Mini Teaser: David Rieff's frustrations show in his effort to make sense of post-Cold War humanitarianism.

by Author(s): Alan J. Kuperman

There is some truth in this analysis, but there is nothing new about it. Scholars such as Richard K. Betts and the late Myron Weiner, and practitioners including Mary Anderson, John Prendergast and most eloquently Alexander de Waal, have long since laid out the dilemmas of humanitarian intervention. We have known for many years that humanitarian intervention is never politically neutral in the context of war, because food and medicine help not only civilians but also combatants. Thus, Rieff's holy grail--politically neutral humanitarianism--is a kind of intellectual unicorn: alluring and beautiful, but nonexistent.

Partly as a result of its shaky logical foundation, A Bed for the Night suffers from numerous flaws of argumentation, and the reader must suffer along with them. Perhaps most important, despite implying throughout that something is very broken in the current state of humanitarianism, Rieff never offers a solution as to how to fix it, or even what the goal of remedial action should be. He criticizes humanitarian organizations both for engaging too much in politics and not enough. For example, after tarring American organizations as pawns of their government's anti-totalitarian efforts during the Cold War, and European organizations as distorted by their promotion of socialism and human rights, it seems that Rieff is about to argue for a return to pure humanitarianism. But instead, the organization that most rouses his ire is the ICRC, precisely because it practiced pure humanitarianism during World War II. When Red Cross workers discovered evidence of the Holocaust in progress, they deliberately hid it from the outside world on the grounds that divulging it would be a political act that could endanger their humanitarian activities. For Rieff, this is a mark of shame that the ICRC can never live down. But what it really shows is the moral failing of the pure humanitarianism that Rieff spends the rest of the book advocating.

Rieff never resolves this contradiction. The best he can offer is simply an assertion that the ultimate solution lies in addressing the root causes of internal conflict, such as inequality and lack of economic development. Accordingly, he calls for the West to increase substantially its overseas development assistance. But, as he himself acknowledges, "development aid has largely been a failure." Thus does one fundamental tension between analysis and prescription beget another.

Nor is it clear why Rieff has chosen the present moment to sound the death knell for humanitarianism. The West now spends more money to care for more people in need than ever before. The essential cosmopolitan humanitarian ideal--the belief that all people everywhere, regardless of their social or political differences from each other, are entitled to compassion and the fulfillment of their basic human needs--has moved from utopian fantasy to an embedded political norm. The right of humanitarian intervention, a radical break from three centuries of international relations, is now taken so much for granted that political debate now focuses on whether there is a responsibility to carry out such intervention. Remarkably, this is the context for Rieff's declaration that humanitarianism is dead.

It isn't dead, not least because Rieff exaggerates the extent to which humanitarian organizations have become pawns of governments. These groups do embrace government contracts where they can get them, usually in the high-profile emergencies that are also the ones pursued by Rieff and his media colleagues. But NGO coordination with governments and militaries in complex emergencies actually enhances the delivery of relief aid. These relief organizations also still perform vital work in dozens of lower profile cases, where they neither benefit significantly from nor are distorted much by Western governmental largesse and oversight. If Rieff is saying that such small efforts pale in significance to the higher-profile government-funded cases, then it is he, rather than any organization, that has strayed from the humanitarian ideal.

Nor is human rights advocacy contrary to humanitarianism. Who can deny that the primary causes of humanitarian emergencies are rapacious and incompetent governments that are unable or unwilling to protect their peoples' human rights? Since Rieff himself acknowledges that "most humanitarian emergencies have their origins in human rights abuses", it is frankly hard to understand his insistence that the two be decoupled. Admittedly, the promotion of human rights is no panacea, and can give rise to unintended consequences when carried out naively. But some form of such advocacy is unquestionably part of the long-term solution to alleviating human suffering. The challenge is how best to integrate humanitarian, human rights and traditional national interest objectives--not to pick between them as if they were mutually exclusive.

At least as worrisome as the things Rieff gets wrong are the things he doesn't get at all. Among these, three stand out: the erosion of the norm of sovereignty, the logistical obstacles to effective humanitarian intervention, and the emerging challenge of moral hazard.

The norm of sovereignty persisted, after an admittedly shaky start, for over three centuries following its creation in the Treaty of Westphalia. During the past decade, however, it has been all but abandoned in the name of humanitarian intervention, with alarmingly little thought given to the unintended consequences. Supporters of this trend argue seductively that saving innocents from slaughter is more important than preserving a vestige of absolute monarchical rule. However, it is crucial to recall the historical logic in which the sovereignty norm arose. After decades of savage religious struggles, culminating in the carnage of the Thirty Years War, European statesmen realized that their pre-existing norm--waging war because one state did not like the domestic nature (usually the religion) of another--was a recipe for perpetual conflict. To avoid this fate, they agreed to reserve casus belli, the legitimate grounds for war, to the external actions of states. While this norm was sometimes breached over the centuries, it indisputably served as a brake on ideological wars.

To replace Westphalia, humanitarian interventionists have proposed the concept of "sovereignty as responsibility." States must earn the privilege of sovereignty by safeguarding their peoples' basic human rights; if they fail to do so, they surrender sovereignty to other states that may intervene militarily to restore those rights. The appeal of this notion is obvious but its practical utility is far less so, not least because states and societies do not agree on what comprises basic human rights. Do they include the right of women not to wear a burka and not to be subject to female circumcision? In some places those are basic rights, but in others they would violate local norms. Thus, the warm and fuzzy notion of "sovereignty as responsibility" reveals itself as a radical departure that would eviscerate Westphalia and raise the prospect of a widespread return to religious or ideological wars.

To his credit, Rieff warns that "any decision to be consistent" about using military force to impose human rights norms "would commit the world to war without end." However, he then bemoans the fact that Western states lack the moral courage to join this "utopian" battle. This is astonishing. No reasonable person can be cheered by the prospect of perpetual ideological war--except perhaps Osama bin Laden. Yet Rieff apparently wishes the West would take up the gauntlet.

Rieff also omits all consideration of the practical obstacles to military intervention, factors that can inhibit effective intervention even when the political will for such efforts exists. Three such obstacles stand out: the startling speed at which atrocities can be carried out, the relatively slow pace with which intervention forces can be deployed to distant theaters, and the difficulty governments have acting upon advance warning while avoiding unacceptably high false-alarm rates. For example, in Rwanda, most of the 1994 genocide was perpetrated during its first three weeks. It took two of these three weeks for the West to figure out what was going on, and even if the political will for intervention had existed (which it did not), airlifting a sufficient force would have required more than a month, too late to prevent most of the killing.

Although the West had ample warning that something bad might happen at some point in both Rwanda and Kosovo, no one knew for sure if, what or when it might happen--or whether something even worse might happen first in Burundi, Macedonia or some other hot spot. In other words, as with Pearl Harbor or September 11, advance warning becomes obvious only in retrospect. It is of little use for Rieff and other critics to bemoan the absence of political will for humanitarian intervention without also addressing these devilish details about how we can actually carry out such intervention effectively.

Finally, although Rieff uses the term "moral hazard" twice in the book, it is not evident that he really understands what it means. Put simply, moral hazard is when efforts to ensure against risk inadvertently promote risk-taking behavior. For example, the U.S. government provides insurance to protect depositors against the risk of bank failure; but as a result depositors don't much care which insured bank they put their money in, so they wind up putting it in riskier banks than they otherwise might. Analogously, the "moral hazard of humanitarian intervention" signifies a situation in which international efforts to ensure people against genocide and ethnic cleansing inadvertently trigger these very atrocities.

Essay Types: Essay