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Has liberal universalism run its course?

Michaël Neuman

Director of studies at Crash / Médecins sans Frontières, Michaël Neuman graduated in Contemporary History and International Relations (University Paris-I). He joined Médecins sans Frontières in 1999 and has worked both on the ground (Balkans, Sudan, Caucasus, West Africa) and in headquarters (New York, Paris as deputy director responsible for programmes). He has also carried out research on issues of immigration and geopolitics. He is co-editor of "Humanitarian negotiations Revealed, the MSF experience" (London: Hurst and Co, 2011). He is also the co-editor of "Saving lives and staying alive. Humanitarian Security in the Age of Risk Management" (London: Hurst and Co, 2016).

The debate over humanitarian intervention is keeping the northeastern US's left wing intelligentsia in a continual stir, torn between its opposition to imperialism and its devotion to human rights. Progressive interventionists aren't at all pleased with the regular reminders by their opponents that, objectively, their position is not all that different from that of the neoconservatives. The current debate has its roots in what some consider to be President Obama's flip-flopping. During the presidential campaign, Obama appeared ready to back - even by force - the "responsibility to protect"; his reluctance to confirm these leanings once in office has sown confusion among some of his supporters.

A recent series of online posts at The New Republic - a longtime voice of American liberals - has advocates and opponents of US interventionism facing off.

The former believe that non-intervention leaves the field open to atrocities the world over. The latter think we need to start by looking at the consequences of humanitarian intervention. Talking about his own conversion, David Rieff explains that until the Kosovo conflict, he, too, had believed in interventionism. From Iraq to Darfur, he says, he has been convinced just "how faulty is our understanding of these places where we would intervene." Richard Just, in his defense of reasoned interventionism, counters that - just like the intervention in Kosovo, or the one he wished had taken place in Darfur - it's less a matter of questioning the consequences of an intervention than of asking what would have happened without it. He also advocates listening to the victims - the people whose opinions, it seems to him, carry so little weight with those who would criticize interventionism.

But getting the last word, David Rieff argues that the distinction between oppressors and oppressed is often much less clear-cut than liberal interventionists would like to believe, and citing the Hippocratic Oath - First, Do No Harm - he points to the chaos wreaked by past experiences.


To cite this content :
Michaël Neuman, “Has liberal universalism run its course?”, 26 juillet 2010, URL :

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