are legitimated not by power but by their conformity to international norms. Menon admits that realism doesn’t solve all our problems, but he thinks it “keeps us honest, restrains us from flights of fancy, and makes us face up to the tragic element in politics.”

The evidence that there is not an emerging consensus is fairly straightforward. Many of the most humanitarian-oriented countries have a hard time convincing their citizens to let their sons and daughters die on the other side of the world for strangers. He observes that interventions can backfire, as when the Serbs stepped up their slaughter after NATO bombings started, knowing their time was short. And unintended consequences abound in stateless carnivals like Libya. He delves into the Enlightenment optimism that fueled the rise of humanitarian international thought, and still fuels it. He complains about the simplistic moral certainty displayed by advocates of humanitarian interventions.

 More theoretically, Menon points out that humanitarian foreign policy will never be detached from considerations of interest and power. And one of the interests is to keep the powerful countries powerful: “there is little agreement on how to deliver aid to poor countries, in what measure, and when. Who knows exactly how far the obligations of rich states extend? The central claim of intervention proponents—the worldwide spread of universal norms and their acceptance by the international community—therefore amounts to little more than a conceit. Much of the world fears and suspects that the effort to legitimate humanitarian intervention by means of supposedly universal norms is designed to camouflage the pursuit of power by the powerful.”

He also cites a more specific factor: Russia. The NATO intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo (late as it was) is cited as an example of what the new consensus can achieve. But that intervention was possible, Menon argues, because of “Russia’s freefall”: “Russia opposed both interventions, but at the time the country was dependent on Western economic assistance. NATO probably would not have gotten involved had Moscow’s opposition been backed by commensurate power.”

For those who haven’t been paying attention, Russia is no longer in freefall, and that changes the dynamics everywhere (because Russia has veto power on the UN Security Council) but especially in Syria: “That Russian capitulation enabled a flourishing of seemingly humanitarian outreach in the 1990s becomes that much clearer in light of that country’s recent opposition to today’s calamity in Syria. Russian backing of President Bashar al-Assad has stymied intervention. Along with China, Russia has thwarted any UN resolution that would legitimize foreign military involvement. They learned their lesson in Libya. Neither country opposed Security Council Resolution 1973, which authorized military action to protect Libyan civilians, but they complained bitterly, even before the mission had ended, that “regime change” was afoot and had never been part of the mandate. They became determined not to allow a repeat performance in Syria and have acted accordingly. What’s more, along with Iran, Russia has aided Assad with weapons and advisors. This makes Syria a more formidable adversary than Libya or Serbia, one reason why NATO has been unwilling to intervene and why there has been no serious talk of a ‘coalition of the willing’ or a ‘league of democracies’ acting in its place.”


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