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  • Humanitarian Intervention: A History ed. by Brendan Simms and D. J. B. Trim
  • Branden Little
Humanitarian Intervention: A History. Edited by Brendan Simms and D. J. B. Trim. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 424 pp. $99.00 (cloth).

Let there be no mistake, we are witnessing the emergence of an entirely new field: humanitarian studies. The evidence lies in the multiple scholarly conferences held in recent and coming years, and in the numerous books and articles by scholars across the globe who are illuminating the historical contours and analytical challenges of humanitarianism and humanitarian relief. A new thrust is under way that promises to radically alter international history by demonstrating the interdependence of statecraft and humanitarian action, so often considered entirely separate arenas. Humanitarian Intervention: A History demonstrates convincingly that the two are inseparable and have been so since the late sixteenth century. Humanitarian intervention is, therefore, not a relatively new phenomenon as is commonly thought. The volume asserts that for centuries states have viewed sovereignty as politically and geographically contingent. Loose rather than strict adherence to the Westphalian concept of a sovereign nation’s political and territorial inviolability is actually the norm in international relations. Great Powers have rarely felt constrained by the principle of nonintervention when their strategic and humanitarian interests align to end atrocities or other egregious forms of oppression.

In Humanitarian Intervention editors Brendan Simms and D. J. B. Trim have produced a critically important historical analysis of the policies, practices, and purposes of foreign intrusions in the affairs of other nations for humanitarian purposes from the 1500s to the present. Seventeen chapters by fourteen authors probe the intellectual history of humanitarianism that undergirded intervention. They explore the contemporary legal and theoretical constructs affecting international interactions, and navigate many episodes of intervention that occurred [End Page 443] in early modern Europe, the Ottoman Empire, Africa, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and the Soviet Union. The single volume compilation is not exhaustive in its treatment, nor could it be, but its essays are historically and conceptually rich.

Until now the most typical explanations for intervention have emphasized territorial conquest, economic imperialism, or cultural domination. “Intervention,” moreover, has been generally a shorthand term for ulterior, base motivations to manipulate other governments and peoples, a hallmark of power politics in which the strong do what they want. Their actions are an affront to the dignity and humanity of the weak. The essays in this volume, however, establish conclusively that genuine humanitarian concerns for the well-being of others have constituted a central motivating factor in state-based interventions in foreign lands. Indeed, it has often been the primary reason for intervention. Sometimes, we learn in this volume, the stronger have helped to defend the weakest against the indignities of the semi-strong. It should not be surprising that those traditional, albeit interrelated concerns (e.g., strategic self-interest or economics) also influenced interventionist decisions, and that the forms of humanitarian intervention have included strong-armed diplomacy, coercive economic measures, and direct military action. This volume shows conclusively that the history of foreign interventions is far more nuanced and complicated than typically portrayed, and the effects of humanitarian concerns in international politics far more widely ranging than previously considered. To ignore humanitarian influences on coalition and national security decision making, the contributors to Humanitarian Intervention persuasively argue, is to overlook an essential impetus for intervention and a driving force in world affairs.

In the first part of the anthology the contributors locate the development of humanitarian intervention in Protestant confessional solidarity against the discriminatory pressures and violence of the Counter-Reformation. The partisan Protestant discourse on rights and duties produced treatises such as the Vindiciae contra tyrannos (1579) that defined intervention as safeguarding “humanity” from tyranny—a concept of widening utility for rulers and an activist public sphere, dubbed here as a “humanitarian public,” that embraced intervention for a fusion of strategic and humanitarian motivations (p. 388). At precisely the same time, Christendom exercised more power globally owing to the centralization of nation-states and maritime exploration, prompting debates about the legitimacy of overseas conquest. Why Christian expansionists felt it necessary to build a case at all remains...


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pp. 443-447
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