Sunday, December 19, 2004

"Humanitarianism" & "realism" in Darfur

Part of an exchange with a friend. --Jeff Weintraub

Hi X,

It is useful to refer back to Robert Kaplan’s book Surrender or Starve, which, among other things, discusses a previous round of murder in the Darfur region. The West, including the Reagan administration, focused on humanitarian intervention, which did save lives but was less than satisfactorily effective in the long run. What was needed, Kaplan argued, was political pressure and influence in Khartoum, which the enemies of the West were busy exercising. Kaplan’s recurrent theme is that humanitarianism is not realism, and it is only realism which ultimately carries the day. Seems that we are doomed for a repeat.

I don't know that book of Kaplan's, but I think I can imagine what his argument would have been, and it sounds right on target. Your comments also strike me as right--unfortunately including the last sentence, though I still hope for a better outcome.

I would only add that, in cases like this, the contrast between "humanitarianism" and "realism" needs to be complicated a bit, since both terms have ambiguous meanings in this context. Back in the 1980s, the response of the outside world to famine in the Horn of Africa focused on humanitarian AID, but not humanitarian INTERVENTION (unlike the recent British intervention in Sierra Leone, for example). The mistake was to see the problem as simply a shortage of food caused by a natural disaster, for which aid and relief were the answer, rather than PART of the answer. However, it was also in large part a political problem that required political action--including, as you point out, serious pressure on the governments involved. In many cases, people were starving basically because their governments wanted them to starve (as in Darfur today) ... or, at least, as a side-effect of other measures to which their governments were committed. Unless this was faced up to, no realistic solution was possible.

On the other hand, the term "realism" also has multiple meanings in discussions of these issues. Sometimes it just means that achieving "humanitarian" ENDS (like preventing genocide, mass starvation, and other human catastrophes) requires realistic MEANS, often including force or the use of force (and perhaps other morally questionable means). In that sense, I would like to think of myself as a realist (along the lines of what Weber calls an "ethic of responsibility"). However, as you are well aware, in international-relations jargon "realism" also has more special and technical meanings, which could be interpreted to rule out the pursuit of humanitarian ENDS as legitimate. Instead, political actors should focus exclusively on narrowly defined versions of "national interests." As I have said in the past, this kind of "realism" often amounts, in practice, to what C.Wright Mills used to call "crackpot realism."

In terms of your previous message, the upshot of all this is that, in my opinion, humanitarianism and realism are not necessarily incompatible. In fact, serious action for humanitarian ends has to be realistic in the first sense. I very much agree that some kinds of "humanitarian" mindset are marked by an unwillingness to face up to crucial socio-political realities and moral dilemmas. So I understand what you mean when you say, approvingly citing Kaplan, that "humanitarianism is not realism, and it is only realism which ultimately carries the day." In some senses, this is correct. But I think that in some ways this formulation can also be misleading, in that it concedes too much to the so-called foreign-policy "realists"--whose conclusion would be that we should simply forget about "humanitarian" problems. In the case of Darfur, a realistic solution to the crisis would have to include a humanitarian military intervention with substantial forces (mostly by AU troops, funded and backed up by western countries) and serious political, diplomatic, and economic pressure on the Khartoum regime.

Whether anything along these lines will actually emerge is another question.

Best wishes,
Jeff Weintraub