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Book TitleThe Dark Sides of Virtue : Reassessing International Humanitarianism
Book AuthorKennedy, David
Bibliographic InformationPrinceton University Press, 2004, Pages : 0, 45, ISBN 0691116865

Review Title
Reviewer(s) Kanwar, Vik

Short review

The Dark Sides of Virtue: Reassessing International Humanitarianism. By David Kennedy.  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2004.  Pp. 400.
Reviewed by Vik Kanwar, JSD candidate, New York University School of Law
Book Review, “Untimely Interventions?: David Kennedy on Humanitarianism as a Vocation”
Professor David Kennedy likes telling stories about the unstable border between legal practice and activism. I was reminded while reading his newest book, The Dark Sides of Virtue, of a story he might appreciate. Years ago, as an idealistic law intern, I worked with an experienced international lawyer on a “plowshares” case. The case involved civil disobedience by anti-nuclear activists at a missile silo and their subsequent arrest by military police. As we met in a converted closet only half-ironically called the “war room,” my supervisor asked me to formulate some creative remedies using domestic law, international human rights law, and humanitarian law. He went on to say, “In case you don’t know what humanitarian law is, it’s a joke, there’s nothing ‘humanitarian’ or ‘legal’ about it. It’s just a nice and Orwellian way of saying ‘the etiquette of mass murder’.” The Dark Sides of Virtue is filled with similar stories charting the excessive devotions and disillusionments, private ironies and public solidarities that circulate among human rights advocates. While this book should not be dismissed as an archive of outdated “strategic interventions,” it bears the strong mark of the 1990s, when the Left was divided over “humanitarian intervention.”[1] As “humanitarian bombs” fell on Belgrade in 1999, mainstream “liberals” typically claimed to harness power against cruelty, while “progressives” sought to puncture liberal hypocrisy, and “critical” scholars like Kennedy deconstructed their debates. Since September 2001, starker choices have compelled a rapprochement between liberal humanitarians and progressive activists— even in the “war room” we speak more reverently of humanitarian law— and Kennedy’s book arrives in time to reconsider the value of a “critical” project at present.
Kennedy’s choice of topics covers a broad swathe of contemporary concerns. In each case, the subject is “the humanitarian” actor in contexts of increasing power and responsibility. In his introductory chapter (p. 3), asking whether international human rights movement is “more part of the problem than the solution,” he develops a comprehensive checklist of reasons to be skeptical. His rights-skepticism is inspired more by legal realism than realpolitik, and inflected less by the traditional Marxist critique of rights than more recent feminist and postcolonial interventions. Yet Kennedy’s reference to “the solution” is fundamentally misleading. He remains rigorously anti-programmatic, “critical” in a sense best articulated by Foucault: “My point is not that everything is bad, but that everything is dangerous.”[2] For Foucault as much as Kennedy the vocation of activism is an imperative (“If everything is dangerous then there’s always something to do”), but one that cannot be defined in terms of success. The best Kennedy can do is to log with humor and self-analysis his own imperfect quest to combine the “good fight” with the “good life.” In the second and third chapters (“Spring Break” and “Autumn Weekend”) Kennedy reprints two classic first-person narratives.  The first takes place at a Paraguayan prison, (p. 37) and the second at an international conference on the future of East Timor (p. 85). These memoir-fragments invert the familiar human rights narratives of heroic war correspondents and indignant statesmen; Kennedy’s frontline is neither the killing fields nor the seat of power, but a more familiar world for most of us: the mundane conferences and awkward conversations of a nascent “international civil society.” He reveals with sympathy but not superiority the ambiguous motives, human faults and fantasies underlying cosmopolitan activism. While one may wince as Kennedy skewers well-meaning doers and hard-won deeds, the forcefulness of his critique increases proportionally with the power of his targets. Thus, the remainder of the book shifts from activists to policy-makers.These four chapters— also the most substantively satisfying— apply the same analysis to the following topics: (1) pragmatism in humanitarian policy-making, (2) the “rule of law” in economic development, (3) refugee protection, and finally (4) humanitarian intervention. In the end, the book’s most glaring defect is that is doesn’t contain its own sequel; Kennedy might now proceed to newer dangers and complacencies international society concentrated on two poles: the torque of the “war on terrorism” and the inertia of “global governance.” While “liberal consensus” is a perpetual myth— today as much as in the 1990s— a truly dissonant voice is all the more important for its recent muted-ness.

[1] There is of course a point of indistinction between these positions. To contrast critical with progressive discourses on humanitarian intervention, compare the “critical-deconstructive” Anne Orford, Reading Humanitarian Intervention: Human Rights and the Use of Force in International Law. Cambridge University Press, 2003., with the largely sympathetic but “progressive-activist” Julie Mertus, Bait and Switch: Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Routledge, 2004).
[2] See Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” in  Hubert L. Dreyfus and Paul Rabinow, eds., MICHEL FOUCAULT: BEYOND STRUCTURALISM AND HERMENEUTICS (1983).