The afterword of Mark Mazower’s No Enchanted Palace includes some valuable comments on the “responsibility to protect” doctrine and humanitarian interventionism:
Humanitarianism likes to see itself in terms of pure virtue, a kind of antipolitical gesure of compassionate brotherhood. But it is generally the same states that once, as imperial powers, intervened across the globe in the name of freedom that now lead the charge against the human rights abuses and the “organized hypocrisy” of the sovereignty claimed by many new and shaky states. Forgetful of their colonial past, Western states see in their liberalism only the benign face of a universal aspiration. Yet the states they target are generally those that have emerged recently from out of the rubble of those empires, and the critique of “failed states,” couched in the comforting humanitarian language of our times, can sound uncomfortably like the old civilizational arrogance of Jam Smuts’s generation. In fact, the old questions that haunted the minority rights regime of the League of Nations have not gone away. Who will decide when to intervene and where the right to protect shall be applied? Will it really be universal? Will it be extended beyond Africa–to the Gaza strip for example, or Colombia, or northeastern India? A world of sovereign states may lead to political leaders committing crimes against their own people, but intervention is a political and military act with numerous political drawbacks too, as Afghanistan readily demonstrates. (p. 200-201)
Mazower wrote an essay for World Affairs Journal on the “rise and fall of humanitarianism” back in 2010 that elaborated on these comments, and I discussed the essay and reactions to it here, here and here.