It’s a rite of passage in upper-middle-class America: the volunteer trip to some impoverished Third World country followed by the new Facebook profile picture with a couple of doe-eyed orphans. The ritual springs from a well-intentioned desire to help those in need and form connections across boundaries of nationality, race, and class. But do these trips actually do much good? Writing for Al Jazeera America, columnist Rafia Zakaria makes the case that they don’t. “The problem with voluntourism,” she writes, “is its singular focus on the volunteer’s quest for experience, as opposed to the recipient community’s actual needs.”

“Voluntourist” laborers can “crowd out local workers” because these volunteers work for free. What’s more, as Britain’s Daily Telegraph noted last year, some “ethical tourism” companies are backing away from orphanage-volunteering trips after learning that many of the orphans they were helping were not actually orphans—three out of four kids in Cambodian orphanages and nine of 10 in Ghanaian orphanages actually had parents.

Zakaria notes that in Bali, Indonesia,

Children leave home and move to an orphanage because tourists, who visit the island a couple of times a year, are willing to pay for their education. These children essentially work as orphans because their parents cannot afford to send them to school. Instead of helping parents cater to the needs of their children, the tourist demand for orphans to sponsor creates an industry that works to make children available for foreigners who wish to help.

Actual orphans might not benefit either. Sarah Bareham of ResponsibleTravel.com told the Telegraph that for orphans,

interaction with a revolving door of short-term volunteers can be psychologically very damaging. Volunteers are largely untrained, do not possess the complex skills necessary to work with traumatised children and would not be allowed to do so in the UK. Most volunteers also seek to form an emotional attachment to the children in their care, to feel they have made a difference through their work. Instead they are often simply reinforcing a never-ending cycle of abandonment.

And so, says Zakaria, “wealthy Westerners” hoping to “do a little good, experience something that their affluent lives do not offer, and … have a story to tell that places them in the ranks of the kindhearted and worldly wise” have created a monstrosity: a “white savior industrial complex” that harms as much as it helps.

The emphasis on good intentions over good outcomes that fuels the White Savior Industrial Complex isn’t confined to private “voluntouring,” however. It also manifests as a foreign-policy doctrine, one that allows Westerners who have lots of political power—not merely, like tourists, lots of money—to experience the joy of benevolence. Why not make pushing democracy, human rights, and the American way the central goal of America’s influence and power? Liberal or humanitarian interventionism sounds good in theory: strong countries have a responsibility to protect the vulnerable from atrocities when their own governments fail to do so. And as with so many of the voluntourists, the liberal interventionist’s heart pines for Africa.

There’s a problem, though. Far from being an entire continent full of violence and poverty that yearns for the white man’s aid, Africa is actually an incredibly diverse place. Its people, just like us, are complicated and tend to defy simplistic characterization. And like ours, their social and political systems are also complicated. Resolving their conflicts, then, is likely to require the same practical, patient, subtle diplomacy that resolves our conflicts.

Pragmatic humanitarians would take that into account. A self-absorbed humanitarianism of good intentions, on the other hand, finds complexity distasteful. It has no role models between that of Messiah (when it can act decisively) and Voice in the Wilderness (when it cannot). That makes diplomacy tough, as America’s top voice for liberal intervention, National Security Adviser Susan Rice, discovered in her handling of the diplomatic resolution of the Sudanese conflict.

Rice had a long history with Sudan. She cut her teeth in Washington working with “the Council,” an informal group of activists with ties to the South Sudanese independence movement. As a Clinton administration official, she pushed back against any cooperation with the Sudanese—even when their intelligence service was offering to share its extensive files on a Khartoum-based construction mogul named Osama bin Laden. America began giving military aid to the South Sudanese rebels and countries that backed them, and one of Rice’s lieutenants—fellow “Council” member John Prendergast—would later tell Reuters that “the idea was to help states in the region to change the regime.” But the regime survived, the conflicts continued, and bin Laden went on to bigger things.

Back in power as the Obama administration’s representative at the United Nations, Rice would be dealing with Khartoum again. The Bush administration had handed down a peace deal between the Sudanese government and the Southern rebels, an agreement that would allow the South to vote to become independent. The deal was running into trouble—cooperation wasn’t always forthcoming from the north. And at the same time, Sudan was conducting a horrific war in its western region of Darfur. An ugly choice had to be made: should America push Khartoum on Darfur, even if doing so risked renewed war in the South without peace in the west? Or should Washington scramble to save the Southern peace deal, even if that meant dealing amicably with a brutal government?

A bitter rivalry emerged between Rice, who was again pushing for uncompromising pressure on Sudan, and the U.S. special envoy for Sudan, Scott Gration, who argued that this approach gave Khartoum “no incentive to let the southerners vote on independence” and suggested that America should offer the chance of improved relations as an incentive for cooperation. This did not sit well with the Council, which went on the attack, portraying Gration as a callous airhead in prominent outlets like The New Republic.

While Washington squabbled, the rebels grew increasingly worried about the situation with the North, as delegates of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) told their old supporter Rice in a New York meeting in 2009. Their fledgling government was in dire financial straits, and “the potential for war between north and south was high.” Yet Rice’s eyes were fixed on Darfur. According to a U.S. Mission to the United Nations diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks,

Rice told the delegation that the SPLM had failed to present a plan that encompassed the genocide and killing in Darfur that had been exacerbated by the NGO expulsions.  She said the United States would support [Comprehensive Peace Agreement] implementation and hoped to prevent collapse in Sudan but that ‘we can’t implement the CPA at the expense of Darfur.’ Rice stressed that CPA implementation and resolving the conflict in Darfur must be mutually reinforcing.

Rice’s message, in short, was that the rebels would have to help stop a war hundreds of miles outside their reach before America put its shoulder to the wheel to preserve their fragile peace at home—a peace that America had been crucial in making. Rice’s one-time favorites had made a serious mistake. Not only had they allowed moral complexity to seep into their conflict, they’d done so in the shadow of a rival conflict where right and wrong seemed far clearer. Worst of all, ending their conflict required a deal with the other conflict’s devil. Helping them push peace over the finish line would no longer feel so warm and fuzzy. The South Sudanese referendum would survive—but in spite of Rice, not because of her.

The crucial question about the White Savior Industrial Complex and its armed wing, humanitarian interventionism, is “why.” Why do we find more moral gratification in having good intentions than in producing good outcomes? Why do we accept mere symbols of being good—the Facebook photo with the orphan, the public diplomatic démarche, the battleship steaming toward the Oppressor—as evidence of good outcomes, or even as good outcomes in themselves?

Rafia Zakaria sees two roots. First, when we don’t see the complexity of other societies—when we don’t know their politics and we see only suffering—it seems clear which intentions are good. And this clarity of intentions can even seem nonpartisan, which isn’t the case when we try to fix our own society: “Unlike the problems of other societies, the failing inner city schools in Chicago or the haplessness of those living on the fringes in Detroit [are] connected to larger political narratives,” notes Zakaria. You won’t start any arguments at cocktail parties or Thanksgiving dinner if you mention your Haitian orphanage trip or your distaste for a brutal African dictator. You will if you talk about affirmative action or healthcare reform.

Second, says Zakaria, our problems are often hard to even identify, let alone find solutions for, while those of impoverished societies seem immediate and obvious:

Western nations are full of well-fed individuals plagued by less explicit hardships such as the disintegration of communities and the fraying of relationships against the possibilities of endless choices. The burdens of manic consumption and unabated careerism are not as easily pitied as crumbling shanties and begging babies. Against this landscape, volunteerism presents an escape, a rare encounter with an authenticity sorely missed, hardship palpably and physically felt.

Prosperity and modernity alleviated many of humanity’s traditional problems. Yet in doing so they also undermined traditional ways of thinking—such as religion—that were humanity’s pain relievers. Meanwhile, they created new pains like those Zakaria identifies. Today we have a new disease, yet we do not even have the old medicine, and we struggle to describe our symptoms. Observing Third World poverty finally gives us the feeling that we can diagnose and treat a malady with confidence. People are hungry? Give them food! Religious tensions? Have an interfaith meeting! People are fighting? Send in the troops!

Yet why is this impulse so popular with the American elite in particular, rather than among our broader society? Why does it clothe itself in forms the elite finds familiar—the philanthropic venture, the government initiative?

A recent essay in The Week by Michael Brendan Dougherty—discussing Joseph Bottum’s new book An Anxious Age—offers a clue. Mainline Protestants, Dougherty notes, have traditionally held the most political power in America. And Mainline Protestantism is supported by a robust, comprehensive system of values, “able to support the American project and criticize it prophetically at the same time.”  Yet Mainline Protestantism seems to be dead. Not 50 years ago more than half of Americans held membership in a Mainline Protestant congregation. Now less than a tenth do. But such powerful social and intellectual forces don’t vanish overnight. “It would be,” says Dougherty, “startling if the spiritual energies [Mainline Protestantism] captained, and the anxieties it defined, ceased to exist the moment people walked out the door.” And they didn’t—the old Protestantism was merely secularized, becoming a major element of modern progressive thought.

Privileging emotion above reason has a deep history in Mainline Protestant theology. In Calvinist thought, for example, one is never certain of one’s own salvation or “election.” “The burden of proof of election,” writes Susan Manning in The Puritan-Provincial Vision, “falls on the self-investigating conscience, but its findings may be radically untrustworthy. … The puritan tends—in his life and his writing—to strive always to eradicate doubt by sheer force of self-scrutiny.” And so intentions matter quite a bit.

Dougherty (and Bottum) links this Protestant-progressive continuity to domestic politics and the social-justice movement. But the parallel holds for the liberal interventionists in international relations, too: Harvard University, named for a Puritan minister and long a training ground for Protestant clergy, is now a leading center of liberal interventionist thought, boasting the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy—whose founding executive director, Samantha Power, is now Obama’s UN ambassador and a leading exponent of the “responsibility to protect.” The Carr Center hosts the Mass Atrocity Response Operations Project, whose goal “is to enable the U.S. and other governments to prevent and halt genocide and mass atrocity through the effective use of military assets and force as part of a broader integrated strategy.” A similar culture prevails in the international-relations departments of that old Puritan seminary in Connecticut, Yale. (Prominent alumna: Samantha Power.)

Perhaps today’s humanitarian warriors and voluntourists could benefit from a study of their religious ancestors. Mainline Protestantism, like most Christian denominations, has a history of foreign adventurism: missionary work. Yesterday’s missionaries weren’t so different from today’s white saviors. A rural African Rip Van Winkle who dozed off in the late 19th century and awoke today would find many new and alien things. But there would be one continuity: a kindhearted and earnest foreigner pushing the locals to change their culture—for their own good, of course. His tracts used to talk about religion; later it was sanitation and literacy; now it’s safe sex, democracy, female genital mutilation, and gay rights. Web issue image

The missionary efforts of the past offer a frame for examining the present. Though missionaries then and now may feel they’re doing the locals unalloyed good, reality can be more complicated. Western missionary activity in 19th-century China, for example, provoked intense resentment and opened a fresh and bloody rift in Chinese society, culminating in the anti-Christian and anti-Western violence of the Boxer Rebellion, which eventually forced the imperial powers to intervene to protect their besieged diplomatic missions in Beijing. The right of those missionaries to operate in China was guaranteed in the famous “unequal treaties” that the imperial powers imposed, and the missionaries’ advances were entangled—sometimes intentionally, sometimes not—with the advance of Western commercial and strategic interests.

Well-intentioned but ignorant Westerners weren’t able to anticipate the way their influence would interact with Chinese culture. The missionaries found, for example, that some of their converts were motivated by personal gain—deeply impoverished “rice Christians” wanted food; others attempted to use their status as Christians to play local and Western powers off one another to their own advantage. The most disastrous unintended consequence was the Taiping Rebellion—one of the deadliest wars in human history—in which a Christian-influenced messianic cult took up arms against the Qing dynasty in a bid to establish a utopian “Heavenly Kingdom.” As would be the case with the Boxers, the West had to intervene to clean up the mess that its initial involvement helped provoke.

Now as then, our high-minded efforts can provoke local resentment. Rival interests—from Russia to Islamic extremists—have worked to stoke such sentiments to their own benefit. And our new evangelists seem as oblivious to unintended consequences as they are certain of their own righteousness. The advance of NATO? Unrelated to Russian anxieties. Attempts to promote democracy? They won’t harm diplomatic relations with autocracies or create instability. Humanitarian wars? They won’t erode national sovereignty. And of course, local actors would never mouth liberal shibboleths to get us to support their parochial interests—never mind Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq; the Mojahedin-e-Khalq and the old royal family in Iran; or Alexei Navalny, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and even Boris Yeltsin in Russia. The old missionary impulse, the spirit of voluntourism, the desire to build a White Savior Industrial Complex with embassies and cruise missiles—these are all alive and well in certain circles of America’s foreign-policy elite. Is this good for America or for the world? Alas, that might not be the point.

John Allen Gay is an assistant managing editor at The National Interest and the co-author of War With Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences.