International humanitarian nongovernmental organizations usually present themselves as bearing no national allegiance, and as working with the sole interest to save human lives impartially. Organizations such as Doctors without Borders, Doctors of the World, and CARE international have made transnationalism part of their expressed identity. For such NGOs, nations and nationalism are often at the perceived root of the problems that they try to solve. This is because nations create and maintain the borders humanitarian NGOs seek to transcend, because nations are the ones who fail to extend an adequate level of care to their own nationals, and because nations – through aggression and expansionism – are often the ones that create the problems at hand in the first place.
However, the history of the humanitarian NGO sector itself is deeply embedded in national dynamics and sentiments. In fact, nationalism had a crucial role in formalizing humanitarian sentiments and in facilitating impartial relief work across borders. The Red Cross, the longest standing and largest network of humanitarian relief societies, was propelled for much of its history by the patriotic pride its member organizations took in their work. As my research into the origins of the humanitarian sector shows, the Red Cross provided activists with a way to identify helping foreigners – and especially enemy nationals – with national moral character and superiority.
The Red Cross Movement was established in 1863 in Geneva. Over the late-nineteenth-century the movement created much of the ethical, operational, and legal infrastructure for the emerging humanitarian NGO sector. Its organizing committee, which came to be called the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), advocated for national governments to establish and support volunteer relief societies for the war wounded in each of their respective capitals. These national Red Cross societies – at least ideally – were to be relatively independent from the militaries and their medical corps. They were to be treated as neutral agents on the battlefield who are there solely for the purpose of saving wounded soldiers’ lives, regardless of their nationality. By the end of the nineteenth-century, the movement had expanded dramatically and effectively spanned all of Europe, with significant representation in America and Asia. The movement also expanded in scope from focusing on battlefields alone to covering natural disasters, prisoners of war, and extreme poverty as well.
The Red Cross emerged in tandem with a sweeping intensification of nationalism as a cultural, political, and intellectual current, marked by events such as the 1848 Spring of Nations, the 1871 unification of Germany, and the Balkan Wars of the 1870s. Many pacifist and socialist movements of the time, appalled by the succession of wars they were witnessing, believed that nations and their freedom to fight must be restricted by way of disarmament. The ICRC, however, saw such plans to bring an end to warfare as pure fantasy. Their own project aimed to civilize, rather than eliminate, wars, and they saw patriotic pride as a vehicle to do so. The ICRC envisioned the Red Cross project as a diffuse, federated movement (rather than a centralized movement) that asks states to voluntarily submit to a universal obligation toward the wounded and the defenseless and to ensure they receive proper care.
Thus, on the one hand, the ICRC worked to create an international community of humanitarians that represent the universal ideals the Red Cross sought to emulate. The ICRC organized international conferences to bring together representatives of the national Red Cross societies in order to exchange knowledge and experience, but no less importantly, to also build up a shared sense of identity and to present the movement to the public as a global phenomenon. The International Committee also published a journal where each national society could report and display its own efforts toward the collective mission. Exhibitions, international advocacy efforts, and an increasing standardization across the national societies were equally oriented towards building a shared identity across borders. And crucially, the ICRC advocated for states to protect humanitarian workers on the battlefield and to even encourage civilians to offer help to the wounded. This was established legally through the most universally known and symbolically powerful item in International Humanitarian Law, the 1864 Geneva Convention.
But on the other hand, the Red Cross encouraged nations to subscribe individually to the international program the movement was advocating, and thus the different national emulations of the Red Cross took geopolitical, legalistic, and cultural expressions. For many state leader of the late-nineteenth-century, being superior at abiding by and implementing the Red Cross program was an important way to express a sense of nationhood and to compete with other nations internationally. The 1860s and 70s saw numerous instances where Prussia and its neighbors exchanged accusation of who “truly” abided International Humanitarian Law and who provided care to their opponent’s wounded soldiers. The Geneva Convention provided belligerents with clear, legal terms by which to articulate how they believed they were better than their neighbors. Their national Red Cross societies provided state leaderships with specific examples of their nation’s extraordinary charitability. For the emerging nations of the 1870s – Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, for example – harboring a Red Cross society was also an important assertion of self-determination and international legitimacy.
The visual imagery the national chapters of the Red Cross were producing demonstrated the patriotic meanings they ascribed to humanitarian work. In France, St Joan of Arc, patroness of the soldiers and of France, was symbolically adopted as the patroness of the Red Cross as well, and appeared on appeals for donations and help. Columbia, the feminine personification of the United States, fulfilled a similar role on the American National Red Cross posters. Japanese woodprints displayed Japanese medical staff wearing a Red Cross armband and nursing their Russian opponents to health. Such images were sometimes juxtaposed with depictions of Russian soldiers displaying cruelty toward defenseless Japanese civilians.
The Red Cross Movement, in its international publishing and advocacy efforts, formalized a new metric of evaluating national morality, based on the humanitarian conduct of a state during war: by the responsiveness of their citizens to the plight of others; in the willingness of their militaries to allow medical personnel on the battlefield and to protect them as they treat the wounded; by the generosity of their aristocracy and their support of their local relief workers and international efforts. Excelling in humanitarian work and abiding with International Humanitarian Law continue to be important sources of pride for contemporary nation-states as well.
Thus, while nationalism and universal values and programs often clash, in practice they are not necessarily opposed, as demonstrated by the emergence of the international humanitarian sector. But nationalism may also propel additional types of global programs—environmental work, or human rights activism, for example—and should be taken into account when studying other global fields as well.
Shai M. Dromi is a Lecturer on Sociology at Harvard University. He is working on a book on the emergence of the field of humanitarian international nongovernmental organizations. Find out more about his research on his website. His paper For good and country: nationalism and the diffusion of humanitarianism in the late nineteenth century received the 2016 Global and Transnational Sociology Section Best Graduate Student Paper Award of the American Sociological Association.