The Humanitarian Empire

Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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10 Responses

  1. Roland Dodds says:

    You folks are pretty quick with the posts around here! I have not been part of earlier conversations on this topic here at the site, so excuse me if I reiterate points made previously.

    You are right E.D., in that interventionism is far from dead. While “neoconservative” has come to mean any position advocating interventionism, many of its critics are quick to realize that the United States still must use its military force overseas, both to protect its tangible interests and defend rights and liberty elsewhere. Francis Fukuyama has Realistic Wilsonianism, Robert Wright says Progressive Realism, John Hulsman argues for Ethical Realism. Some NeoCons have clarified their specific position in the face of recent changes, like Charles Krauthammer and his Democratic Realism. All of these arguments offer a different view of America’s foreign policy, but all of which make the case for interventionism in one form or another.

    I find the isolationist argument Freddie used previously not representative of how intervention has operated throughout history. I recommend a book by Gary Bass titled “Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention.” He reminds us that many nations working for independence have been midwifed by foreign powers; critics of interventionism may wish to believe that national liberation movements achieved their ends without the “meddling” of another force in their affairs, but history tells a different narrative. The very existence of the United States was made possible by foreign European powers intervening in British affairs. Hitchens, reviewing the book wrote, “remember what most people forget: how much international humanitarian intervention the United States had required in order to get that far. Not all of the aid to the fledgling 13 colonies was entirely disinterested — the French monarchy’s revenge for its earlier defeats in North America being an obvious motive.” Freddie argued that interventionism has produced far more failures than successes; a dubious estimation, but one I am willing to accept in this discussion. Even if we grant interventionism will fail more often than it succeeds, have the successful cases justified the application of the principle as a legitimate prospect on the world stage?

    None the less, even the most idealistic interventionist must recognize that over-extension is a reality, and that our ability to maintain long nation building operations will be limited in the coming years. Discussing the failures in Iraq and democracy promotion as a whole is worth having, but don’t fall into the naïve trap of believing the United States (or any world power) can plainly turn away from military intervention abroad.Report

  2. Cascadian says:

    Call me naive. I’d much prefer to lead by example. When all federally mandated programs are fully funded, when trade is balanced and debts have been paid, I’d be willing to re-look at intervention on an extremely limited level.Report

  3. Empire builders have always labored under the (not totally false) belief that they are engaging in a sort of humanitarian venture. You know, civilizing the barbarians and all that jazz. As I said, it’s not 100-percent bunk, but it allows them to ignore or excuse away the massive evils inherent with engineering foreign peoples. “We might have destroyed 1,000 years of traditional culture, but we gave them roads and hospitals!” Maybe it can be worth it, but too often the imperialists, not the imperialized, are the ones who judge whether or not it is.Report

  4. y81 says:

    What president would be stupid enough to undertake a humanitarian intervention? It might take five years to succeed instead of three and thus be a complete failure, marking its initiator as the worst president in American history. I mean, that’s the standard, right?Report

  5. Philip Primeau says:

    “Success seems to be connected to action. Successful people keep moving. They make mistakes, but they don’t quit.” –Conrad Hilton, great grandfather of Paris.

    And, it should be added, a man nearly destroyed by the Depression. He was mere inches from losing everything. But he persevered and went on to accumulate great wealth. It wasn’t luck that got him through the bad times; it wasn’t luck that saw him explode in the good ones, not mostly, at least. It was the power of his mind and spirit and will.Report

  6. E.D. Kain says:

    Philip, that last comment…you sure you’re on the right thread?Report

  7. E.D., dead? No. But in for some pretty vehement skepticism? I think our comment section on the topic bears that out (insofar as it’s a useful barometer at all, and I think it is). And i don’t take that to be an unhealthy thing. Roland is right by my lights that notions of neoconism and interventionism have become fused and need to be untangled. But I think ppl need cathartic time to cleanse their blood of the fusion and get some perspective so that they can reengage the issue of untangling with clearer heads.Report

  8. Phillip, that street goes two ways. We westerners can also romanticize other cultures/regions from afar without really understanding or bothering to ask what the reality on the ground and ppl’s desires are. Isn’t the whole Latin American revolution about attaining a level of prosperity on greater par with North Americans but on their own terms? Do we really believe that some African villages think that clean and running drinking water or adequate and accessible medical care is wholly at odds with their culture? Part f what i was trying to articulate was a process of modernizing that doesn’t necessarily mean the destruction of culture and what role we priviledged might play in helping to bring that process about.Report

  9. E.D. Kain says:

    Roland, the US did indeed need a bit of help from the French and Dutch to get our feet off the ground. Then again, one might argue that the revolution was itself a hastily maneuvered war, that the colonies may have been wiser to work longer and harder at peaceful means of separation. Canada, to my knowledge at least, was able to grow into a healthy, autonomous nation without shedding any blood at all. I’m not passing judgment on the founders by any means, but there is always another option to war. Or at least, there is almost always another option.

    Scott and Roland are both right, however, that there is always more nuance to all of this than meets the eye. I’m not utterly against intervention of the military variety, I just think it requires a great deal sounder reasoning than what I’ve heard so far. Typically humanitarian interventionism is backed by a good deal of emotional response and not a whole lot of complex understanding of the geopolitical/historical realities of the conflict. That’s a problem.

    Now, should we as wealthy nations do more to aid those in the developing world, and is there a place for us to do our best to help oppressed people the globe over find a better way to live? Sure. Certainly. But military means almost always make those efforts worse.

    Do you imagine the French would have helped us if the situation had been different? If say we’d been an African tribe battling it out with a couple other tribes over the false borders constricting us all to a superficially shared nation-state? Probably not. The fact is, our rebellion was in fact a pretty straightforward conflict. And the French had a very real, very immediate interest in aiding us against their enemies, the British. There is simply no parallel whatsoever to the Iraq debacle or to hypothetical interventions in Darfur or Zimbabwe or Burma etc. etc. etc.Report

  10. Philip Primeau says:

    Yeah, in my anti-Freddie rage last night, I accidentally (that word…) posted the Conrad Hilton bit here. Oops.Report