Explaining the rash of humanitarian interventions that states have undertaken since the end of the cold war has posed huge analytical problems for international relations (IR) scholars. Traditional security scholars have struggled to understand the nature of “humanitarianism” as an interest, often with the result that they simply discount it and emphasize other possible motivations for intervention. In these analyses, the intervention in Somalia is explained as an effort to export US values, intervention in Haiti was about refugees, interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo are explained by the need to protect NATO’s credibility and maintain stability in Europe.1 Humanitarianism was only window-dressing in every case. Constructivists, legal scholars, and an increasing number of policy analysts have taken humanitarianism more seriously as a motivation for state action. They point to the increasingly dense web of humanitarian treaties, norms, and laws, as well as transnational activist groups that together persuade (or coerce) policy makers and publics to support these interventions. The analytic problem for this group of scholars has been to understand why humanitarianism produces such inconsistent and varied effects. Humanitarian norms and laws are often not respected, and humanitarian concerns do not always produce interventions (as the Rwanda case makes painfully clear) nor do they produce interventions of the same kind. If humanitarianism is an important motivator of state action these scholars need to explain better the conditions under which it prevails and the kinds of actions it will generate.
Humanitarianism is not some single isolated impulse nor does it consistently produce identical effects. This seems obvious but analytically we scholars have tended to treat norms and values like
1Michael Mandelbaum, “Foreign Policy as Social Work” Foreign Affairs v.75, no.1 (Jan/Feb 1996):16-32 at 17; Richard Haass, Intervention: The... [continues]
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