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April 3, 2001

Professor Looks Into 'Humanitarian Card' in Foreign Policy

Somalia or Rwanda? Congo or the former Yugoslavia?

Throughout much of the world, national governments are wondering what model the United States and other Western powers will use when confronted with humanitarian crises. For many foreign governments, it is the vital foreign policy question of the post-Cold War world.

Many observers have argued that demand for action following televised media coverage - the so-called "CNN Effect" - has become a major factor in an otherwise unfocused U.S. foreign policy. Humanitarian military interventions are apt to become more common, they say, citing intervention in Somalia and the former Yugoslavia.

But in an essay in the influential South African Yearbook of International Affairs 2000-01, CSUS government professor Bill Dorman warns African leaders that the issue is far from settled.

He says there seems to be some merit to the theory that humanitarian concerns have begun to replace ideological concerns when Americans determine where they want their military involved. But they remain wary of overseas adventure in general, he says, and unsure what exactly justifies humanitarian intervention. It isn't yet clear if horrifying pictures beamed to American televisions will prompt citizens to demand military action, or even if American media will be interested in foreign conflict, he says.

"It is simply much too early in the post-Cold War period to make sweeping generalizations about how the humanitarian card is likely to be played in the future," Dorman writes.

He points out a number of recent examples in which the U.S. did not intervene militarily, including the 1994 genocide in Rwanda in which hundreds of thousands, or possibly more than 1 million, perished. Similarly, the U.S. has not gotten involved in the war now raging in Congo, which former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has called "Africa's First World War."

Rwanda received very little media coverage until after the slaughter began, and the Congo conflict is being largely ignored by the media today.

But Dorman says yesterday's humanitarian disasters will influence American leaders in the future.

"For instance, what happens if there is another genocide like there was in Rwanda on George W. Bush's watch? If the media covers it, will we be able to stand by and say 'no, no, no we won't go there'? I kind of doubt it."

He adds, "I think it's clear is that under some circumstances there is a 'CNN effect,' though we can't be sure yet what those circumstances are. Unfortunately I think we'll get more chances to find out soon enough. There's plenty of conflict in the world."

Dorman, a long-time government and journalism professor at CSUS, has been studying the relationship between the mass media and world conflict since the 1960s. He started an informal class on the topic on the lawn of the University's main quad in 1970, and that class has since blossomed into a popular course offering each year. Dorman is the co-author of U.S. Press and Iran and has written extensively on the subject for journals and periodicals ranging from the World Policy Journal to the Columbia Journalism Review.


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