Humanitarianism and the crisis of the liberal world order

Constance Duncombe and Tim Dunne

US Army personnel meets Afghan refugees, Dar Al Uman, Kabul, 2007.

The release of the Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy in December 2017 capped off a year of laments about the survival of the liberal world order. Trump’s ‘America First’ doctrine signals both a stepping away from the global leadership role the US has played since 1945, and an abandoning of the precepts that uphold the liberal world order.

Discussions about the institutions, habits and practices that sustain the liberal world order have given way to talk of disruption. It is easy to claim that the liberal world order is in crisis; it is even easier to point to the causes of its apparent demise. Illiberal populist forces rising in the West, the failure of the United Nations to prevent or curtail obvious and ongoing human rights abuses in Syria, Yemen and Myanmar, rising levels of inequality and disparity of wealth, are only some of the global order’s pathologies. Little wonder that many scholars claim we are witnessing the end-times of liberalism and its ideas of cooperation and progress. Yet questions remain as to what will take its place, and which actors will maintain a rules-based order if an increasingly nationalist and isolationist United States fails to do so.

As we show in a recent article for International Affairs, claiming that the liberal world order is in crisis is overlooks how agents other than states are facilitating liberal internationalism. We argue that the successes and failures of humanitarianism are a good indication of the state of the liberal world order, both in terms of its limitations and its potential to adapt to change. When states and international organizations fail to steer the liberal order, humanitarian NGOs frequently lead from behind.

In focus: Syria and the state of humanitarianism

The failure of the international community to intervene effectively in Syria contributed to the first humanitarian crisis of the post-American world order. Since the crisis began in 2011, over 6.5 million Syrians have become internally displaced with thirteen million people needing aid and over five million Syrians fleeing the conflict to neighbouring countries. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians remain trapped in areas besieged by government and rebel forces, with unprecedented obstacles preventing adequate provision of medical and food aid to those in urgent need. Despite what we have learned about the need for quick international intervention from the genocides of Rwanda, Bosnia and, more recently, Darfur, the liberal world order remains paralysed in the face of ongoing atrocities in Syria.

This paralysis is best illustrated by UNSC debates about military intervention in Syria. Although Western states advocate for humanitarian intervention as an ethical duty to prevent the Syrian population suffering further, other states such as China, Iran and Russia maintain that non-intervention is sacrosanct. The UNSC’s failure to resolve the Syrian crisis is evidence of the liberal world order’s demise.

Humanitarian NGOs and the liberal world order

It is also the case that states are not the only actors upholding the liberal world order. We need to recognize the agency of non-state actors, such as humanitarian NGOs, in facilitating the goals of liberal internationalism. Their role in addressing ethical and moral obligations to aid those in need is well illustrated by Médecins Sans Frontières, which continues to provide medical aid where it can in Syria, despite the unprecedented obstacles the organization faces.

Humanitarianism is not without its problems, however. It is also important to note the pathological way in which the liberal order generates competition between humanitarian NGOs for the limited financial resources provided by the UN, donor states and their general publics. An NGO ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ hierarchy exists wherein a handful of ‘mega-NGOs’ obtain the most funding. Competition for funding between NGOs has commodified care in many ways. High-profile and large-scale humanitarian failures such as the catastrophic breakdown in health, water and sanitation in the Goma refugee camp following the Rwandan genocide, were a significant factor in the push to professionalize humanitarian NGOs so that they become more like businesses providing resources to customers. While these changes have increased successful aid provision, they have also introduced greater surveillance of refugees and a personal distance between humanitarian NGOs and those in their care.

Consider the Azraq Camp in Jordan, home to nearly 54,000 Syrian refugees, which employs a comprehensive population management system that attempts to balance aid and security: iris scanners, community police patrols and data collection are used to monitor each individual and their receipt of aid, and also to mitigate the risk of Islamic State recruitment. New refugees are subject to extensive security checks that often split families for week at a time for the same reason.

After liberal world order?

There are many indications that the liberal world order is in danger. Growing political legitimacy of far-right nationalist groups, government crackdowns on protest movements and rising global wealth inequalities are only some of the symptoms of its increasing failure. President Trump’s most recent derogatory comments on the eve of the 2010 Haiti earthquake anniversary — one of the worst natural disasters in history — further suggest the US is withdrawing its support of the architecture that has sustained the world since 1945.

Humanitarian NGOs have become increasingly important in maintaining a rules-based order, particularly when powerful states such as the US have failed to do so. If we look to the important work of humanitarian NGOs in conflict zones all over the world, we can see that these non-state actors continually respect and administer the ethic of care to assist those in need, a duty that is deeply intertwined with liberal internationalism.

This is not to say that state power to uphold the order is no longer needed. State support for NGOs enables them to provide security and subsistence that governments alone are unable to deliver. Syria illustrates the inability of NGOs to operate in a context where the regime has turned the weapons of war against its own people. In such cases, the barbarism of states cannot be tamed by liberal norms of moderation and civility.

The role of humanitarian NGOs in helping to aid those peoples who are either at risk of, or worse, already suffering from, large-scale natural disasters and politically motivated atrocities reminds us that the wheels of the liberal world order are likely to go on turning. This suggests we should give greater attention to networks, processes and interactions, rather than continue the obsession with which state — or group of states — will steer the order after America’s retreat.

Constance Duncombe is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland

Tim Dunne is Executive Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and Professor of International Relations at the University of Queensland.

Their recent article in International Affairs is titled, ‘After liberal world order’, and is part of the special issue, ‘Ordering the world: liberal internationalism in theory and practice.’

Read the article here.

Explore the special issue here.




The official blog of International Affairs, the no.1 ranked journal of international relations. Leading the field for 100 years. Produced at Chatham House since 1922, published by Oxford University Press.

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