Refugees in International Relations

By Alexander Betts; Gil Loescher | Go to book overview

2
Realism, Refugees, and
Strategies of Humanitarianism

Jack Snyder


ABSTRACT

Although realism and humanitarianism may seem strange bedfellows, they
have much to offer each other. Realism offers profound and lasting insights into
strategic competition in settings that lack an overarching sovereign power to
enforce rules and agreements. A crucial reason for humanitarians to adopt a
strategic perspective is that perpetrators of forced migration themselves typi-
cally act strategically. They not only expel populations to seize their land and
cut off rebels from popular support, but sometimes they also use the threat of a
manufactured refugee disaster to intimidate neighbouring states into making
concessions. Facing strategically ruthless opponents, humanitarians need to act
strategically in order to accomplish their goals. In contrast to the apolitical
doctrine that characterizes traditional humanitarian approaches, realists favour
humanitarian strategies that are self-consciously political, pay close attention to
the power and strategic interests of actors, and are consequentialist in their
ethics. The chapter compares four humanitarian strategies in terms of these
criteria: ‘a bed for the night’, tactical humanitarianism, ‘back a decent winner’,
and comprehensive peacebuilding.

Realism, the paradigm of international relations that equates interest with power, seems ill-suited as a source of inspiration for strategies of humanitarian action on behalf of refugees. Indeed, John Mearsheimer’s influential restatement (2001: 46–7) of realist theory dismisses humanitarianism with the remark that ‘offensive realism certainly recognizes that great powers might pursue these non-security goals, but it has little to say about them, save for one important point: states can pursue them as long as the requisite behavior does not conflict with balance-of-power logic, which is often the case’. ‘Despite claims that American foreign policy is infused with moralism,’ he adds, ‘Somalia (1992–93) is the only instance during the past one hundred years in which U.S. soldiers were killed in action on a humanitarian mission.’

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