Students learn history of humanitarianism

During a April 16 lecture, Dr. Michael Barnett, a scholar of international relations and humanitarianism, asserted that humanitarianism hasn’t changed since the Cold War.

Students gathered in Ice Auditorium to hear Barnett’s presentation titled “Empire of Humanity: A History of Humanitarianism.”

During his lecture, Barnett shared the research he began working on in 1994.

At the beginning of his research, Barnett focused on the causes and consequences of humanitarianism after the Cold War.

According to his findings, it seemed that humanitarian agencies were prominent more than ever and wanted to make the world a humane place during the post-Cold War Era.

Barnett hypothesized that the increasing popularity of humanitarian projects was because of the negative attention the United States’ government received for the complexities of the Cold War. Such increasing popularity revealed humanitarian agencies straying away from their principles and moving toward politics. Barnett explained that because humanitarians had such elaborate goals to solve root problems in our world, they chose to involve themselves in politics to achieve their goals.

Two years into his research, Barnett realized that there was not a change in humanitarianism after the Cold War.

“Humanitarianism always had great ambitions,” Barnett said.

Humanitarians throughout history strived to make the world a better place, and they were also always involved in politics. From that point, Barnett conducted research to discover why humanitarianism is tied with politics.

“The modern idea of humanitarianism, to help strangers across the world, creates contradictions,” Barnett said.

He said that the first contradiction was that humanitarianism is simultaneously universal and circumstantial. A humanitarian agency chooses what problem most needs their attention and overlooks the other problems.

“Any act of intervention, no matter how undermining, is still an act of power,” Barnett said, describing the second contradiction he found.

Barnett said that humanitarians, even when they are acting with good intentions, must be careful of dominance.

He went on to reveal that humanitarians acted in ways that not only helped others, but also helped themselves. Whether it was superiority or guilt, people often times desired to contribute to a good cause to demonstrate that they were good people.

In the final part of his lecture, Barnett said that humanitarianism has not been climbing upward throughout time, but that its presence has been more visible during times of despair. He explained that humanitarianism has been used to convince the people in the world that they are good and will continue to improve. Barnett concluded his lecture by saying, “It’s proper to call humanitarianism an empire. It defends its power by helping the helpless.”

Barnett is a university professor of International Affairs and Political Science at The George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs. He formerly taught at the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin, Macalester College, Wellesley College and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

He has published numerous works on global governance and humanitarian action and has written books, such as “The Empire of Humanity” and “A History of Humanitarianism.”

Carrie Skuzeski/
Staff writer
Carrie Skuzeski can be reached at

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