How do the dynamics of contemporary armed conflict shape, and constrain, humanitarian action? Is the international humanitarian “system”
really at breaking point, as is often claimed? Or will it adapt to the changing realities not just of warfare but of global geopolitical shifts – as it has done repeatedly in the past – and evolve into something different? By way of response, the first part of this article offers a snapshot of today's armed conflicts and other situations of violence, focusing initially on the trends and features apparent in the Syrian conflict – which has in many ways come to define twenty-first-century warfare – and moving on to other countries and regions, many of which share at least some of these features, albeit in varying degrees. It considers the humanitarian consequences of today's armed conflicts and other situations of violence, and the implications for humanitarian response – which, at least on an international level, is indeed facing a watershed. The second part aims to show that even a glance back at key aspects of the evolution of humanitarian action over the past century – largely in response to the evolving nature of warfare and the developing international system – will remind us of quite radical changes in the face of major upheavals and challenges, not all of them dissimilar to those of today. The third part suggests that in today's global environment, international humanitarian response will continue to evolve and ultimately take on a different shape: one that reflects the changing nature of conflict and the geopolitical power shifts that go with it. With the rise of the global South, and the increasing recognition of the importance of local actors to humanitarian action, particular attention is given to the evolving relationship between local and international actors. In conclusion, the article reiterates some of the main reasons why humanitarian action – and international humanitarian actors in particular – will likely continue to adapt (albeit with varying degrees of success) to a changing world.