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Response to Review of Humanitarianism and Humanitarian Intervention

Michael Barnett: I am truly anxious to get responses to my book by trained historians. I am keenly aware of my relative strengths, and training in historiography is not one of them. I cannot help but recall at this moment the adage ‘scratch a sloppy historian and you find a political scientist’. Yet my book depended much on works of history and I would like to learn that historians find some value in my effort. So, the review by Dr Everill reduces my anxiety. She is able to overlook its shortcomings as a work of history to still judge it ‘bold and provocative’. And while it is tempting to duck her criticisms on the grounds that I am not a historian, she raises some important questions that all scholars, not just historians, must be able to address, and that contribute to the broader, collective effort to write a more complete history of humanitarianism.

As I began to develop the argument in Empire of Humanity I became deeply aware that it was neither a work of political science nor of history, as traditionally defined. As a card-carrying political scientist I self-consciously decided to eschew the standard positivist-inspired, theory-building and hypothesis-testing dictates of my discipline. Instead, I opted for a loosely-assembled framework that placed much of its causal emphasis on what international relations theorists call ‘systemic factors’ – that is, forces that occur at the level of the international system. International relations theories are divided among themselves regarding how to best characterize the ‘international’, and stylistically comprise camps of materialists (famously characterized by realists) and of idealists (famously characterized by constructivists). I avoided the standard gladiatorial model of my discipline precisely because I knew that it would put me into a theoretical straitjacket and force me to make the world of humanitarianism as artificial and simplified as are these theories. So, rather than working theoretically and deductively, I proceeded analytically and inductively. The analytical work is evident in the broad framework I developed to understand the different periods of humanitarianism – these are defined by configurations of the forces of destruction, production, and compassion. But frameworks are not theories and I do not propose or test any concrete hypotheses. So, I will not be surprised if my ‘scientifically-minded’ colleagues in political science and international relations find that I have come up short.

I stumbled into history, if by history we mean what international relations theorists mean, that is anything that occurred prior to the end of the Cold War. I originally set out to examine the so-called post-Cold War transformation of humanitarianism, and as I began to examine the ‘before’ (that is, prior to 1989) I found myself more impressed by the continuities and trends than by the breaks and transformations. So, I kept tracing backwards the modern history of humanitarianism until I hit what I thought was ‘bedrock’ – the late 18th century in Europe. Although I did a fair bit of archival work, most of my research for the pre-1945 period depended on secondary sources. Because it is only recently that historians have begun to explore the history of human rights, the laws of war, and humanitarianism, much of the existing contributions were written with another subject in mind – missionary work, imperialism, social movements of a particular cause, intellectual histories of prominent individuals, and histories of ideas.

Given my background and how this book emerged, I am not surprised that Dr Everill finds it insufficiently methodologically grounded in history. At the risk of only parading my ignorance, though, I am not quite sure I know what needed to be done to have overcome this deficit. My thin awareness of debates among historians suggests that there is no settled understanding of what counts as the historical method anymore than political scientists have agreement on the methodological requirements for qualifying as political science. That said, Dr Everill’s criticisms suggest particular areas in which a little more attention might have made the book more ‘historical’.

There should have been better balance between the ‘ages of humanitarianism’. As it stands, the chapters get longer as we get closer to the contemporary period.  There are several reasons for this. First, historians have only begun examining the history of humanitarianism, I relied a fair bit on secondary works, and so my uneven distribution of attention probably reflects a broader bias among scholars. But saying that I am no worse than anyone else is no excuse, especially if my goal is to push us to become more aware of the history of humanitarianism. Second, humanitarianism, as a project and a practice, has grown over the decades, and in many ways the balance in the chapters reflects this growing prominence. Consequently, if I had chosen to give equal weight to each period, I might easily (and rightly) been accused of giving too much attention to earlier periods and not enough to later ones. Third, I was not attempting to write the history of humanitarianism (I don’t know what that would look like), but rather provide sufficient historical grounding for my narrative regarding the continuities and transformations of humanitarianism since the late 18th century. The question I ask, then, is does the coverage of the earlier ages provide enough evidence for the narrative?

I do not completely agree with the charge that the book treats the history of humanitarianism as having too much coherence and not enough change. I had two goals that were in tension with one another, requiring a delicate balancing act. I wanted to highlight that there are enduring features of humanitarianism – if you will, features that give humanitarianism an identifiable personality (without necessarily essentializing humanitarianism). Yet I also recognized that humanitarianism has changed over the centuries.  In other words, I attempted to be attentive to diversity within unity. My sense is that Professor Everill’s quibble is not necessarily with my goal but rather with the observation that I did not given enough attention to imperial movements in trying to understand the sources of continuity and change. Perhaps not, though I do make geopolitics one of the pillars of the international system, and argue that it not only explains continuity but also has shaped the changing character of humanitarianism.

Everill’s criticism of my focus on several major international governmental (IOs) and nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) after the Second World War raises several interesting questions that invite further study. To begin, she questions why, after 1945, I suddenly spend more time on INGOs. The simple answer is that they became a more important aspect of global affairs. Although there was a sprinkling of INGOs in the 19th century (most religious), most of today’s major organizations originated with the First World War or, primarily, the Second World War. There were methodological reasons for why I chose to focus on INGOs and the INGOs that I did. Although I had to do a fair bit of archival work to piece together the history of these organizations, I was not interested in providing an authorized or unauthorized biography. Instead, I used INGOs as a vehicle to explore the tensions within humanitarianism, how these tensions worked themselves out (or did not), and how humanitarians tried to manage these tensions. In other words, I treat INGOs as constituted by broader social forces, while recognizing that they have some agency and attempt to use their (changing) ethical commitments to keep themselves on the straight and narrow. I chose the organizations I did, then, because of their utility for illuminating how different kinds of relationships between organizations and their environment have different kinds of constituting and constraining effects. It was not a representative sample, and thus will not satisfy social scientific standards, but hopefully the cases provide compelling illustrations of the worlds of humanitarianism and the choices available to humanitarian organizations. There also was a practical reason behind my case selection: these organizations had records and archives. A challenge that any student of humanitarianism will face is that these agencies are notoriously awful record-keepers. Not only are there relatively few surviving documents (and rarely in a central location), but aid agencies have no freedom of information act, tend to be suspicious of outsiders, and can be quite unhelpful to researchers. For instance, the International Rescue Committee was one of my original cases, but the agency was quite unwelcoming (conversely, my experience was that religious organizations were more transparent and open than secular organizations). One last point, I agree that humanitarian organizations might have a ‘death of mission’ objective, but organizations that want to eliminate or mitigate human suffering will easily find reasons to stay in existence. So, I am not sure how hard they ‘struggle to put themselves out of business.’

I am intrigued by one last point of contention raised by Everill.  She takes issue with my contention that humanitarianism has become increasingly state-centric over the last century, and uses Humanitarian Intervention to make her point. First, humanitarian intervention is, of course, the one area of humanitarianism where states have always been involved and essential. Missionaries might have pointed to places where states should intervene, but states were always going to do the dirty work. Second, if one uses financial resources as a measure of state involvement, then states have become more involved. Specifically, whereas once humanitarian action was primarily funded by private, voluntary contributions, increasingly over the 20th century it has become funded by states and public organizations. For those who operate with a ‘follow the money’ theory of causality, states are more and more important (and this is precisely why INGOs are worried about their growing financial dependence on states). Also, my broader point is not only that states are more involved, but that the global governance of humanitarianism has become more institutionalized, centralized, and bureaucratized. There is evidence not only that states and their organizations have become more important, but also that they have integrated increasingly centralized and bureaucratized aid agencies. This process, I argue, began in earnest with the Second World War and never stopped. But whether the character of humanitarianism governance has become more driven by NGOs (as Everill claims) or by institutionalizing and globalizing forces (as I claim) can be settled through more research.

Humanitarianism, to the extent it is a field of study, is interdisciplinary to the marrow. I have learned tremendously from Everill’s comments and those of other historians who have worked on the subject, I am delighted that Everill finds that this political scientist’s venture into history has its yields, and I look forward to more collaboration and cross fertilization between the disciplines as we discover the history of humanitarianism.