Humanitarianism: the antithesis of humanism

Western foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been driven by a desperate quest for purpose. It is the pursuit of political crisis management by other means.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

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Not so long ago, it was relatively easy to make sense of the role of war and conflict in international affairs.

The Cold War provided an obvious framework for interpreting global tensions. Before the 1950s, most international disputes could be explained with reference to national or geopolitical interests. Occasionally, powerful ideological forces – such as nationalism, communism or fascism – had to be taken into account in order to illuminate particular events. But most of the time there was a general consensus about why certain countries behaved as they did on the international stage, and an understanding of the interests that motivated them.

In Media, War and Postmodernity, Philip Hammond grapples with the question: why, in the twenty-first century, does there seem to be no obvious connection between national interest and patterns of global conflict? The book provides important insights into the confused agenda behind events such as Western intervention in the Former Yugoslavia in the mid- and late 1990s, Washington’s adventure in Somalia in 1993, and the two Gulf Wars in 1991 and 2003.

As long as the Cold War continued, the political elites of the West did not have to confront the erosion of their own moral and ideological authorities. In retrospect, it is clear that one of the principal benefits of the Cold War for Western elites was that it allowed them to legitimise their systems by contrasting them with the dissolute model of communism under the Stalinist bureaucracy.

The end of the Cold War deprived Western states of this important source of legitimation. This deprivation explains why the initial celebrations that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union were extremely shortlived, and were swiftly followed by a widespread mood of confusion and disorientation. Indeed, almost as soon as the Cold War ended, Western diplomats and analysts developed a sense of nostalgia for the old certainties of that period.

Many analysts look for the causes of global insecurity in the domain of international relations itself. Yet as Hammond demonstrates, contemporary conflict is driven by the erosion of authority and the collapse of what postmodernists describe as ‘grand narratives’. From this standpoint, today’s Western interventionism and global adventures can be understood as an attempt by policymakers who have lost their way to recapture a sense of purpose and meaning.

‘Western states have sought to offset their own crisis of meaning through international intervention, including humanitarian action’, argues Hammond. Western intervention in Bosnia, particularly during the NATO bombing of the Bosnian Serbs in 1994 and 1995 and the enforcement of the Dayton Accords in November 1995, is key to understanding this development. The intervention in Bosnia is still seen as the highpoint of humanitarian altruism. In fact, it is more accurate to see it as a model of narcissistic foreign policy, of attempting to find meaning through armed intervention.

Today, it is fashionable to accuse neoconservatives of promoting an ideological agenda through intervention in the Middle East. What this argument overlooks is that the model for this approach was developed by humanitarian activists who sought to discover themselves through the troubles in the Former Yugoslavia. ‘I have never been to Sarajevo’, wrote Salman Rushdie in 1994, ‘but I feel that I belong to it, in a way’. Although his fantasies were rudely disputed by the Bosnian government minster Rusinir Mahmud Cehajic, who denounced Rushdie as an advocate of ‘Satanic forces’, many other Western intellectuals in the 1990s focused their quest for meaning in the Balkans.

After Bosnia came the Kosovo war of 1999: NATO’s bombing of Yugoslavia. During this campaign, high-tech military hardware was deployed to realise ‘humanitarian ambitions’ through a casualty-lite and risk-free war. And for a brief moment, military intervention enjoyed a powerful level of support and consensus. Virtually the entire cultural and political elite proclaimed the virtues of the high-minded altruistic military adventure in Kosovo.

As events have shown, however, it is difficult for the West to pursue a foreign policy in search of meaning without exposing the uncertainties and confusions that gave rise to this quest in the first place. While non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can continue playing the role of humanitarian crusaders, diplomats and their soldiers cannot, at least not without losing a sense of purpose and focus. Not surprisingly, the attempt to recast the military as a collection of armed social workers on a mission to save victimised individuals diminishes its capacity for effective action.

In Britain, policymakers are not sure what kind of stories to tell about the war in Iraq. As Hammond notes, ‘worries about appearing too militaristic’ mean that there is little flag-waving over the war. The ‘multi-faith’ service held at St Paul’s Cathedral in London after the Iraq campaign was declared officially finished could not find any appropriate words with which to celebrate ‘victory’. Instead, the service projected a powerful sense of defensiveness and ambiguity about Britain’s role in the war. ‘An inability to celebrate victory or to portray soldiers as soldiers is symptomatic of the elite’s lack of confidence’, says Hammond. In the years since 9/11, such defensiveness has become more and more entrenched: perhaps its gravest symptom is the absence of any coherent language to explain what the ‘war on terror’ actually means.

For many, the repudiation of a militaristic ethos and the embrace of a humanitarian outlook by Western policymakers is a positive step forward. In truth, this shift in emphasis has no positive features at all. Humanitarianism speaks to a sensibility of demoralisation and low expectations. Indeed, humanitarianism represents the antithesis of humanism. Humanism upholds the transformative potential of people – it is based upon the affirmation of strong ideals associated with a commitment to progress. Humanitarianism, as Baudrillard noted, is a ‘system of weak values, linked to salvaging a threatened human species, and characteristic of an unravelling history’.

As events since 9/11 have shown, ‘weak values’ can only be sustained through the regular application of arbitrary power. That is why Western governments who are embarrassed about flying the flag to celebrate their military heroes are all too happy to pass laws that undermine civil liberties and other foundation values of the West. Media, War and Postmodernity is an important book that explains how ‘weak values’ in the West have a tragic habit of provoking violence in the most unexpected of places.

Frank Furedi’s Invitation To Terror is published by Continuum. Read spiked editor Brendan O’Neill’s interview with Frank Furedi in the current issue of the spiked review of books.

Media, War and Postmodernity by Philip Hammond is published by Routledge. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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