Weighing Politics and Idealism: The Four Waves of US Humanitarian Strategy Since 1945




Jarvis, Lauren

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Humanitarianism weighs a tension between geopolitical decisions to achieve US grand strategy and altruistic contributions to alleviate human suffering. Humanitarian policies therefore fluctuate and can be difficult to predict or explain. This thesis analyzes patterns in US humanitarian strategy since 1945 and identifies four waves: the political Cold War (1945-1991), the idealistic post-Cold War (1991-2001), the balanced post-9/11 (2001-2020), and the balanced but altruistically disguised post-COVID-19 (2020-present). The thesis uses data collection about US aid, intervention, and resettlement responses to crises and archival research to determine the unique strategies, motivations, and infrastructure of each wave. It also reveals the consequences of humanitarian strategies that are too political and too idealistic. Overly political humanitarianism is cautious, lethargic, and at times morally offensive. Overly idealistic humanitarianism lacks boundaries and is overextended and imprecise. This thesis concludes by proposing a humanitarian strategy that allows politics and idealism to counterweight each other’s flaws: a strategy that uses idealism to spur leaders to respond to crises that may not be politically advantageous and that uses politics to constrain idealistic ambition within pre-established guidelines.



Humanitarianism, Foreign Policy, International Relations, Refugees, Humanitarian Crisis, Civil Conflict