David Rieff Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Humanitarianism, the Human Rights Movement, and U.S. Foreign Policy: Conversation with David Rieff, author; March 11, 2003 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Let's talk a little about your new book, which is called A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. Help us understand why the humanitarian movement reached such prominence in the nineties.

There are a number of things to say. First is how humanitarianism becomes important. I think you have to look at the history of ideas -- I apologize for starting on a very intellectual level, but I think it's right. book coverHumanitarian fills, as it were, an idealistic vacuum. Although it comes to prominence in the late sixties with the Biafran war, it really becomes an important idea in the eighties. That's when people become disenchanted with communism.

In Europe, the great modern humanitarian movements -- Doctors without Borders, Oxfam, and the like -- are largely left-wing movements. Many of the founders have hard Left pasts. In the case of Doctors without Borders, the French guys who founded it were Maoists and Stalinists, and members of the French Communist Party and the like -- and they are disenchanted. They are people who read Hannah Arendt and Solzhenitsyn. They are people for whom the God failed. Humanitarian action, emergency relief, is a salvage operation in ideological terms. You no longer believe that you have a new system that will change the world. What you believe in is an ideal of human solidarity, of helping your neighbor. Since a lot of the Left by the sixties and seventies was concerned with the Third World, it's interesting that these humanitarians are also concerned with the Third World, although, obviously, in terms of relief. So that's one element.

The paradoxical element is that humanitarianism could never have assumed this importance. It had these independent relief groups, these nongovernmental agencies, NGOs as the term of art has it. They could never have had the importance they have secured for themselves, without, as it were, the Thatcher-Reagan revolution, without the privatization of the world, the withdrawal of government from all these functions. So on the one hand, it's the ideological vacuum left by communism, the discrediting of the communist idea; on the other hand, it's this new world order -- and I say the phrase without any irony -- in which the new idea of capitalism is to subcontract all these activities. It used to belong to states, to private groups, "a thousand points of light," to use George Bush 41's phrase.* And so whereas in the past, most relief work went government to government -- it would be the U.S. Government Agency for International Development to country X -- now it's through these NGOs. And they achieve a kind of prominence.

I think, also, humanitarianism is the idealism of an age of reduced expectations. I also think, having said all that, and tried to be analytical, it's an incredibly noble idea, because, as a French humanitarian said, "It's the idea that people are not made to suffer," which if you think about it is a very strange and radical idea. I mean, all religious traditions believe people are made to suffer.

It's your argument that something very substantial happened in the nineties in places like Bosnia and Rwanda that led humanitarianism to become part of ... well, I guess if you were doing a military analysis, "mission creep" -- a move away from its primary mission. I would like to explicate that by going through some of the ideas that you developed. One important ingredient here is that humanitarianism became more important because of the breakdown of world order, or it appeared to be breaking down after the fall of communism, and of order in places like Bosnia. Tell us a little about that and your experiences, and the evolution that seemed to occur before your very eyes.

Originally, humanitarianism goes back to the missionaries. Humanitarian action is about what an ICRC (Red Cross) official once described as "bringing a measure of humanity, always insufficient, into situations that shouldn't exist." In other words, it was battlefield medicine. The model was the medic on a battlefield, even if it wasn't medicine, even if it was doing water and sanitation in a refugee camp. That was the idea.

Then what happened on a very deep level was that the humanitarians assumed a different role. In a world where the Cold War wasn't important, humanitarianism could assume a central role all out of proportion to what actually happens. Because, after all, there are no humanitarian solutions to humanitarian problems. That's an axiom every aid worker will tell you. It's obvious, if you think about it. How could there be? Giving someone a bed for the night, to use my title, doesn't change the fundamental thing that got them in need of a bed for the night in the first place; this is palliative. But what changed with the end of the Cold War was this: during the Cold War, every square inch of the globe was of value to both sides. It didn't matter if it was Rwanda or Somalia or East Timor. It was part of the Cold War conflict, and we wanted it for our side, and the Russians wanted it for their side. So the world was a battlefield.

What happened after the Cold War is that people went back to, perhaps, an older idea of the world, which is, there were useful bits of the world, profitable bits, bits that were interesting, and then other bits that nobody cared about. If you use an American urban analogy, a "redlining" of the world the way banks are seen to draw red lines around areas where they won't give loans -- poor areas in inner cities and rural poor pockets. So a place like Rwanda became irrelevant.

At the same time, in an age of mass communications, the CNN effect, the ability to broadcast a genocide live in real time, as people did from Rwanda, [created] a need to be seen as doing something. Our moral pretensions are such that just saying, "Well, sorry, we don't care about Rwanda" is unsayable. I think that's what people say in private. I mean, having knocked Samantha Power, I should say quickly that one of the great things about her book, the astute and lastingly valuable thing about her book, is that she points out that the U.S. didn't intervene in these things not because it couldn't, but because it didn't want to.

So in private, people may be as cynical as ever. But it's inconceivable that a Bill Clinton or a George W. Bush, or whoever, could say, as Neville Chamberlain said of the Czechs after the Munich Conference, that they are  "a faraway people of whom we know nothing." On the contrary, you have to care. You have to bite your lower lip, Bill Clinton style, and say you feel everybody's pain, even [while] you are telling them to go to hell by your policies. So the humanitarians began to play this rather hypertrophy role of what I call "designated consciences." Because the U.S. [government] or the British government or the French government would say, "What do you mean, we really don't care? We have our Doctors without Borders, or the International Rescue Committee, or Oxfam, saving lives."

At the same time, the prestige of humanitarianism, particularly in Europe, meant it became a political force to be reckoned with. That's less true in America, where humanitarian aid agencies have traditionally been more aligned with government and less generously supported by popular groups. Probably the only exception in the States would be faith-based organizations like the evangelical group World Vision or the Catholic Relief Services, which have tremendous authority within their own constituencies. The Catholic Relief Services is probably the one I'm most familiar with; it gets a great deal of its money from an annual Bishop's Appeal, where one Sunday a year in every Catholic church in America, the parishioners are invited to give money for this purpose.

But in Europe, the humanitarian impulse was also tremendously powerful. I think governments both found it useful and irresistible. It became the prestigious way of thinking. It became a kind of secular religion, rather like human rights. But then something more sinister (to come back to your original point) came in, which is that governments saw that humanitarianism could be used as a fig leaf for all kinds of political agendas.

In the Balkans, what we discovered was that humanitarianism became the excuse for non-intervention. Particularly the British and French governments. The Americans under both Bush Senior and Clinton were just inept and divided, but the British and the French knew what they wanted. What they wanted was to contain the crisis rather than bring it to an end, but they knew their publics wouldn't buy it. They knew you couldn't have blond children being blown to bits in prime time television and just say, "Sorry." Maybe that works in Africa, but it doesn't work when it's in southeastern Europe. That's the sad reality of the world.

So the humanitarian effort became a way of saying, "We're doing something." And then further -- and this is where it got very sinister -- they began to say, "We can't intervene militarily because that would mean stopping the humanitarian effort." So that in effect, we can't intervene, because if we intervene we'd have to pull our humanitarians out, and they're doing this life-saving work, and all these children will starve to death in the winter snows of Bosnia. That's one version.

In Kosovo, you had the opposite version. Kosovo was not a humanitarian crisis, it was a political crisis. You could argue the Serbs were committing war crimes. You could argue their rule over the Kosovars was wicked and illegitimate. You could not, however, argue it was a humanitarian crisis, because the humanitarian crisis -- the mass deportation of the Albanians -- only took place after the war began. Now the humanitarian imperative was used by the great powers as a pretext for intervening. Whereas, what they were really doing was saying, "We're sick of Slobodan Milosevic. He is a threat to the good order of Europe. We gave him a free pass after Bosnia, but he's abused the privilege, and now we're going to take him out." That's what it was really about. But you could use humanitarianism, because it had this prestige as a way of marshalling support. You had Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, saying "This is the first war we fought in terms of our values, not for our interests," etc., etc.

So increasingly, there was a kind of historic compromise, a kind of marriage, a kind of fusion between humanitarianism, which started as an independent, impartial, separate idea, with state power. Now, after Kosovo and Afghanistan, and now with this looming war in Iraq, it's harder and harder to see where the space is between the great powers' interest and the humanitarian enterprise.

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Note: George Bush Senior, the 41st President.
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