Book Review — The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention

The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention by Rajan Menon

The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention by Rajan Menon is a study of the failure of armed humanitarian intervention. Menon holds the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Chair in Political Science at the City College of New York/City University of New York and is a Senior Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University, and a Global Ethics Fellow at the Carnegie Council on Ethics in International Affairs.

For those who came to age after the end of the Cold War, the idea of humanitarian intervention is considered a normal function in foreign affairs. Bangladesh, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, Sierra Leone, and Bosnia have all been in the news and topics of political debate since the end of the Cold War. For many younger adults, armed humanitarian interventions are simply a norm. For older adults the idea of humanitarian interventions was unknown in the Cold War Era. Jimmy Carter was unique wanting to make human rights a centerpiece of American foreign policy. In fact, during the Cold War, both East and West supported repressive regimes to build up their number of allies and access raw materials. Even further back in history, humanitarian intervention was mostly self-interest or a move to hamper their enemies, such as Russia, Britain, and France actively supporting Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Menon uses recent examples of intervention and examines international law in discussing humanitarian intervention. There is the assumption that humanitarian intervention is readily accepted by the world community, in fact, that is quite the opposite. NATO intervention was not widely supported outside of Europe. NATO itself creates its own loopholes in international norms. It is not a state which exempts it from many international laws — laws are designed for state intervention. It also claimed that its actions were not to gain territory but to end atrocities. presenting the idea of acting altruistically.

Menon also looks at which interventions America and others choose to participate in. America practically ignored Rwanda and used grammatical acrobatics to avoid using the word genocide in describing the mass killings. Clinton was hesitant to send troops back to Africa. Somalia and the “Black Hawk Down” memory was too fresh in the American public’s memory. Britain also ignored Rwanda after being bogged down for years in Sierra Leone. I happened to be in graduate school at the time and the question as posed way did we intervene in Haiti and not in Rwanda? Off the cuff, I responded with the Raft Theory. My theory simply stated that if unrest in one country caused refugees in rafts to wash up on your shores, intervention was necessary. Haitians could Rwandans could not. That was my five minutes of fame in grad school, but the point was valid. If the problem did not directly affects you, it could be safely ignored without any ill effect from your own population.

The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention shows the complexity and hypocrisy in humanitarian intervention. International law is weak as well as international will. There have been very few widely supported interventions. Cold War Realist Theory competes with modern Liberal Theory. Even in both Iraq Wars, the US formed coalitions to show worldwide support. However, China, India, nearly all of Latin America and Africa, and Iraq’s enemy Iran, did not support the operation. Russia approved but did not contribute troops. The idea of worldwide support for intervention is as much of a myth as the Patriots success in downing primitive SCUD missiles.

This book, which I first thought was going to be quite light and emotionally driven, is in fact, a well-documented, real-world look at the problems of humanitarian intervention. Menon forces the reader to give a hard look at the world we think we live in. An interesting and enlightening read in foreign policy.


1 Comment

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One response to “Book Review — The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention

  1. B. James Wilson

    A really interesting subject with a rare and unpopular view, a view shared by none other than Winston Churchill in his treatise, “River Wars.” More interesting is that River Wars is about the on-going conflict in Sudan during the British Colonial Period.

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