Is Humanitarian Intervention Dead?

History offers some sobering lessons.

Remember “humanitarian intervention”? The phrase described military intervention in sovereign states to prevent civilians from being murdered en masse. Before reading Gary Bass’ vivid new exploration of the historical roots of modern-day humanitarian intervention, Freedom’s Battle, I had thought that the practice of humanitarian intervention might be marked with a tombstone “Born 1991, northern Iraq—Died 2003, Iraq.” But Bass, with whom I often discussed this issue in the 1990s, shows that debates over rescuing imperiled civilians date back to the 19th century. It was then that the British dispatched a fleet to Greece to prevent Turkish atrocities against Greek rebels and civilians, the French occupied Syria to rescue imperiled Christian minorities (a British fleet stood at the ready offshore), and the British nearly invaded the Ottoman Empire to halt the “Bulgarian Horrors” in 1876.

“Humanitarian intervention” is a problematic phrase for the obvious reason that “intervention,” which in Bosnia (1995) and Kosovo (1999) meant bombing, is a fundamentally un-humanitarian act. The word intervention is also unhelpful because it means a range of different things to different people. Some use the word to signal the deployment of military forces. Many others (including me) see intervention as lying on a continuum—with mediation, diplomatic denunciation, travel bans, asset freezes, arms embargoes, and the deployment of consensual peacekeepers (as in East Timor in 1999) understood as often being the wisest responses to atrocities. Given their risks, war and occupation seem advisable only in rare circumstances where the risks of using other tools are even greater. (In my view this consequentialist test was passed in Bosnia and flunked in the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq.) But one thing is certain: A decadelong mainstream debate over humanitarian intervention ground to an abrupt halt in the wake of the Bush administration’s disastrous invasion of Iraq. In 2008 the governments of Burma, Sudan, and Zimbabwe can sleep easy knowing that, while they might be criticized for their brutality, they will not be stopped.

Bass, a humanitarian hawk, rebuts the notion that civilian suffering only recently assumed an influential role in world affairs. He tells colorful tales of popular human rights and humanitarian campaigns in the 19th century, unearthing a cast of familiar personalities who played unheralded roles as social activists. Lord Byron met his death in Greece in 1824 attempting to bring financial relief to the Greek rebels. He was joined in the “philhellene” cause by philosopher Jeremy Bentham, economist David Ricardo, and French novelist Victor Hugo. The philhellene movement convened public meetings, mobilized press coverage, and lobbied, while also buying weapons and outfitting troops. And it eventually succeeded in pressuring the British government to send a squadron to the region, which attacked and sunk most of the Ottoman fleet. In delving into this and other cases, Bass shows how “freedom at home can help promote freedom abroad.” The demise of censorship and the explosion in news circulation helped fuel popular movements aimed at combating massacres abroad. Indeed, Bass’ study foreshadows Canadian Gen. Romeo Dallaire’s observation that, during the Rwanda genocide in 1994, “a reporter with a line to the West was worth a battalion on the ground.”

As he did in his last book, Stay the Hand of Vengeance, a riveting history of war crimes trials, Bass moves convincingly from the present to the past, drawing parallels where they exist but rarely stretching analogies too far. I found it surprising to see how little the practice and critique of humanitarian intervention have changed in more than a century. One can draw a few general lessons from then and now. First, states that intervene militarily to stop massacres almost always do so in response to popular outrage. Governments are guided primarily by national security and economic concerns, and large-scale suffering tends to register only when powerful domestic political constituencies force it onto the agenda. For instance, William Gladstone got under the skin of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli only when his pamphlet, Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East, took Great Britain by storm. Unfortunately, policies that are reactive to popular sentiment are often ill-conceived and inattentive to complexities. (The philhellenes overlooked atrocities carried out by Greek rebels, focusing only on those committed by Turks; the French were biased toward the Maronites, seeing them as blameless in the violence against Syrian Druzes.) Often the outsiders’ response is aimed less at solving the problem at hand than at appeasing domestic unrest.

Second, countries that act militarily on humanitarian grounds never do so consistently. When Britain stood poised to intervene over Turkish atrocities against Greeks in 1822, one Ottoman minister snapped: “Why do not the Christian Sovereigns interfere to prevent the Emperor of Russia from sending his subjects into Siberia? Because they know very well what answer they would receive! Thus there is one law of humanity for Turkey and another for Russia!” The hypocrisy of interveners takes two forms: lateral and historical. Lateral hypocrites denounce human rights abuses in one region but ignore them in another. Historical hypocrites have themselves carried out the very human rights abuses that they suddenly decide warrant intervention elsewhere.

Yet those who support intervention on moral grounds are often quick to hail their own virtue. John Stuart Mill thought so highly of the British nobility of purpose that he said such unselfishness was “a novelty in the world; so much so … that many are unable to believe it when they see it.” In sending French forces to Syria, Napoleon III issued an open letter denouncing the “pitiful jealousies and unfounded distrust of those who suggested that any interests except those of humanity had induced him to send troops to Syria.” In fact, countries that intervene militarily rarely do so out of pure altruism. The French deployed forces to Syria partly because of disgust over the massacres of Maronites, but also because doing so might solidify Napoleon III’s influence in the region and win over Catholic voters at home. The Russians intervened in the Ottoman Empire in the hopes of gaining control of water ports. Bass quotes from All the King’s Men when Willie Stark lectures pure Adam Stanton on doing good: “You got to make it, Doc. If you want it. And you got to make it out of badness. Badness. … And you know why? Because there isn’t anything else to make it out of.”

But how sustainable is this in the 21st century? The Bush administration is hardly convincing when it endorses water-boarding one day and calls for peacekeepers to be sent to halt genocide the next. This century’s debates over humanitarian intervention occur in a globalized world where a country’s policies in one place are visible elsewhere, and in a polarized world where a country’s lack of credibility or legitimacy undermines its ability to draw allies to its side. Understanding the 19th-century cases, Bass writes, “should contribute to a more humble, sober version of the practice in the future.”

Historically informed caution certainly seems the right antidote to Bush-era recklessness. An ethnic, national, or religious group must be in immediate danger of being massacred on a large scale; a credible multilateral body must support the intervention. The countries intervening must forswear up front the pursuit of commercial or strategic interests in the region. They must commit to remaining for a finite period and in numbers befitting their limited mandates (though, as Bass notes, it’s important to be careful not to allow the killers to wait out the intervention and to deploy a force sizable enough to protect civilians). Finally, the countries entering a foreign land must have done so on the basis of the good-faith calculation that the benefits of such action would outweigh the costs—to the victims, the region, and the intervening parties.

While instituting such requirements should reduce the risks of cynical or counterproductive interventions, the conditions are in fact so stringent that it is not obvious how or when, in today’s world, such conditions might be met. Countries are hardly rushing to contribute troops to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Darfur. And since China and Russia frown on external interferences that aren’t of their own making, multilateral consensus is likely to be elusive. On this score, Henry Kissinger seems increasingly correct that “a doctrine of common intervention can furnish a more useful tool to frustrate action than the doctrine of non-interference.”

History is laden with belligerent leaders using humanitarian rhetoric to mask geopolitical aims. History also shows how often ill-informed moralism has led to foreign entanglements that do more harm than good. But history shows the costs, too—in Rwanda and today in Darfur—of failing to prevent mass murder. The fate of future atrocity victims may turn on whether it is possible to find a path between blinding zeal and paralyzing perfectionism.