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.”
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.