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The Duty to Rescue

Freedom's Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention

By Gary J. Bass

(Knopf, 528 pp., $35)

Gary J. Bass has written a wonderfully intelligent and sardonic history of the moral causes célèbres of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Byron and Greek independence in 1825, the European campaign to save the Maronite Christians of Syria and Lebanon in 1860, Gladstone and the Bulgarian atrocities in 1876, Henry Morgenthau and the Armenian genocide of 1915. Bass resurrects these forgotten causes to remind us that humanitarian intervention did not begin in the 1990s. For nearly two hundred years, the impulse to save strangers from massacre has rivaled raison detat as a driver of European statecraft. As we respond--or do not respond--to the Rwandas and Darfurs of the future, we can still learn from this forgotten history.

Bass expertly brings to life a rich panoply of characters: Byron, Gladstone, Disraeli, Metternich, and Hugo, to name just a few. The stock villain of the piece is none other than the knavishly devious Count Ignatiev, chief advocate of Russian expansion into southern Europe in the 1860s and 1870s. He makes an excellent villain, oozing charm from every pore, lying his way through the chancelleries of Europe, inciting the suppressed nationalities of the Ottoman Empire to revolt and then seeking to subject them to the none-too-tender mercies of the czar. He happens to have been my great-grandfather, and alas, Bass gets him just right.

Freedom's Battle is full of fascinating and ironic incident: Byron giving his life for Greek independence but confessing that he could not stand the Greeks; Metternich raging that humanitarian intervention was nothing more than a "villainous game which takes religion and humanity for a pretext in order to upset all regular order of things"; Disraeli dismissing the calls to save the Bulgarians as "coffee-house babble brought by an anonymous Bulgarian," only to find himself overwhelmed by the tidal wave of Gladstone's moral indignation. Bass avoids the Whiggish temptation to turn the history of humanitarian intervention into the triumph of conscience over imperial cynicism. Each intervention presented a genuine dilemma. Realists such as Metternich and Disraeli thought intervention would destroy the order of Europe, and the humanitarians--or "atrocitarians," as Bass somewhat inelegantly calls them--believed that the conscience of Europe must not be sacrificed on the altar of order. Unlike the interventions of the recent past, the full consequences of which are still unfolding in Kosovo, Bosnia, and East Timor, the cases studied by Bass allow us to observe just how deeply conscience shook the order of states.

The campaign around Turkish atrocities against Bulgarian Christians is a stirring case in point. Had an American journalist not filed his sensational report on these atrocities in 1876, Gladstone might not have supplanted Disraeli, Russia might not have gone to war against the Turks in 1877, the Austro-Hungarians might not have occupied Bosnia in 1878, and the chain of consequences that led Gavrilo Princip to assassinate the archduke in Sarajevo in 1914 might not have been set in motion. One clear message for the humanitarians of today is that they cannot allow themselves the luxury of indifference to the strategic consequences of their own moralism. Before they call for action, they must, as best they can, examine--or game out, as we now say--how the dominoes are likely to fall.

The realists of the time, Disraeli and Metternich, foresaw these consequences more clearly than the humanitarians. They believed that it was necessary to keep the Ottoman Empire afloat if the combustible nationalisms of Eastern Europe were to be contained and the long imperial peace maintained. And so it came to pass: once the liberal interventionists started intervening on the side of the peoples groaning under the Turkish yoke--first the Greeks, then the Bulgarians, finally the Armenians--the long slide into world war began.

If the realists anticipated these consequences more clearly than the interventionists, the realists certainly failed to understand that maintaining the Ottoman Empire by massacre was itself not a viable option. Nationalist revolts against Ottoman domination were inevitable, and the imperial order that the realists defended was steadily weakening and was finally bound to collapse. The atrocitarians saw this more clearly than the realists. The real Eastern Question was not whether the Ottoman Empire could be saved, but who would benefit from its collapse--Russia or the Western powers, and the various nationalisms that each promoted.

Bass argues at length that while Western intervention in the Ottoman Empire was driven by both imperial and humanitarian motives, the two impulses were distinct. Many humanitarians--Jeremy Bentham, for example--were vehement opponents of their own empires. Byron did not die for the British Empire. He died for the Greeks, and of course for his own glory. Despite these examples, it is possible that Bass works too hard to persuade us that humanitarianism is unclouded by imperial impulse. Imperial racism toward Muslims in general and Turks in particular played a recurring role in propelling the European conscience to action. Gladstone's famous pamphlet Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East--one of the Magna Carta documents of the modern human rights movement--was, as Bass rightly notes, a mixture of over-the-top moralizing and raw anti-Turkish bigotry. Gladstone knew exactly nothing about Islam, the Turks, or the Ottoman Empire. But this did not stop him from characterizing the Turks as "the great anti-human specimen of humanity."

Humanitarians may be as racist as realists. The same condescension that prompts realists to stay out of the quarrels of little peoples can prompt humanitarians to plunge in to save them. If humanitarians--then and now--often underestimate the costs of intervention, it may be because they condescend to the capabilities of the butchers they are out to defeat. If they overestimate the gratitude of the people on whose behalf they intervene, it may be because they are too much in love with the fantasy of helpless and thankful victims.

Bass argues strenuously that these nineteenth-century interventions reveal a conspicuously modern human rights consciousness, secular and universal in character. It is less clear to me that the humanitarians drew a distinction between saving fellow Christians and saving fellow human beings. This is not to say that abstract moral universalism was not available to the humanitarians of the nineteenth century. Since Grotius in the 1620s, philosophers of law had argued that the moral duty to protect and to save extends to human beings per se and not simply to co-religionists or fellow subjects. Enlightenment figures such as Adam Smith had castigated the moral partiality of religious sectarians. It is also true that unbelievers such as Byron went to Greece to save the Greeks, not fellow Christians. Still, the fact that the enemy was Muslim and the victims were Christian seems to have shaped the moral partialities of a devout Christian such as Gladstone.

While Bass does make the case for an independent self-subsisting moral universalism in Western culture, in the instances of intervention that he discusses Christian solidarities seem more salient as motives than the human solidarity of the modern human rights variety. But these are minor quibbles about a book that is a spirited and elegant contribution to the moral history of humanitarian emotions and their tangled relation to imperial interest and religious faith.

In the grim present, humanitarian intervention feels like an idea whose time has come and gone. The reasons for this are worth exploring. For ten years after the end of the Cold War, stopping ethnic cleansing and massacre in other countries became the cause célèbres of every liberal internationalist. Some of the political leaders who took up the cause were even aware that humanitarian intervention had a lineage that they could use to justify their actions. Tony Blair explicitly placed the mantle of the Gladstonian heritage on his own shoulders in defending the Kosovo intervention in 1999. By early 2000, the idea that all states have a "responsibility to protect" civilians at risk of ethnic cleansing or massacre in other states appeared to carry all before it--it became something approaching a principle of international law.

In this moment of apparent triumph, it was easy to forget that this idea became possible simply because intervention ceased to carry the risk of armaggedon. Conscience could trump caution so long as the military risks were low. The interventions in Kosovo and Bosnia were possible for the West because the Russians, however much they backed the losing Serbs, were unable and unwilling to stop NATO and the Americans. The East Timor intervention was possible because Indonesia lacked a protector powerful enough to forbid the creation of a free Timor. No intervention occurred to stop the Russian carnage in Chechnya because the Russians would not allow it.

And now the current crisis in Georgia reminds us that we are no longer living in an era of Russian strategic weakness. The parenthesis that allowed humanitarian interventions to occur has come to an end. In the case of Georgia, the humanitarian impulse has collided with raw, vast, and unyielding power. The United States can intervene to keep Georgia from disappearing, but it cannot re-instate its sovereignty. Russia has gone ahead and declared the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. This is an obvious riposte to Kosovo's independence, and therefore a warning that further humanitarian interventions of that type will not be tolerated in Russia's zone of influence.

China has delivered similar messages about Darfur. It grudgingly acquiesces in a failing U.N. military presence in the Sahara, but it will certainly stand against any political dismemberment of Sudan that would allow the Darfurians to break free of the regime in Khartoum. The combined resurgence of the Russians and Chinese makes it unlikely that the Security Council will authorize humanitarian interventions again, at least in regions vital to their interests.

But this is not the only factor, or even the main one, that threatens to consign humanitarian intervention to yesterday. The U.N. report that advocated the new doctrine of the "responsibility to protect" was sent to the printers in late August 2001. It was the high-water mark of the humanitarian faith. When it appeared in late September 2001, as the ruins of the World Trade Center were still smoldering, it was already irrelevant to American and European policymakers. Their overriding concern had shifted from protecting other country's civilians to protecting their own. And homeland security, not humanitarian intervention, has remained the policy imperative ever since.

Humanitarian intervention in the 1990s always required an American military component, or at least American strategic assistance. But the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have swallowed up all available military capacity and policy attention in Washington. Humanitarian intervention is no longer in the frame for any Western state. It is not merely that no one wants to go in anymore. It is also that no one believes that, once you do, you can succeed and then come home. Fixing broken states once looked possible. In Afghanistan and Iraq, everyone has learned how difficult it is to stay this course, especially for impatient societies such as our own.

This is why, for the moment at least, world-weary realism rules. Metternich and Disraeli are back in the saddle again. It is not that the need for intervention has disappeared. The case for intervention of some kind--to compel Mugabe to leave Zimbabwe, to compel Burma to allow relief workers to help cyclone victims, to protect Darfurians being murdered by the Janjaweed--remains as forceful as ever. The demand for humanitarian intervention is high, but the supply has dried up. The need to do something remains, but the moral conviction, together with the political will and the material resources to do it, has dwindled or disappeared.

And there is still another consideration that reinforces the idea that interventions are an impulse of Christian empires. It is that post-colonial countries are reluctant to shoulder the interventionist burden once taken by European states. The solution to the unfolding nightmare in Zimbabwe begins in South Africa, doesn't it? But African statecraft in general remains allergic to this sort of intervention. Imperialists thought big, and took on faraway responsibilities, for better and for worse; but post-imperial nation-states rarely think or act beyond their own immediate interests. The solidarity of oppressed peoples often disappears with their oppression.

From all this we might draw the wrong conclusion, namely that humanitarian intervention was a hectic but fleeting moral fashion of the 1990s--an opportunity for the West to display its insufferable moral superiority at low cost, and for liberal intellectuals to wear their consciences on their sleeves. Bass helps us to see our own moral history in a more serene and clear-eyed light. There was more to the interventions that saved the Bosnians, Kosovars, and East Timorese than moral vanity. The philosophical beliefs that drove those foreign campaigns had a history going back to Byron and the Greeks. Thanks to Bass's fine book, we can uncover the lineage of some enduring intuitions about the duties that people owe each other across borders. These moral intuitions may be in retreat right now, with great power politics in the ascendant; but it would be foolish to pronounce their demise. The impulse to save and protect others will survive this parenthesis of retreat. We are not done with evil, and so we are not done with humanitarian intervention. Its time will come again; or it had better come, if we are to continue to respect ourselves.

Michael Ignatieff is a Canadian member of parliament and a former member of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.

By Michael Ignatieff