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The Wrong Moral Revolution: On Michael Barnett | The Nation

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The Wrong Moral Revolution: On Michael Barnett

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Whatever can be said for and against Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism, Michael Barnett’s diligent and impassioned but also, to my mind, ultimately incoherent and, worse, analytically wrongheaded history of modern humanitarianism, it does not lack for what Barnett himself calls “immodest goals.” This immodesty is not restricted to an author making outsized claims for the originality of his perspective and the unmatched depth of his understanding of the history, current practice and moral significance of humanitarian action, even if these repeated gusts of self-congratulation, which are the leitmotif of the book’s introduction and which begin to blow hard again in its concluding chapter, are highly off-putting in and of themselves. Far more serious—for here donnish self-promotion swells into hubris—are the outsized claims Barnett makes not for himself but for his subject. “Humanitarianism’s history,” he writes, “is modern international history—and its future.”

Empire of Humanity
A History of Humanitarianism.
By Michael Barnett.
Buy this book.

About the Author

David Rieff
David Rieff, a New York–based journalist, is the author of eight books. He is working on a book about the global...

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If Barnett really means this, the only charitable explanation I can come up with is that he fell so deeply in love with his subject during the writing of the book (he declares as much in his acknowledgments) that he cannot help seeing humanitarianism as central to international politics, not only when this has been the case—during the Bosnian War between 1992 and 1995, for example, or in Somalia today—but even in the many cases when, for all the attention paid to it, humanitarianism has played either a subaltern if significant role, as in Darfur, or a marginal one, as was the case, despite the hype suggesting otherwise, in Kosovo in 1999. In this, Barnett’s approach is reminiscent of the old Jewish joke about the Englishman, the Frenchman and the Jew who go to Africa to look at elephants and who, upon their return home, each write a book. The Englishman’s book is called The Migratory Patterns of Elephants; the Frenchman’s is The Love Life of the Elephant; the book the Jew decides to write is titled The Elephant and the Jewish Question. What Barnett does not seem to realize is that to see humanitarianism everywhere is not to see it at all.

The problem is not that Barnett presents humanitarianism’s history in isolation or that he ignores the social and historical contexts in which humanitarianism has operated since the days of the European colonial empires, which was when, he argues (correctly, in my view), the new Western ideology of humanitarianism came to play an increasingly central role in politics, both for better and for worse. To the contrary, he emphasizes humanitarianism’s plurality, from the missionary movement that was at the core of what we would now call humanitarian relief and development work in the nineteenth century, to the humanitarianism of today, anchored in the liberal idealism of a global order organized around the United Nations system, economic globalization and an idealistic vision of what Barnett calls, without irony albeit with reservations, the international community.

Empire of Humanity starts from two premises: one historical, empirical and taxonomic, the other philosophical, prescriptive and highly speculative. Barnett identifies three distinct ages of humanitarianism: “an imperial humanitarianism, from the early nineteenth century through World War II; a neo-humanitarianism, from World War II through the end of the cold war; and a liberal humanitarianism, from the end of the cold war to the present.” This classification is indisputable, if not quite as original to his argument as he implies. To his credit, he presents all three periods as morally complex, pointing out with considerable nuance and sophistication what he calls humanitarianism’s “cross-cutting trends”—even if, too often, the questions he asks (such as whether humanitarianism is defined “by the humanization of politics or the politicization of ethics” or whether it helps “emancipate the world’s forlorn or contain them”) lead him to take a grandiose view of his subject’s scope. “Yes. Humanitarianism is all these things and contains all these possibilities,” he writes. When Walt Whitman said “I am large, I contain multitudes,” with the acknowledgement, “Very well then I contradict myself,” he was making an interesting psychological claim. But for Barnett to make a similar claim the basis of his default explanation about the nature of humanitarian action is less than illuminating either as history or as philosophy.

* * *

When he stays focused on specific cases—on what humanitarian action in its three major historical iterations accomplished; what it failed to accomplish; and at what price, both ethically and politically—Barnett does make the serious contribution to the discussion on humanitarianism that he claims Empire of Humanity to be. Barnett was well placed to write such a book. An earlier book, Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda (2002), was a powerful and judicious account of the world organization’s failure there. (Barnett was a fellow at the US Mission to the UN when the Rwanda genocide occurred in 1994.) He has also written well on nonhumanitarian international institutions in the broader context of contemporary global politics. There was nothing Pollyannaish about these earlier efforts. As Barnett describes it, his work had in part been an exploration of “why and how good international organizations go bad.” As a result, while writing Empire of Humanity he could draw on not only his knowledge of the history of humanitarianism but also his grasp of the contemporary humanitarian scene, above all the world of private voluntary groups like Oxfam, Catholic Relief Services and Doctors Without Borders (known by its French acronym MSF, for Médecins Sans Frontières). It is hardly surprising that the strongest sections of the book are where Barnett the historian has the floor, and where his elucidations of the paradoxes of humanitarianism have real value rather than seeming, as they too often do elsewhere, like riffs on the “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” passage with which Dickens began A Tale of Two Cities.

When, for example, Barnett emphasizes that the dilemmas of humanitarianism commonly assumed, even by many relief groups, to have arisen for the first time in the 1990s—that is, in the aftermath of the cold war—were actually present from humanitarianism’s nineteenth-century beginning, he offers a valuable corrective to humanitarianism’s in-house narrative of a paradise lost. The current president of the French section of MSF, Marie-Pierre Allié, makes a similar point in her introduction to a collection of essays the group is about to publish in Britain, Humanitarian Negotiations Revealed (full disclosure: I have written the afterword to the book). Allié writes dismissively of the common view within the humanitarian world of a “golden age” when humanitarian actors supposedly occupied what one report called “a special position on the international political chessboard, within a privileged space, untroubled by geostrategic and political considerations of governments.”

If anything, on this point at least, Barnett is even more severe. “Humanitarianism,” he writes, “presents itself as living in a world of ethics, constantly battling the forces of evil and indifference.” In reality, humanitarians often act as if they can have it both ways, as Barnett puts it, complaining about politics and states “encroaching on their turf” even though they “have always defined their turf in political terms.” At the same time, though “highly sensitive to the power that states have over them,” humanitarians “have been amazingly insensitive to the power they have over those they want to help.” These remarks help frame Barnett’s discussion of the role of paternalism in humanitarianism historically (it was central to the humanitarianism of the nineteenth-century British and French empires) and in its changed but nonetheless still powerful contemporary forms. These sections are among the strongest in Empire of Humanity. Barnett also offers a series of important historical correctives to the conventional humanitarian wisdom, such as that impartiality, neutrality and independence, now thought of as the key principles of any coherent humanitarian action, were not “part of humanitarianism’s original DNA.” Rather, he writes, “they had fallen into place over decades of action and debate,” not even becoming part of the code of conduct of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the organization with which these ideas are most closely associated, until the 1960s.

* * *

Such solid analysis and careful parsing show to good effect what Barnett is capable of when he steps down from his rhetorical plinth. What is so frustrating is that this Barnett, the discerning chronicler and analyst of key ideological dynamics of humanitarian practice, has no sooner taken the floor than, seemingly out of nowhere, Barnett the moral philosopher, or Barnett the ethicist—that is, the Barnett of the book’s second set of premises—lumbers up to the podium. The contrast could not be more stark, or more unhappy. For all his gifts as a historian and analyst of the international system, Barnett simply has no gift for philosophical speculation. As for his ethical views, the most charitable thing one can say about them is that they are, well, eccentric, rather like George Bernard Shaw’s vegetarianism. But whereas one does not have to share Shaw’s horror at eating meat to appreciate Major Barbara or Androcles and the Lion, to be persuaded by Empire of Humanity one really must share Barnett’s intensely mystical vision of humanitarianism’s historical significance, not to mention his repeated insistence on the transcendental quality of what not only relief NGOs but individual relief workers do.

This would seem to be an awfully abstract justification for an activity that, first and foremost, is involved with providing medical aid, delivering water and improving sanitation or—particularly in the case of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), on which Barnett writes at length—offering refugee protection and, where possible, either eventual repatriation or resettlement in third countries; and, on the less emergency-driven and more development side of the humanitarian “house,” reconstruction, livelihoods and long-term development. And yet, early in his book, Barnett writes, “I can no more imagine a theory of humanitarianism than I can a theory of human rights, or of war and peace, or of global capitalism,” adding that while he has tried to develop a broad framework for thinking about the dynamics of humanitarianism, “frameworks are not theories.” The word “imagine” is a peculiar one to have chosen. What does he think Marx, whom he discusses in the book, and Schumpeter, whom he does not mention but whose concept of “creative destruction” he appropriates, were doing if not theorizing? Whether he knows it or not, Barnett has written a book that is top-heavy with theory—above all, a theory about the moral significance of humanitarianism in the context of what he calls the “revolution in moral sentiments and the emergence of a culture of compassion [that has been] one of the great unheralded developments of the past three centuries.”

To a large extent, Barnett is reprising an argument whose most eloquent and nuanced exponent has been Michael Ignatieff, who has argued that a global “revolution of moral concern” has taken place since the end of World War II. This revolution’s founding text is the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was largely drafted by another distinguished Canadian, the great legal scholar John Peters Humphrey, and by the French jurist Rene Cassin. It was adopted in 1948 and ratified in 1976 by a sufficient number of nations to lead many (though by no means all) legal scholars to conclude that, though it is a declaration and not a treaty, it has acquired the force of international law binding on all nations. What the Universal Declaration does is set out the minimum for the political and cultural rights and the economic and social rights to which all humans are entitled. Most historians believe that the ascension of human rights to moral centrality that began in 1945 was the victory of an old idea—arguably as old as St. Paul’s revolutionary suggestion that people are spiritually equal, without which modern ideas of political and social equality are inconceivable. But even those who, like the American scholar Samuel Moyn, view human rights as a more recent development—or, for that matter, are skeptical of the human rights project itself—accept both the radicalism and the centrality of the Universal Declaration.

For Barnett, however, it is humanitarianism and not human rights that belongs at the center of this revolution of moral concern, or, as he puts it, “the ascendance of a humanitarian governance dedicated to humanity’s highest moral principle [italics mine]—the alleviation of human suffering.” In the first of his two 2000 Tanner lectures, “Human Rights as Politics,” Ignatieff argued that “all human rights activism in the modern world traces its origins back to the campaign to abolish the slave-trade and then slavery itself.” Barnett also makes the British antislavery movement of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the fons et origo of humanitarianism. He even includes that movement’s leader, William Wilberforce, in a list of great humanitarian leaders that otherwise consists of men and women more conventionally associated with humanitarian relief, among them Henry Dunant, creator of the Red Cross movement; Eglantyne Jebb, founder of the British charity Save the Children; and modern humanitarian notables like Bob Pierce of World Vision International and Bernard Kouchner of the early incarnation of MSF. All these “moral visionaries,” as Barnett calls them, helped humanitarianism become “nothing less than a revolution in the ethics of care.”

* * *

These are very strong claims to make for humanitarianism as a discrete enterprise. Over the course of Empire of Humanity, Barnett sometimes seems absolutely married to the point and sometimes willing to present his arguments less categorically. But he is adamant that to understand humanitarianism properly is to understand its moral centrality. As he puts it, “The best expression of humanity is the desire to help those in need, regardless of their place or face.” Barnett’s moralism is at the heart of his argument. He is far too knowledgeable to believe that humanitarianism is a more important economic, social or political phenomenon than, say, economic globalization, whose interaction with humanitarianism he discusses ably and at some length. Nor is he arguing that humanitarianism has had more practical effect than what he calls its “more famous cousin, human rights.” Instead, Barnett’s justification for setting humanitarianism above human rights as an ethical project is its reliance on “a discourse of needs” and on “moral codes and sentiments,” instead of the “legal discourse and frameworks” that underpin the global human rights movement.

It is by no means clear what the analytic or ethical value of setting up such a hierarchy of values could be or why Barnett is so attached to it. Like most such undertakings, it involves exaggerating the virtues of the movement one is championing and oversimplifying and downplaying those of the movement one is endeavoring to relegate to also-ran status. I have been harshly critical of the human rights movement over the years. Leaving aside my distaste for, fear of and opposition to all utopian projects, whether of the left or the right, it seems to me self-evident that the human rights movement is in reality a political ideology with a profound, indeed a revolutionary, social agenda, whose hypocrisy consists in denying that it is anything of the kind and in wrapping itself in the supposedly nonpolitical garb of international law and the pretense that law and morality cannot stand in opposition to each other. But faced with Barnett’s absurd suggestion that human rights does not offer a powerful moral vision of the world, a moral code every bit the equal of that offered by humanitarianism, I find myself unable not to rise to its defense.

As it is, Barnett’s account of the humanitarian ethos is incoherent and self-contradicting. When all is said and done, he wants to have it both ways. He argues that “human rights and humanitarianism should not be conflated.” Further, in contrasting humanitarian action and human rights activism, Barnett makes a conventional point practitioners of both activities would endorse: that “human rights typically focuses on the long-term goal of eliminating the causes of suffering, humanitarianism on the urgent goal of keeping people alive.” This should have led Barnett to ask himself why an enterprise dedicated to relieving suffering once and for all (whether the human rights movement succeeds in this is a separate question) is really less an exemplar of his “revolution in the ethics of care” than one that keeps people alive in the here and now. As Barnett knows perfectly well and chronicles ably in Empire of Humanity, the frustration of many relief workers and their organizations about being unable to do more than provide what I called in my own book on humanitarianism “a bed for the night”—along with their ambition to provide lasting solutions in the places where they work, in the process transforming “social, political, economic, and cultural relations so that individuals can lead more productive, healthy, and dignified lives”—has led many of them to embrace politics. Barnett even has a name for this, calling it “alchemical” humanitarianism and associating it with groups like CARE and Oxfam, in opposition to the “emergency” humanitarianism championed by the ICRC and MSF, which seeks, with varying degrees of success, to keep both politics and millenarian social projects at as far a remove as possible from its operations.

Barnett leaves little doubt about which side of the divide he stands on. But even within the context of the “alchemical” position, his views are extreme. Humanitarianism, he writes, represents “the recognition of our shared humanity through the common experience of suffering that breaks down barriers and creates bonds of community.” Such unabashedly prophetic language is likely to worry even the most fervent supporters of the alchemical interpretation of the humanitarian enterprise, never mind those who sympathize with the “emergency” views of MSF or ICRC. As for individual aid workers, I find it difficult to imagine those I have known—men and women for whom, whatever their philosophy of aid, such institutional self-aggrandizement or moral preening is beyond the pale, and who would mock unmercifully any of their number who indulged in it—not becoming queasy with embarrassment were they to encounter Barnett’s delirious suggestion that their “acts of compassion lift” relief workers (or “givers,” in his mystical phraseology) “toward the sacred.”

* * *

Barnett does not seem to realize just how far out on a metaphysical limb he has shimmied. He does concede that, “ultimately, humanitarianism is a pragmatic activity. It might look to the transcendental, but its work is on the ground.” But even this concession comes in the context of the argument with which Barnett concludes, and which he labels “Faith-Based Humanitarianism.” To be clear, he is not referring to the particular ethos and practice of those relief agencies affiliated with churches—that is, faith-based NGOs like Catholic Relief Services and the evangelical group World Vision International—nor does he distinguish them from the deontologies of secular groups like Oxfam and MSF. To the contrary, his claim is categorical and, where humanitarianism is concerned, all-encompassing. “Humanitarianism,” he writes, “begins and ends with faith, it sustains and is sustained by faith.” He does make it clear that he is not speaking of what he rather touchingly calls “faith associated with religion.” Instead, he insists, “faith is more than religion, faith is a belief in the transcendental.” Religion, he concedes, entails such a belief, but so do movements that “aspire to spread ‘human flourishing.’”

As the Daily Beast journalists in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop are portrayed as saying when they summon their courage to disagree with the proprietor, “Up to a point, Lord Copper.” Barnett is simply out of his depth here, both philosophically and sociologically. To start with, on his account any movement for human betterment—from the Sierra Club and the American Cancer Society to Alcoholics Anonymous and the local tutoring center for inner-city children—would qualify as faith-based. And why draw the line at human flourishing? Why not include the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or, for that matter, the local vet’s office? Barnett’s concept of the transcendental is so minimalist that any movement that aspires—whether it succeeds is secondary, as Barnett goes on to concede—to human flourishing, the nature of which Barnett leaves wholly unspecified, qualifies. And what does the transcendental consist of? The belief among those who commit themselves to humanitarian work in the existence of “something bigger than themselves.”

One does not know whether to laugh or cry. Here is a scholar of some repute, with a body of work he has every right to be proud of, writing on a subject in which he has been immersed for many years and about which he has written very well in the past, but who is now lost in the dark forests of psychobabble. Who on this abraded earth does not believe in something bigger than himself? Is the aid worker’s belief stronger in this regard than that of the nurse in a hospital devoted to the care of her, and now increasingly his, patients, or the soldier committed to the defense of his, and now increasingly her, country? Is it greater than that of a schoolteacher, or a ferry boat captain, or an airline pilot, or a car mechanic? More to the point, is it greater than that of a parent, or a partner, or a friend, or… well, enough, you get the point. Virtually everybody believes in something bigger than himself, which either means everybody is a transcendentalist, which hardly seems likely, or that Barnett, despite ranking humanitarianism above human rights in terms of its capacity to alleviate human suffering, has so little confidence in the integrity of humanitarianism that he thinks he has to baste it with the marinade of faith if it is to sustain not just its own enterprise but, as he puts it, any hope in “the possibility of progress.”

* * *

The world is a sad place, a tragic place, but it is not as sad or as tragic as that. In one of the concluding sentences of his book, Barnett writes, “Faith is required to imagine an always elusive humanity, to persevere despite the onslaught of disappointment and the cascade of evidence of humanity’s failings.” But here Barnett gives far, far too little credit to the relief workers with whom, at the beginning of Empire of Humanity, he proclaims he had fallen in love. The grandeur of the humanitarian enterprise lies precisely in its determination to persevere, knowing full well that, too often, it will be able to accomplish tragically little; to persevere, moreover, under no illusions about the cruelties of the world, not because of some faith in progress, as Barnett would have it (the question that haunts him, which is whether that faith is reasonable or not, is actually far less important than he imagines), and not out of compassion, the underlying mot clef to which he continually returns, but rather out of solidarity, a word largely absent from his consideration.

It would have been interesting if Barnett had spoken not of humanitarianism but of relief work. Would it have seemed as reasonable to ascribe to relief work the same mystical or, as he would say, transcendent qualities that he attributes to humanitarianism? And would he have remained so persuaded that, when all is said and done, while what relief workers accomplish on the ground is tremendously important, the needs of relief workers are almost as important—and, more crucially from the moralistic perspective that is Barnett’s default position, that to be an aid worker is an ethically exemplary act? Humanitarianism, he writes, “exists to attend to the needs of the giver and not only to those of the receiver,” and its purpose is “intertwined with the desire to demonstrate and create a global spirit.” I am all for self-fulfillment in the workplace but, with the best will in the world, this is ridiculous!

The less exalting truth, as Barnett surely knows but writes as if he does not know or else does not care, is that people have all sorts of motivations for doing what they do. While there are doubtless relief workers with such neo-Hegelian fantasies of the Weltgeist in their heads, my own experience is that there are just as many, if not more, who join Oxfam or MSF or the International Rescue Committee because they are genuinely selfless people who, very precisely, are of a mind not to think about themselves, while others become aid workers because they crave adventure or, just as with my profession, journalism, don’t ever want to grow up. As long as the work they do is valuable, these motivations are of little importance. In the end, Barnett has too much respect for what he believes humanitarianism incarnates as a set of values, an ethics, and too little respect for what humanitarians actually do. Without this perspective, his religious conclusion would be impossible; with it, it is simply wrong.

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