Humanitarianism, a double-edged sword

At the expense of smaller states, humanitarianism is helping strong states develop.

The United States uses the fundamental principles of humanitarianism to bully smaller states in converting their economies to be dependent on foreign industries.



The Second World War ended with the United States as a leading superpower in the world with a hegemony over territories in Asia and Europe. The second half of the 20th century would become the American century as the US transformed countries political, economic and cultural structures in an aim to produce peace and progress with the individual at its center. US spread of development, democracy, and human rights through humanitarian aid agencies, was part of a peace-building agenda amid a Cold War that saw the creation of stable, effective and legitimate states as a way to carry its aspirations of liberal values to a global liberal order.

Humanitarian aid organizations transcended their emergency status, and after the Cold War, with a demand growing for resolving domestic peace and security issues, UN-led interventionism became a policy response to humanitarian emergencies. States, also, started treating humanitarian action as an instrument of their strategic and foreign policy goals. Especially since 9/11, counter-terrorism and humanitarianism have in a few instances come to go hand-in-hand, not only in terms of relief aid, but with aspirations to protect human rights, the rule of law and the development of democracies in foreign countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Yet, the extent to which humanitarian aid efforts amount to the results that the definition of humanitarianism holds — developing socioeconomic and individual freedom — remains debatable and is discussed in a very broad sense. And dependent on the strategic goals that are being set, the results of these efforts are mixed and their perceptions over the division of wealth very much reinforced.

This paper will examine the different purposes behind humanitarian and developmental action by the United States from a realist perspective, a liberal perspective and a critical analysis perspective.


The following is an excerpt from an interview by political comedian Jon Stewart with Hillary Clinton who served as US Secretary of State from 2009 – 2013. This interview is from July 16th, 2014 and serves in this paper to highlight the different aspects of US internationalist foreign policy and the actions that are committed to this cause.

Jon Stewart

“We are a large imperial power and the idea that we can exercise that power in the same manner as we’ve seen in — you know, what is our foreign policy anymore?”

Hillary Clinton

“… We can’t practice our foreign policy and practice our diplomacy by leaders talking to leaders, because that’s not how the world works… People all around the world — especially young people — they have no memory of the United States liberating Europe and Asia, beating the Nazis fighting the Cold War and winning, that’s just ancient history. They don’t know the sacrifices being made. We haven’t been telling our story very well. We do have a great story, we are not perfect by any means, but we have a great story about human freedom, human rights, human opportunity, and let’s get back at telling it to ourselves first and foremost and believing it about ourselves and taking that around the world, that’s what we should be standing for.”

Jon Stewart

“In some respects doesn’t our experience and our actions belie a lot of that story? For a long time in the Middle East, we propped up autocratic regimes in favor of stability because we like, eh, the oily oil. Then we switched over and said: ‘What actually makes us safer is democracy.’ But then the elections that we encouraged in Gaza elected Hamas. We said: ‘Not THAT much democracy.’ So when we talk about we have this great story about freedom and democracy and liberty, do we really mean it?”

Hillary Clinton


Jon Stewart

“Or do we mean it only if you elect someone who we like and who likes us?”

Hillary Clinton

“No. We really mean it. But we also have interests that do matter. So, yes, energy used to be, now we’re more independent, but we still worry about our friends and our allies — our relationships with our partners in Europe and Israel and Asia, those are countries where we have a special concern for, and our security. So, do we do business with some pretty unsavory characters because we have counterterrorism interests and security concerns, absolutely. However, I would argue … that if you look at the whole context of the United States and you really examine what we’ve stood for and how we try to move the world to democracy and freedom, despite the fact that we stay with autocrats longer than we should, it is a compelling story about who we are and what we stand for. Egypt is a perfect example, you know, we weren’t thrilled when the Muslim Brotherhood was elected but we supported it because as far as our concern it was a legitimate election. We were blamed by everybody. We were blamed for supporting a legitimate election, not for determining who would win, but then saying OK it was legitimate … but now we see Egypt broker a cease- fire: Thats’s very much in the interests of the United States and the people in the Middle East who are caught up in this ongoing conflict. So, … our values are strong, we comply with them, but often times we do have to add in and balance our interests and our security, but every time we do that we have to keep in mind what we really stand for.”

(The Daily Show, July 16th, 2014)


The following is an excerpt from a PBS Newshour interview by Judy Woodruff with US Secretary of State John Kerry (2013 – 2017) at the United States Institute of Peace. It aired on the 12th of January 2017 on Facebook.

John Kerry

“I believe we need urgently a new Marshall Plan which is focused on the most critical states in the world in certain locations, particularly Middle East, North Africa, South-Central Asia, where we have got to push back against huge youth bulge. There are about a billion and a half children in the world under the age of fifteen. Somewhere upwards of 400 million of them will not go to school. And that is a problem for all of us. I remember talking to one of my fellow foreign ministers in northern Africa, I won’t say which country, and I asked him: ‘You’ve got a pretty large Muslim population here. How do you manage it? Are you concerned about it?’ And he said to me: ‘We’re scared stiff about it. We’re worried about it.’ I said: ‘Why?’ He said: ‘Well, the extremists pay money to grab these young kids — 13, 14, 15 — and they separate them from their families and they indoctrinate them. And then, once they’re fully indoctrinated, they don’t need to pay them anymore, they send them out to be the next recruiting wave. And they get the next wave.’ And he said: ‘they have a 35 -year plan. We don’t even have a 5 -year plan.’”

(PBS Newshour, January 12th, 2017)



1. Identify pragmatic humanitarianism in US foreign policy

The Marshall Plan

After the Second World War, nations of Europe formerly occupied by Nazi-Germany received a financial incentive under the European Recovery Program (ERP – The Marshall Plan) to help Europe finance its imports and debts without burden of future repayment; replace, rebuild and expand both private industry and public infrastructure; eliminate business stalls in production, restore consumption, establish and fund the European Payments Union to promote multilateral trade, eliminate dollar shortage (IMF, 2017).

Sixteen European countries started cooperating on $13,6 billion reconstruction plan (today’s equivalent of $120 billion) and had returned to their prewar production levels by 1950. The conditions set for this aid program were to develop multilateral payment and trade within Europe; move to currency convertibility, meaning the country’s currency should become convertible at market exchange rates into one of the major international reserve currencies (in this case, the dollar) for transactions that refer to trade in goods and services; eliminating discrimination against U.S. imports; encourage reductions in public spending; increase exports to the U.S., and relax government controls on rationing (IMF, 2017).

Moral superiority

US foreign policy vis-a-vis Europe after WWII leaned on two versions of humanitarian aid. First, the US military liberation from German occupation started from the assumption that human rights in general are a good thing and peaceful and rational diplomacy is an important goal in international relations, but that the only realistic way to end some calculated human rights violations by evil persons is through coercion (Forsythe, 2012, p 41). This is defined as pragmatic liberalism.

When Europe was liberated, the US leaned on the second variant of humanitarian aid, defined as classical political liberalism: to emphasize a peaceful and rational discussion with the nations of Europe to the point that they became judicial romantics and opposed to forceful action to stop human rights violations (Forsythe, 2012, p 41). This can be traced back in the formulation of the Marshall Plan, but also, in the political goal of the Nuremberg Trials to — not only bring Nazi war criminals to justice — but mainly to impose the moral superiority of the United States as Europe’s liberator.

2. Identify developmental humanitarianism in US foreign policy

IMF and WB

US foreign policy vis-a-vis Europe in the 1950s differs starkly from a lot of the policies that came to be enacted in the 1990s, after the Cold War. Over the course of the 20th century the role of the International Monetary Fund (always headed by a European) and the World Bank (always headed by an American) changed, but the formal power and authority still resided with the national governments that made the greatest financial contributions (US, 16%; France, 4%).

The World Bank gives loans for development, declaring that “creating the conditions for the attainment of human rights is a central and irreducible goal of development” (Forsythe, 2012, p 108). However, its structural adjustment programs (SAPs) have grown controversial, as Guatemala experienced when it forcefully opened its markets leading to a decline in investments in agriculture, weakening the food security system (Westenberg, 2013). Guatemala receives food aid from the U.S, herewith undermining its own agricultural sector. In return for Bank loans, the Guatemalan government, in the most likely case, agreed to specific conditions intended to restructure national economic programs. The SAPs required reduced governmental spending on programs such as aid or subsidies to the poor, in quest of greater earnings through exports and other revenue-enhancing measures (Forsythe, 2012, p 108).

In general, the Washington consensus was more economic liberalization or privatization or expanded “free markets” and less governmental spending, leading to the eventual conclusion that SAPs negatively impact civil and political rights, since some repression was required to implement painful conditions (Forsythe, 2012, p 109).

3. Identify the conflicts between pragmatic and developmental humanitarianism

Capitalism and exploitation

Discussing developmental humanitarianism from this point on becomes much more a matter of perception of how individual legal rights are considered to work in the context of economic powers and structures. Classical Marxists would argue that these powers and structures prevent the effective exercise of human rights (Forsythe, 2012, p 337). Exploitative capitalism leads to the accumulation of profit rather than the betterment of human beings, thereby negating the legal human rights. In this view, international human rights have been used more to legitimize capitalism on an international scale than to actually protect human beings from “predatory capitalistic states” empowering their corporations (Forsythe, 2012, p 337).

The problem that the critique on the supposed neo-colonialism by the US and its partners suggests relates to cultural relativism; that the rights to individualism breaks apart the communities of foreign cultures in order to abide by the rules of the liberal ‘ideology’ of ‘universal’ human rights.

Pragmatic humanitarianism understands the issues caused by developmental humanitarianism in their structural adjustment programs as human rights are argued to be dealt with also in a socioeconomic context. But they differ from the Marxist assumption that political freedom and economic freedom brought forth by individualist human rights translate to abuses in economic power. Translated in a specific terminology, this relates to the power of multinational corporations that Marxists regard as “irredeemably exploitative”; pragmatic liberals exercising humanism regard regulated capitalism as a force for progress (Forsythe, 2012, p 338).

More specifically, in the case of Guatemala, for capitalism to work as a force for progress, the agricultural sector should be prioritized in its national development strategies. IMF and WB policies undermine these sectors of countries greatly and unnecessarily feed on the dependency between food recipient countries and the United States, as these policies hinder food production and discourage agriculture-based economic growth (Westenberg, 2013). In this case, the term developmental humanitarianism should be used with restraint.

In the case of the Marshall Plan, financial incentives without the burden of repayment, would fall more in the terminology coined earlier in exercising humanism as a “force for progress.”

Literature Review

The information used to discuss the case studies of the Marshall Plan and the case of developmental policies in Guatemala have been drawn from data gathered by the International Monetary Fund. Much of the sourced historical data is also drawn from The Marshall Plan Foundation (written by Woods) and from the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs (written by Westenberg).

In order to discuss the basic concepts relating to human rights and humanitarianism, Forsythe’s 2012 book Human Rights in International Relations is heavily sourced.

As this paper aims at providing a critical analysis of some aspects of humanitarianism and human rights, I will also draw some attention to Buruma & Margalit, who, in their book Occidentalism. The West in the eyes of its enemies draw attention to the narrative behind “Western imperialism.”

Lastly, Wallerstein’s world systems theory will be heavily relied on to draw attention to socioeconomic human rights in developmental humanitarianism.

Research questions

1. Why is the U.S. involved in pragmatic humanitarianism in its foreign policy?


Realism is the dominant theory in understanding international relations. To understand United States foreign policy, geopolitics and the strategic importance that state actors add to their actions should be taken into consideration. Before pragmatic humanitarianism to the U.S. is an altruistic act of humanism, US foreign policy objectives have strategic reasons.

The 1948 Marshall Plan providing financing for economic recovery was in fact an extension of the 1947 Truman Doctrine that sought to stop the spread of communism in Greece and Turkey. Europe’s insecurities in the 1940s had to be met with clear objectives part of an integrated plan: the economic reconstruction of Germany, including Soviet satellite states and European Russia; for it was thought French and Italian communists would otherwise block participation by their countries (Woods, 1997, p 15).

Currency convertibility and anti-discrimination policies against American products led to the integration of European economies with the US. But, here too, cultural relativism played a role in Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov’s decision to decline the plan as he declared the reparation plan was nothing more than “American economic imperialism in action,” although the talks were held in the presence of his British and French counterparts (Woods, 1997, p 15).

Cultural relativism

Considering US Secretary of State John Kerry’s “new Marshall Plan” for the Middle East, it should be apparent that his wish to revive the economies of states that have deep insecurities would fall on deaf ears.

Internationalists like Kerry and Clinton, in their pragmatism, fell short of understanding, or mentioning in the citations above, that cultural relativism between “the West” and “the East” — although many non-western and non-democratic states have become legal parties to human right treaties — remains in some cases a fact to be dealt with (Buruma & Margalit, 2004, p 76). During the 1993 UN Vienna Conference of Human Rights, states like China, Cuba, Syria, Iran, Vietnam, Pakistan, Malaysia, Singapore, Yemen, and Indonesia harbored serious reservations about internationally recognized human rights as codified and interpreted up to that time (Forsythe, 2012, p 59). Western critics would argue that the US is hypocritical is pushing for universal human rights in international relations while refusing to fully endorse socioeconomic rights (Forsythe, 2012, p 60).

2. Why is the U.S. involved in developmental humanitarianism in its foreign policy?


By the end of the 1993 Vienna meeting, the dominant view was that universal human rights responded to universal problems such as governmental repression and harsh capitalistic markets.

The recognition that persons need protection from these problems regardless of civilization, region, or nation came from any number of non-western observers (Forsythe, 2012, p 60). However, the liberal notion that human rights are an evolving concept should hereinafter be taken into consideration given the consequences of promoting the enhancement of human rights in accordance to states’ foreign policy.

In 1954, the US initiated its first official food aid program “to use its abundant agricultural productivity to promote the foreign policy of the US by enhancing the food security of the developing world…; promote broad based, equitable and sustainable development; expand international trade; develop and expand export markets” (Westenberg, 2013). Over the course of the 20th century, however, this foreign policy instrument came to be used by the US agricultural community to protect their own agricultural interests, benefitting US farmers and the larger agricultural industry only, as they pushed recipient countries such as Haiti and Guatemala toward continued dependency on foreign food assistance (Westenberg, 2013). Westenberg argues that US food aid programs do more harm than good, as key donors have shifted from food aid to food assistance programs, and the farm lobby influence monetization policies affecting the effectiveness of said aid (Westenberg, 2013).

It’s unclear at what stage US foreign policy transformed from Dunantist humanitarianism to developmental humanitarianism in the case of Haiti, but through the monetization process, referring to the sale of food commodities on the local market, Haiti’s markets and food prices have been clearly impacted to the benefit of the US agricultural community. Because the economic gains have been considerable, the political influence has also grown, running up to quarterly lobbying expenses of more than 300,000 dollars for some of these companies (Lawrence & Provost, 2012) (Westenberg, 2013). To summarize, developmental humanitarianism in US foreign policy helps develop the economy of the United States, not the developing countries that it intends to help.

SAPs and Foreign aid

This creates a problem with the use of the term “humanitarianism” and the pursuit of political actors like US Secretary of State Clinton for an internationalist foreign policy to better human rights. More specifically, in economic terms, dependency on foreign aid creates a labor problem; the ability for a person to find a job.

In the example of Haiti, between 2000 and 2011, the US donated large amounts of wheat and flour, resulting in lowered prices for locally produced staples such as rice and millet. In short, small farmers were pushed out of subsistence agriculture and given that “agriculture is the country’s main production sector… provides almost 60% of all employment and generates over a quarter of the GDP” this prevents Haiti’s economy to further develop sustainably (Westenberg, 2013).

But it’s not only a food aid related problem. From the 1980s onwards, tariffs on agricultural goods were reduced to 15% (from 40 – 50%) and to 0 – 3% on products such as rice and flour (IMF, 2015). To the benefit of NGOs that sell their food aid in order to avoid storage and transaction costs (Westenberg, 2013), the local farmers pull on the shortest end in the liberalized market. Cash donations could, for example, stimulate local rice production, however, US foreign policy claims it cannot fund practices that interfere with export commodities such as rice, which essentially, summing up the SAPs and the food aid, comes down to a coherent developmental foreign policy. The US essentially uses the claim of bettering socioeconomic human rights, but in fact creates a monopolized product market, monetizes it heavily, drawing the profits back home.

3. Why is “humanitarianism” a substantial aspect in U.S. foreign policy?

From the periphery to the core

An appealing aspect of human rights is the liberal democratic state that provides the protection of civil and political rights of persons. Unregulated capitalism, previously not tolerated in the national economies of the West, has been allowed to proceed in international relations (Forsythe, 2012, p 284). The regulations that are in place have mostly been used to encourage free trade for economic reasons. The GATT and the WTO encourage international capitalism and thereby encourage exploitation of weaker liberalized markets that are not resilient enough to overcome potential monopolies.

This exploitation in international relations draws back to Marxist theory, but the theory suggests that human rights are most-over socioeconomic rights, ignoring the civil and political rights of persons in a liberal democracy. Therefore it is not the lack of socioeconomic rights, rather the unequal exchange of capital flow in the international system where the economically stronger states draw surplus value from the weaker countries — in other words, “from the periphery to the core” (Wallerstein, 2007, p 12). World systems theory holds that:

“[A] capitalist system cannot exist within any framework except that of a world-economy. […] [A] capitalist system requires a very special relationship between economic producers and the holders of political power. If the latter are too strong, as in a world-empire, their interests will override those of the economic producers, and the endless accumulation of capital will cease to be a priority. Capitalists need a large market […] but they also need a multiplicity of states, so they can gain the advantages of working with states but also can circumvent states hostile to their interests in favor of states friendly to their interests. Only the existence of a multiplicity of states within the overall division of labor assures this possibility.” (Wallerstein, 2007, p 24)

Marshall Plan in the Middle East

Given the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is difficult to imagine the possibility for the US to occupy lands in the Middle East in the future under the auspices of a Marshall Plan. Because, amid the discrepancy on what individualist human rights concern for Iraq, Pakistan, Syria, the security issue relating to counter-terrorism efforts impacts on the economic efforts.

First, the instruments to building a civil society that aspires economic development should have no preconditions that relate to the internal factors from which the United States constructs a foreign policy. Clinton previously mentioned energy as an important issue — for US partners and allies — and also US employment in oil and gas production and government revenues.

Second, external factors such as counter-terrorism measures relating to US national and international security issues would seek integration of the US military in foreign countries where its perceptional reputation has been tarnished over the past fifteen years. Although crisis responses to combat water and food shortages could work in coherence with NGOs specialized in emergency responses, here again, building a civil society in countries where hostility between ethnicities and tribes are inherent to how economic development is shared between groups seems, from the outset at least, much different from the European nations of the late-1940s.

Final discussion & analysis of key concepts

In this paper, humanitarian aid as part of US foreign policy has been discussed according to various concepts, but also through the lens of the role of liberal democracy in world history. The key concepts of world systems theory and individuals is essentially what western humanitarianism comes down to and why actions related to aid and development should be viewed as inherently political and ideological.

World systems theory has enabled me to demonstrate how a state gains capital power and why a superpower like the US differs in its policies vis-a-vis a multiplicity of states. The US holds its economic hegemony through discerning policies in Europe, the Americas, Asia and the Middle East.

Why some developmental policies are more easily enabled in some parts of the world than others has also something to do with how human rights are perceived. Individualism is an important ideology both to the US and Europe, but has different connotations to its meaning due to culture, upbringing, family values, schooling, religion, among others. The Marshall Plan was an acceptable plan to countries in West-Europe, but not so much to Russia and its satellite states like Poland. Cultural relativism is a factor in what constitutes human rights values, but whether these values should be able to be subject to free interpretation remains an item for discussion. Important features to this discussion are both “imperialism” and “americanization.”

The discussion, however, is not only culturally bound: the meaning of human rights is also very much discussed in the West; whether human rights should consist of socioeconomic rights, or if they are mainly civil and political. These two different sets of western ideologies within the spectrum of human rights discuss whether capitalism can be regarded as a “force for progress.” If argued yes, then there should be a discussion about what humanitarianism as a political instrument should entail as state actors have used the ideology relating to liberal human rights to draw capital from weaker states.

If argued no, and capitalism therefore should not be regarded as a “force for progress”, then the actual definition of humanitarianism as a developmental instrument should be reconsidered. Pragmatic humanitarianism regards development as a clear instrument of a state to further its foreign policy goals relating to the external factors of said state. Developmental humanitarianism suggests its goals help develop local economies, when in reality, in the cases discussed in this paper, internal factors of stronger states, in the end, determine much of the outcomes.


Buruma, I. & Margalit, A. (2004) Occidentalism. The West in the Eyes of its Enemies. Penguin Group.
Forsythe, D.P. (2012) Human Rights in International Relations. Cambridge University Press.
IMF (2015) Haiti. Selected Issues. IMF Country Report No. 15/158. Retrieved on 10.3.2017:
IMF (2017) Cooperation for Recovery: The Marshall Plan. IMF. Retrieved on 9.3.2017: https://
Lawrence, F. & Provost, C. (2012) How corporate agribusiness supplies the lion’s share of US food aid. The Guardian UK, 18 July 2012. Retrieved on 10.3.2017: https://www.theguardian.- com/global-development/2012/jul/18/corporate-agribusiness-us-food-aid
The Daily Show (2014) Hillary Clinton Extended Interview. Retrieved on 10.3.2017: http://—hillary-clinton-extended-interview-pt–1
PBS Newshour (2017) John Kerry Interview. Retrieved on 10.3.2017: https://www.facebook.- com/newshour/videos/10154967725753675/
Wallerstein, I. (2007) World Systems Analysis. Duke University Press.
Westenberg, S. (2013) Feeding dependency in the Americas: US food practices in Haiti and Guatemala. Georgetown Journal of International Affairs. Retrieved on 9.3.2017: http://journal.-
Woods, R.B. (1997) The Marshall Plan. A fifty year perspective. George C. Marshall Foundation. Retrieved on 9.3.2017: 16/2014/05/The_Marshall_Plan_A_Fifty_Year_Perspective_000.pdf


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