The long overdue sight of Radovan Karadzic in The Hague facing trial for genocide is a useful reminder of wars past. In 1995, after three and a half years of killing, an American-led NATO bombing campaign helped stop Karadzic’s atrocities and turned the Bosnian Serb leader into a fugitive. But do the humanitarian interventions typified by America’s interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo have a future? Even as Darfur bleeds, Iraq has become a grim object lesson in the dangers of foreign adventures. The former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright recently wrote that “many of the world’s necessary interventions in the decade before the invasion [of Iraq] — in places like Haiti and the Balkans — would seem impossible in today’s climate.”
And yet somehow the idea of humanitarian intervention remains intact. In the 2000 presidential race, both George W. Bush and Al Gore said they would not have intervened to halt the genocide in Rwanda. But today, John McCain says the United States has an obligation to stop genocide when it can do so effectively, and Barack Obama has made genocide prevention a signature issue. He has surrounded himself with advisers haunted by America’s failure to stop the Rwandan genocide and regularly calls for saving Darfur.
How can this be? For many Europeans, there is a simple explanation: the United States has learned nothing. Rather than recognizing the stark limitations of military power, Americans are promising again to remake the world. Infinitely distractable, the United States plunged into Iraq before it had stabilized Afghanistan; now, while both countries are still hanging by a thread, it may be on to Darfur. Humanitarian intervention, in short, seems to many a distinctively American idea — and not in a good way. During the Somalia intervention in 1992, Henry A. Kissinger wrote that “no other nation” except the United States had ever asserted that “humane concerns” matter so much “that not only treasure but lives must be risked to vindicate them.”
But a look back at history shows this to be a caricature. In fact, Europeans were backing humanitarian interventions almost two centuries ago, while Americans were often the ones who objected. Throughout the 19th century, people in Britain, France and Russia urged the dispatch of troops to stop killings in places like Poland and Bulgaria — even when doing so undermined the national interest. Some of the most celebrated European names — Victor Hugo, William Wilberforce, Anthony Trollope, Oscar Wilde — demanded action. The telegraph and newspapers confronted readers with horrific stories from remote lands — a forerunner to the famous “CNN effect” in which televised images of suffering prompt the call for rescue.
The result was actual interventions in Syria and Naples and, perhaps most spectacularly, Greece. When Greek nationalists rose up against Ottoman rule in 1821, much of the British public rallied to their cause, galvanized by press reports of Ottoman atrocities. This was supremely inconvenient for the British government, which had a clear imperial interest in supporting the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against Russian expansion. But the London Greek Committee lobbied the government, sent money and weapons to the Greeks and dispatched men, including Lord Byron, then probably the most famous poet in Europe, to Greece to fight. Byron died of fever there. (Imagine Bono fighting in Darfur today.) Finally, in 1827, the British Navy, alongside French and Russian ships, sank much of the Ottoman Navy in Greece — helping to secure the creation of today’s independent Greece.
In contrast, the United States was rarely moved by humanitarianism alone. While Thomas Jefferson, Daniel Webster and countless Americans thrilled to the Greek cause, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams refused to act: America, he famously said, “does not go abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” There was widespread American outrage at the 1915 Armenian genocide, which Theodore Roosevelt called “the greatest crime of the war.” But Woodrow Wilson dared not risk entering World War I at the time, and his secretary of state, Robert Lansing, secretly admitted that his department was “withholding from the American people the facts now in its possession” — an official cover-up of genocide.
Humanitarian intervention, in other words, is not the property of the United States or the generation of liberal hawks who championed Balkan interventions in the 1990s. For better or worse, it is best understood as an idea that’s common to the big democracies on both sides of the Atlantic. Canada has promoted the principle of an international “responsibility to protect” endangered civilians. Europe has a fresh crop of foreign ministers who — following their 19th-century predecessors — support humanitarian intervention: Bernard Kouchner of France argued for delivering aid to cyclone victims in Myanmar by force if necessary, and David Miliband of Britain championed the faltering United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur on a February trip to Beijing. And in Berlin, Barack Obama won German cheers and applause by saying, “The genocide in Darfur shames the conscience of us all.”
Of course, the real test will come when George W. Bush is gone and Americans and Europeans have to turn those cheers into policy. It’s not at all clear that European publics are outraged by abuses in Darfur the way they were once outraged by massacres in Greece, Syria and Bulgaria. When the next president takes office, America will still have troops in Afghanistan and Iraq and will inevitably be more eager for European soldiers to deploy in Afghanistan than in Darfur. In August 1992, a promising presidential candidate named Bill Clinton said, “If the horrors of the Holocaust taught us anything, it is the high cost of remaining silent and paralyzed in the face of genocide.” As the Rwandans found out, it’s easier to state historical lessons than to apply them.
Gary J. Bass, a Princeton professor, is the author of “Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention,” which will be published by Alfred A. Knopf this month.
, Rwandan genocide
, United Nations
, Yugoslav genocide