It's just war

Books In his new history of humanitarian intervention, Gary Bass attempts a model for international action today. Easier said than done, writes Matthew Price.

ca. 1830-1864 --- Print after <Battle of Navarino> by Panagiotis Zografos --- Image by © Stapleton Collection/Corbis
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In his new history of humanitarian intervention, Gary Bass attempts to construct a model for international action today. Easier said than done, writes Matthew Price.
Freedom's Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention Gary J Bass Knopf DH128
There are few more loaded phrases than "humanitarian intervention". At once too broad and too narrow, it lends itself perfectly to empty sloganeering, and worse. After all, Vladimir Putin defended the invasion of Georgia partly on humanitarian grounds - to defend ethnic Ossetians - even if much of the world saw things differently. But Putin invoked the same kind of language Nato used to justify its campaign in Kosovo, an action Russia vigorously opposed. If any war with a humanitarian component can be called a humanitarian intervention, the term is so broad as to be meaningless. But if the term is defined narrowly, one could argue that few, if any, wars, have been fought for humanitarian reasons alone.

The American Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart famously said, of pornography, "I know it when I see it." But can we say no more about humanitarian interventions? In the learnt, witty, and well-meaning Freedom's Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention, Gary Bass argues there is a distinction to be made. Against the brutish cynicism of Putin, or, even worse, Adolf Hitler, who invaded Czechoslovakia to "protect" the country's ethnic German minority, Bass makes the case that genuine humanitarian interventions are deeply grounded in the ideology of liberalism. Though Bass doesn't fully address the term's nagging ambiguities - he knows a genuine intervention when he sees it - his intention is to recover an honourable tradition of foreign interventions dating back to the 19th century, one which might guide today's liberal states and help promote international justice.

Using history as a guide for policy-making has its perils, but Bass is not shy about drawing analogies between the 19th century and our own time. Humanitarian interventions, however, are not always what they seem, and the story he tells tends to complicate his prescriptions. Bass highlights the era in which a "human rights" doctrine emerged, taking a vivid historical tour of a series of diplomatic crises that pitted the Ottoman Empire against Britain, Russia, and France, as well as the Armenian genocide during the First World War. These conflicts, like the one over Bulgaria in the 1870s, where Ottoman irregulars massacred thousands of Christians, were driven less by traditional reasons for war - economic gain and territorial conquest - than by newfangled principles devoted to saving threatened populations and halting mass slaughter. "Humanitarian intervention," Bass concludes, "emerged as a fundamental enterprise, wrapped up with the progress of liberal ideas and institutions." Bass points to the evolution of a free press in Britain and France as a key component in the first humanitarian interventions: newspapers publicised atrocities, moved the public, and gave politicians fits. Public opinion was mobilised, which in turn spurred politicians to take action abroad.

The structure of Freedom's Battle is awkward, the equivalent of an overstuffed sandwich. Bass's preliminary and concluding theoretical chapters, which lay out a case for interventions in the 21st century, are laboured, repetitive, dryly analytic, but the meat of his story is colourful and evocative, teeming with a who's who of politics and culture from the Victorian era and after - Byron and Dostoyevsky; Benjamin Disraeli and William Gladstone, great foes and political titans; Metternich and Lord Castlereagh, architects of the post-Napoleonic European order; Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. Bass is an entertaining historian, and he livens his text with pungent quotes and sharp appraisals of his dramatis personae. About Gladstone, Bass writes: "Originally not much of a democrat, he had learnt to appreciate the genius of the masses, so long as they agreed with him." On TR, Bass sharply observes that "Roosevelt's humanitarianism was always militarised." (See John McCain.)

The terms of humanitarian intervention were ferociously argued, and Bass's pages resound with passionate arguments for and against. (A better subtitle for Freedom's Battle might be "The Origins of the Debate over Humanitarian Intervention".) Bass, though he can twist himself into knots, is keen to show that the strictures of realpolitik and the moral fervour of humanitarianism need not be incompatible. It's a trick, however, that requires some historical sleight of hand.

After Napoleon rampaged all over Europe, his victorious opponents were determined to ensure peace at all costs. For Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary, "the safety and repose of Europe" were paramount. But the stirrings of independence in Greece in the 1820s would put the post-Napoleonic order to the test. After Greek insurgents attempted to break away from the Ottoman Empire, their rulers responded savagely, burning Orthodox churches and killing Greeks in Constantinople and Smyrna. In London, philhellenes like Byron and Jeremy Bentham, carried away with romantic ideas about ancient Greece - "the first enlightened nation", as Bentham dubbed it - took up the Greek cause. (Some, like Byron, even volunteered to fight in Greece; the poet would die there in 1824).

Bass is too thoughtful a historian to present these conflicts in terms of good versus evil, and, throughout Freedom's Battle, he stresses just how murky the terms of intervention are, even in the most clear-cut cases. The Greeks were responsible for several atrocities, murdering some 7000 Turks, many of them civilians, in 1821 at Tripolitza. But the philhellenes won the propaganda battle, even if Castlereagh and Metternich furiously resisted calls for intervention. For an arch-reactionary like the Austrian Foreign Minister Metternich, all the swooning over Greece recalled "certain addresses presented in a time that nobody likes to recall...that is, the gory horrors of the French Revolution." (Metternich rooted outright for an Ottoman victory.) With Russia clamouring for war to defend its Orthodox coreligionists, and Britain straining to remain neutral, the Ottomans pressed their campaign against Greece.

After brokering a treaty in London, the Allies eventually forced concessions on the Ottomans, and sank their fleet at the Battle of Navarino in 1827 to drive home the point. But was this the first humanitarian intervention of the modern age? The answer remains complicated. Much as in the present day, it is difficult to extract the pure humanitarian motives from conflicts that pay clear strategic dividends to the combatants. Certainly, Russia's interests were served by an independent Christian state that bordered on Ottoman territory.

While many Britons were moved by the suffering that unfolded in Greece, Britain had its eye on checking Russian expansion as much as it did on the oppression of the Greeks. For much of the 19th century, Britain favoured the Ottoman Empire as a vital counterweight to Russian expansionism. After Greece, humanitarian actions became much the exception, not the regular practice, of Europe's liberal powers. As Bass himself points out, Britain did little to counter Austria's violent suppression of Italian and Hungarian revolutionaries during upheavals of 1848; nor could it do much when Russia crushed a Polish uprising in 1863. Liberal solidarity had its limits.

But Austria and Russia were military superpowers, where a weakened Ottoman Empire was not. Britain and France would find themselves drawn again into conflicts with the Ottomans, first over atrocities against Syrians in 1860-1861, and then in Bulgaria in 1876-1877, after a series of massacres against Christians that outraged public sentiment in Great Britain. With the consent of Britain and the Ottoman sultan, France sent troops to Syria to settle a conflict that pitted Maronite Christians against the Druze, who had burnt Maronite villages and churches. (In France, a hysterical press frothed about Christian oppression, but, if anything, the Druze, who were dealt with severely by the Ottomans and Christians alike, needed international protection.)

For Bass, the Syrian occupation is a model, however flawed: a limited engagement, made possible by international co-operation, that preserved Ottoman sovereignty. Even if the mission suited France's imperial aims in the Middle East, as Bass points out, France quickly left the region as required by treaty. The situation in Bulgaria would prove far more nettlesome, and plunge Russia into an ill-fated war with Turkey. In one of the great political showdowns of the 19th century, Gladstone and Disraeli clashed over Britain's response to the outrages in the East. Gladstone is one of Bass's heroes - an anti-imperialist and champion of human rights who denounced Disraeli's support of the Ottomans. Gladstone, "committed to co-operative multilateralism", favoured a cautious alliance with Russia to protect the rights of Christians. Russia, however, had its own strategic calculus to pursue, and invaded Bulgaria without international consent.

Bass is not merely writing a scholarly study; he has a mind to demonstrate that "humanitarian intervention can be a part of a wider grand strategy of free republics." Bass writes that "The nineteenth century shows how the practice of humanitarian intervention can be managed." But does it? As with much of his argument, the answer is yes, and no. There is a kind of anarchy in international relations that passes for order, and the historical lessons Bass wants us to draw are perhaps less clear than he thinks. His consideration of the Armenian genocide, which highlights Woodrow Wilson's inaction, cautiously lionises Theodore Roosevelt, who, it seemed, wanted to invade half the countries on earth. Of Wilson's plans for a new global system, Bass comments "The world order envisioned after the First World War did not aim to establish a regular way of stopping mass atrocity." And so it continues to this day.

Bass concedes that intervention is a drastic measure, but he outlines a series of protocols he suggests might be employed in worst-case scenarios. The first is pursuit of diplomatic consensus, but even this is not clear-cut: it might mean going outside the UN, where China and Russia wield veto power, leaving us to debate how we define "consensus" when certain states are sure to reject it. Bass, mindful of critics on the left who see in humanitarian intervention nothing but veiled imperialism, works to craft a definition that eludes that charge, but he is not always successful. He is keen to point out that many of the 19th century humanitarians - Gladstone, chiefly - were also anti-imperialists. But it often takes an imperial power to mount a humanitarian campaign, though Bass suggests that regional powers might take the lead, as Australia did in East Timor. (But where is South Africa on Zimbabwe?) If there is to be a military action, Bass advises "keep the mission short, keep the force size small, and give no advantages to the intervening power. Humanitarian interventions are emergency steps, one should be suspicious of a permanent emergency."

For all his recommendations, Bass still leaves us in a quandary. In an alternative universe, liberal powers, per Bass's protocols, might have mounted interventions to halt genocide in Rwanda and Darfur, or Cambodia; in the actual world, they did not. Bass points to Bosnia and Kosovo, but these were limited actions that ignited controversies that remain unsettled. If anything, by now the principles of humanitarian intervention should be enshrined in the discourse of global politics, but they remain as fraught - and, perhaps, unrealistic - as ever. That the most powerful liberal state in the world invaded Iraq, a point on which Bass is curiously muted, and then later used the rhetoric of humanitarian concern to sanction a lengthy military campaign only further challenges his case. Perhaps "free republics" have a responsibility to protect human rights, but for now they are all of them a coalition of the unwilling.
Matthew Price's writing has been published in Bookforum, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and The Financial Times.