The Syndrome of Humanitarian Interventionism

The following is an extract from my chapter, “Imperial Abduction Lore and Humanitarian Seduction,” which serves as the introduction to Good Intentions: Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism (Montreal: Alert Press, 2014), pp. 1-34:

The dominant ideology of US-led globalization since September 11, 2001, is one that configures society as existing in a state of emergency—one that constructs exceptional circumstances, where exceptional rules and exceptional self-representations prevail. A defining feature of this post-9/11 orientation is therefore one that frames perceptions or constructions of global disorder in terms of emergency and threats to security. As in the case of the pre-9/11 “neocon” classic, Robert Kaplan’s “The Coming Anarchy” (1994/2), the ideological expressions of the state of exception as a normative framework for constructing practical action, gained not just currency but authority. In this framework, other people—especially in Africa—are problems. They are an immediate “threat” to themselves, and an eventual threat to “us”. As Kaplan (1994/2) put it:

“West Africa is becoming the symbol of worldwide demographic, environmental, and societal stress, in which criminal anarchy emerges as the real ‘strategic’ danger….West Africa provides an appropriate introduction to the issues, often extremely unpleasant to discuss, that will soon confront our civilization”.

The “crisis” in West Africa, the causes of which Kaplan essentially sees as inherent to West Africa itself, is not just a mortal threat to West Africans, it is a security threat. Repeatedly Kaplan frames these issues in his essay in terms of “national security,” the “core foreign-policy challenge” and the “strategic impact” of these African problems for the US. Here again we see the power of belief in holding at bay any acknowledgment of self-contradiction: if problems for the US can come from abroad, why is the same not true for West Africa? How is Kaplan’s West African crisis sui generis, while any eventual crisis for the US is always of exogenous provenance? It is a very useful belief if anything: it preserves American exceptionalism by positing the innate inferiority of other societies. Moreover, it casts Americans as innocent and self-sufficient, and foreigners as menacing and dependent.

It follows logically that if these others are the problem—and a problem for us ultimately—then we must be the solution. Constructing other people’s situations as problems, and the West as the source of solutions, has meant (a) the fusion of the military and humanitarian into a single form of governance (Fassin & Pandolfi, 2010, p. 10), and (b) a situation where we in the West renew our former colonial right to intervene against militarily and economically weaker states, now dubbed “failed states” (Helman & Ratner, 1992–1993; Gordon, 1997). In this process, both the sovereignty and self-determination of the formerly colonized, limited as they have been by the persistent realities of neocolonialism, have been challenged, eroded and deliberately undermined. The ideal way to justify this new wave of Western interventions since the end of the Cold War has been “humanitarianism”. Ideal, because this mode of justification can, (a) simultaneously pay some respect to international law (by revitalizing international law’s colonial roots and making renewed use of the trusteeship model); (b) immobilize potential critics at home, lest they be accused of not wanting to “help” others and “save lives”; and, (c) using the language of salvation and freedom out of necessary recognition that the residue of the world’s anti-colonial struggles of the 1960s would not tolerate an outright return to blunt statements of the West’s “civilizing mission” (Mooers, 2006, p. 2).

Consequently, the narrative and practice of “humanitarianism” can serve as a new (possibly preemptive) counterinsurgency, on both the domestic and global levels, that seek to neutralize critiques, limit the range of acceptable options, build new civilian-military coalitions, overthrow noncompliant governments, and thus delay the decline of Western hegemony. Humanitarianism may thus be very much a sign of a late imperialism.

While humanitarian notions of some sort have been expressed by almost every modern empire, off and on throughout the course of a given empire’s existence, one should note however that the last two global hegemons, the UK and the US, both heightened the “humanitarian” ethos in the final decades of their imperial dominance. Why? There are a number of possible reasons. One is to shift the cost burden to a wider array of partners recruited by the politics of humanitarianism, partners both local and international, whether sovereign or among the collaborator class of the colonized, in order to preserve the expanse of empire while trying to manage its increasingly unaffordable costs. Also trying to ward off rising challengers is common to both the UK and US examples. “Everyone to the frontlines” might be the rallying call at this stage of increasing desperation—and one way to rope in everyone is to appeal to intimate values and emtions. Another is the attempt to minimize the costs of resistance by attempting to “win hearts and minds”—“we,” after all, are undertaking all this trouble and expense just for “your” welfare. Such a narrative is possibly more successful at home than anywhere else: witness the countless right-wing media pundits in the US who speak as if they sincerely believe that US military forces launch expeditions primarily to help others—invasion as a form of charity. Another reason for the humanitarian turn may be the legacy factor, a last-ditch effort to rewrite history to preserve at least the symbolic capital of exceptionalism, to be converted into political capital as post-imperial leadership entitlements (as with the UK, sitting on the UN Security Council, and Queen Elizabeth II formally leading the Commonwealth of Nations).

Of great assistance in spreading the burden of “humanitarian intervention,” while simultaneously working to roll back the state, is the ever-expanding complex of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), whose number worldwide is perhaps several million. Western NGOs, and especially those in receipt of government funding and whose work abroad meets with the approval of the US and/or the EU, have been instrumental in promoting top-down solutions that strengthen “civil society” at the expense of states in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean….to be continued


Fassin, D., & Pandolfi, M. (2010). Introduction: Military and Humanitarian Government in the Age of Intervention. In D. Fassin & M. Pandolfi (Eds.), Contemporary States of Emergency: The Politics of Military and Humanitarian Interventions (pp. 9–25). New York, NY: Zone Books.

Gordon, R. (1997). Saving Failed States: Sometimes a Neocolonialist Notion. American University International Law Review, 12(6), 904–974.

Helman, G. B., & Ratner, S. R. (1992–1993). Saving Failed States. Foreign Policy, 89, 3–20.

Kaplan, R. D. (1994/2). The Coming Anarchy: How Scarcity, Crime, Overpopulation, Tribalism, and Disease Are Rapidly Destroying the Social Fabric of Our Planet. The Atlantic.

Mooers, C. (2006). Introduction: The New Watchdogs. In C. Mooers (Ed.), The New Imperialists: Ideologies of Empire (pp. 1–8). Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications.


Norms and Practices of Imperial Humanitarianism

Edited by Maximilian C. Forte

Montreal, QC: Alert Press, 2014

Hard Cover ISBN 978-0-9868021-5-7
Paperback ISBN 978-0-9868021-4-0