Gary J. Bass, Freedom's Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), excerpts from Chapter One, "Humanitarianism or Imperialism?" pp. 11-24

Chapter One
Humanitarianism or Imperialism?
"Powers Will Be Powers"

Mass murderers have a well-worn argument to defend rhemselves against· outside intervention: that sending trqops would be an act of imperialism, not of altruism. Sudan's dictatorial president, Omar al-Bashir, once bluntly rejected United Nations peacekeepers in Darfur: "We will not accept colonial forces coming into the country." He could have been echoing Aleksandr Lukashenko, the Belarusian despot, who told the UN General Assembly: "If there are no pretexts for intervention, imaginary ones are created. To this end a very convenient banner was chosen--democracy and human rights." Even Vladimir Putin, facing international criticism for smothering Russian democracy, retorted that this reminded him of how a century ago "colonial powers ... cited arguments such as playing a civilizing role, the particular role of the white man, the need to civilize 'primitive peoples.' "

Bashir and Lukashenko may be pretty quickly written off as self-serving. But there is a serious intellectual tradition here. The most influential thinkers about international politics, at least in Britain and the United States since the shattering experience of World War II, are also the most gloomy. These realists see international 'politics as an amoral and savage struggle for survival and conquest. Sovereign states in the brawl of international anarchy must rely on their own strength to ensure their security . This leaves scant room for moral action. In his Nuremberg cell, Hermann Goring declared, "When it is the question of the interests of the nation!?--Phooey! Then morality stops! That is what England has done for centuries; America has done it; and Russia is still doing it!"

Henry Kissinger, as U.S, secretary of state, sent word to the Khmer Rouge: "Tell the Cambodians that we will be friends with them. They are murderous thugs, but we won't let that stand in our way." Today's realists--even at their worst, nothing at all like Goring---are usually conservatives, best represented in the moderate internationalist wing of the Republican Party. In his first major campaign speech on foreign policy, candidate George W. Bush--presumably influenced by Condoleezza Rice, a self-described realist-promised "realism, in the service of American ideals." That was hardly how his crusading administration turned out, but Bush originally forswore humanitarian intervention: "We should not send our troops to stop ethnic cleansing and genocide in nations outside our strategic interest." Today, as Iraq suffers through a horrific civil war, realists like James Baker and Brent Scowcroft are understandably dominating the public debate, demanding that idealists confront the brute realities of international relations. Many liberals have been forced to admit the potency of realist thinking. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, said that he found insights from going "backward to Disraeli and Metternich and forward to Henry Kissinger."

According to realists, states will go to war for conquest or for their own security--which could mean self-defense, or some kind of balance of power, or perhaps fighting for the sake of their allies. One should not expect much more than that. As A. J. P. Taylor, a British realist historian so allergic to moral judgments that he once defended Hitler as a normal German statesman, put it, "As a private citizen, I think that all this striving after greatness and domination is idiotic; and I should like my country not to take part in it. As a historian, I recognize that Powers will be Powers."

So for realists, humanitarian intervention--if there is such a thing--is a novel and alarming notion. This realist view that humanitarian intervention is new has become utterly conventional.

Disapproving of the U.S. lifesaving mission in Somalia, Henry Kissinger, the most famous of the American realists--and probably the most respected voice in U.S. foreign policy circles--wrote: "'Humanitarian intervention' asserts that moral and humane concerns are so much a part of American life that not only treasure but lives must be risked to vindicate them .... No other nation has ever put forward such a set of propositions." After the Kosovo war, Kissinger reprimanded Tony Blair, Britain's prime minister, for the "abrupt abandonment of the concept of national sovereignty" and "the advent of a new style of foreign policy driven by domestic politics and the invocation of unversal moralistic slogans." He direly warned:

Those who sneer at history obviously do not recall that the legal doctrine of national sovereignty and the principle of noninterference--enshrined, by the way, in the U.N. Charter--emerged at the end of the devastating Thirty Years War, to inhibit a repetition of the depredations of the 17th century, during which perhaps 40 percent of the population of Central Europe perished in the name of competing versions of universal truth.

In the same vein, Charles Krauthammer, a conservative columnist, wrote that Kosovo "probably qualifies as the first purely humanitarian war." The argument that humanitarian intervention is a brand-new phenomenon has also been made by influential foreign policy thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic like Stephen Glover, Richard Haass, and Michael Mandelbaum. It has also got traction on the other side of the Pacific: Tang Jiaxuan, as China's foreign minister, called NATO's Kosovo air strikes an "ominous precedent in international relations." Leslie Gelb, who has some sympathy for human rights interventions, wrote, "The notion that states could invade the sovereign territory of other states to stop massive bloodshed (call it genocide or ethnic cleansing or whatever) was inconceivable until the 1990s .... But in the space of a few years, this pillar of international politics was badly shaken."

This radical new development is, to many realists, an unambiguously bad one. George Kennan, the realist wise man who came up with the Cold War strategy of containment, argued only for interventions to stop practices "seriously injurious to our interest, rather than just our sensibilities." Thus Kennan was appalled at televised images of U.S. marines going into Somalia, dismissing public sympathy as "an emotional reaction, not a thoughtful or deliberate one."

Realists--especially ones of the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr's stripe--are by no means amoral. Rather, theirs is a morality of prudence and restraint, where the paramount goal is the avoidance of war. The point of a balance of power is a profound moral goal: it keeps the peace. Henry Kissinger's heroes are Metternich and Castlereagh, the statesmen of the Vienna settlement of 1815, who, horrified by the Napoleonic Wars, set up the Concert of Europe to prevent future wars--a success, although at the cost of crushing small nationalities and liberals in the name of long decades of great power peace. So realists rightly worry that hotheaded liberals will choose humanitarian intervention as a first resort rather than a last one, and that the perfectionist calls of justice will drown out the nonperfectionist calls of peace.

At best, some realists think that humanitarian intervention might be a kind of luxury item: a frivolity indulged in by a particularly strong country enjoying a rare moment of international dominance--until it gets its inevitable comeuppance from some new challenger and turns back to the serious business of forging a balance of power. As the neoconservative analyst Robert Kagan noted, the collapse of Soviet power freed the United States to intervene wherever it wanted. But realists see this as immature at best, and an arrogant invitation to nemesis at worst. "We proudly and readily allow our young sons and daughters in uniform to participate in humanitarian enterprises far from home," Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Somalia mission, later wrote. "But when the fighting starts, as it did in Somalia, and Ametican lives are at risk, our people rightly demand to know what vital interest that sacrifice serves."

More often, realists worry that any injection of morality into warfare will lead to unlimited crusades, Realists have long worried about a dangerously immature utopian impulse in democratic foreign policy. They particularly distrust feckless public opinion. This echoes old fears (not just those of realists) about mass politics. Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers, "The cries of the nation and the importunities of their representatives have upon various occasions, dragged their monarchs into war, or continued them in it, contrary to their inclinations, and sometimes contrary to the real interests of the state." Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, criticized democracies for a "propensity, .. to obey impulse rather than prudence, and to abandon a mature design for the gratification of a momentary passion." Thus Kissinger applauded Merrernich and Castlereagh for "their indifference to popular pressures."

When the U.S. Senate considered breaking relations with the Austrian Empire to protest Austria's crackdown on Hungarian nationalists in 1848, one senator sarcastically called for also condemning Russia for its suppression of Poland, France for Algeria, and Britain for India and Ireland. Henry Clay asked, "Where ... are we to stop? Why should we not interfere in behalf of suffering Ireland? Why not interfere in behalf of suffering humanity wherever we may find it?"

More profoundly, realists doubt that states' motives are really humanitarian. The British realist scholar E. H. Carr saw no moral absolutes, only ideological justifications. In perhaps the most sinister version of this argument, Wilhelm Grewe, a leading German international law expert writing under Nazism in 1944, argued that the stronger a state got, "the more its ideas and concepts prevailed, the more it conferred general and absolute validity on expressions of its national expansionist ideology. "

Even if one doesn't go that far, ugly motives are all too commonly masked wIth pretty rhetoric. As Leo Tolstoy angrily wrote, "Men march from west to east, killing their fellow-creatures, and this event is accompanied by phrases about the glory of France, the baseness of England, and so on., . , ., Is there any sort of combined action which could not find justification in political unity, or in patriotism, or in the balance of power, or in civilisation?" Max Weber cautioned against the "undignified selfrighteousness" of victorious men who claim they won a war because of their moral rectitude. The worst imperialists often claim they are acting from the finest mouves, as realists like Hans Morgenthau, Kenneth Waltz, and Niebuhr have eloquently noted. Even the liberal political theorist Michael Walzer warns, "Ever since Roman times, empires have expanded by intervening in civil wars, replacing 'anarchy' with law and order, overthrowing supposedly noxious regimes." The conquest of weaker nations, Morgenthau argued, is always explained away as the advance of humanitarianism, whether the conquerors are British, Japanese, Arab, French, or Russian.

Today's most influential realists stick to this belief. Kissinger and Mandelbaum put the phrase "humanitarian intervention" in quotation marks. Similarly, John Bolton, a neoconservative who served as George W Bush's UN-hating UN ambassador, said that "this so-called right of humanitarian intervenuon ... is just a gleam in one beholder's eye but looks like flat-out aggression to somebody else." In other words, the starkest realist view of humanitarian intervention is, to paraphrase the postmodernist scholar Stanley Fish: there's no such thing as humanitarian intervention, and it's a good thing, too. That is, these interventions are not reall; humanitarian, but, windy diplomatic rhetoric notwithstanding, are actually animated. by the brutal motives that realists think dominate international politics.

Strangely, it is at this point where realism--generally thought of as a conservative or reactionary creed--aligns with radical leftism. Like realists, leftists see darker imperial motives behind foreign policy: either for onomlc profit (according to Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and J. A. Hobson) or for racism (according to Edward Said), or a blend of both (Noam Chomsky). Marxism and realism thus came to the same conclusion.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in his furious preface to Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth, wrote of "the strip tease of our humanism. There you can see it, quite naked, and it's not a pretty sight. It was nothing but an ideology of lies, a perfect justification for pillage; its honeyed words, its affectation of sensibility were only alibis for our aggressions." In Orientalism, Said wrote, "Colonial rule was justified in advance by Orientalism, rather than after the fact. ... The Oriental is irrational, depraved (fallen), childlike, 'different'; thus the European is rational, virtuous, mature, 'normal.' " During the Kosovo war, Said complained against "the famous idea of humanitarian intervention which so many Western liberals have dragged out as an excuse for the bombing war." He added, "In comparison with what Clinton has done to Iraq alone, Milosevic, for all his brutality, is a rank amateur in viciousness. What makes Clinton's crimes worse is the sanctimony and fraudulent concern in which he cloaks himself and, worse, which seem to fool the neo-liberals who now run the Natopolitan world."

In short, many of the main anxieties of realism are shared as much by leftists as by Kissingerian realists. It is a little strange to see deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida and leftist Heideggerians like Jean Baudrillard agree with conservative realists in their skepticism about state claims to be acting morally. As Baudrillard said after the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, "Human rights have already been subsumed by the process of globalization and function as an alibi. They belong to the juridical and moral superstructure--in sum, they are advertising." Governments have warmed to the theme, too. Criticizing NATO's war in Kosovo, Chinese foreign minister Tang denounced the concept of humanitarian intervention as "new 'gun-boat diplomacy'" and a prelude to "the rampage of hegemonism." Either way, humanitarian rhetoric about suffering Bosnians, Zimbabweans, or Darfuris must be dismissed out of hand as so much imperial cant.

So, in sum, realists tend to view humanitarian intervention as new and either foolish, fake, or irrelevant.

Beyond Realism

There is much to be said for realism as a starting point. Realists are right to focus on raw power rather than just intentions. Like Machiavelli, realists argue that "all the armed prophets conquered and the unarmed ones were ruined," and, like Weber, that "for the politician the ... proposition holds, 'thou shalt resist evil by force,' or else you are responsible for the evil winning out."

The realists correctly remind us that humanitarian intervention is most likely to occur against militarily weak states. In hard cases, it takes power to impose human rights. As this book will show, in the nineteenth century Russian and Austrian oppression, while often prompting elite and even mass outcries in more liberal countries, did not provoke military steps, whereas oppression by weaker powers like the Ottoman Empire and Naples did. Today, China can get away with far worse in Tibet, or Russia in Chechnya, than a weaker state could. It was NATO power that made possible the humanitarian deployments in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.

Realists are also right to point out the frequent hypocrisy of the national security establishment. Immanuel Kant worried that kings could go callously to war and "blithely leave its justification (which decency requires), to his diplomatic corps, who are always prepared for such exercises." In the era of imperialism, one should be wary of any British hearts that bled over the fate of the insurrectionist Greeks and Bulgarians while remaining inured to the imperial brutalities inflicted on insurrectionist Sikhs and Bengalis by the British themselves. Thus John Stuart MiiI shabbily defended British and French imperialism as a tutelary "benefit" for Indians and Algerians: "Barbarians have no rights as a nation, except a right to such treatment as may, at the earliest possible period, fit them for becoming one." It is right to be deeply suspicious of any government that claims its wars are for the good of humanity.

But there are problems with the realist viewpoint--not least that it could be self-fulfilling. Politicians are not always cynics or hypocrites, or at least not always totally so. Sometimes governments will do well by doing good. The fact that a military intervention in some way serves some government's realpolitik interest does not mean that there is no idealism involved in the decision to send troops. Even a realist like George Kennan admits that the American public was genuinely shocked at Spanish cruelty in Cuba. Even if, as Niebuhr argues, hypocritical rhetoric is meant "for the deception of their own deluded nationals ... [and] to heal a moral breach in the inner life of statesmen," could not activists use these pinpricks of conscience as the thin edge of a wedge, building a more truly moral kind of statecraft?

Sometimes, states are genuinely driven by morality. The prime example is the campaign against the slave trade, and then slavery itself--properly seen as the root of all modern human rights activism. Britain drove hard to stop the American slave trade--even to the point of using military force. As the political scientists Chaim Kaufmann and Robert Pape demonstrate, this principled commitment cost Britain the lives of some five thousand troops in various antislavery missions, soured its relations with the United States and France, and badly damaged the British economy by undermining its own sugar industry. Still, British leaders backed the policy with remarkable vigor. "I need hardly remind you of the slave trade," Liverpool, the prime minister, wrote to his foreign secretary, Castlereagh, immediately upon hearing of the capitulation of Paris at the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Napoleon had reintroduced slavery in the French Empire in 1802, but now King Louis XVlII, restored to his throne by force of British arms, was in no position to resist the British antislavery position; Castlereagh could soon proudly report to Liverpool "the final Act of His Most Christian Majesty, declaring the Slave Trade for ever abolished throughout the Dominions of France." Although much of the French public resented this imposition by a victorious enemy, Britain continued to complain of French violations of the treaty.

In 1817, Britain insisted on a treary that called for the abolition of Spain's slave trade by 1820. To the horror of Cuban plantation owners, and in violation of Spanish sovereignry, Britain sent abolitionist officials to look out for the slaves--and even made a dramatic show of military force, dispatching a ship to Havana, with black British soldiers aboard to take freed Africans to British colonies. In 1821, Britain signed a treary with Madagascar to put an end to the slave trade there, on pain of execution for slavers. Prime Minister Palmerston unsubtly named a fierce British abolitionist as Britain's consul in Cuba. In 1845, Parliament gave the British navy the authoriry to seize Brazilian slave ships. When British diplomatic pressure failed to convince the slave-trading sultan of Zanzibar to see the error of his ways, Britain in 1873 got the job done with an ultimatum that threatened a full naval blockade. British officials also hassled their counterparts in the Ottoman Empire, Iran, and Texas. By 1862, John Stuart Mill could cheer "the great victory of slavery abolition."

Britain's efforts were matched with echoes from abroad: the coming of emancipation in France and Denmark in 1848, in Russia in 1861, and in the United States in 1863. (In the United States, the Civil War was in large part about ending slavery--and thus is properly seen as, to some substantial degree, a humanitarian war.), These and other efforts, as the historian David Brion Davis argues, were not just a fig leaf over British imperialism, but part of a genuine British commitment to antislavery. Davis even writes--in words that have an eerily familiar ring to debates about Darfur--"Britain's fixation on the slave trade often worked against British interests, damaging or straining relations with Muslim leaders in an era of Islamic insurgency and nationalistic discontent." This was not faked humanitarianism.

As the slave trade example shows, humanitarian interventions are not just a luxury item. They are not, more precisely, the self-indulgence of a hegemonic country with no major security concerns--namely, the United States in the dreamy interlude between the end of the Cold War and before September 11, 2001. Of course, there is no doubt that the collapse of the Soviet Union was a vital precursor to a (fitful) new U.S. and European interest in humanitarian interventions in the 1990s. But that is not all there is to say. Even when states are not totally secure, not in a position of complete hegemony, they have often been tempted by humanitarian military adventures. In the nineteenth century, Britain launched humanitarian missions, even though statesmen in London knew full well that their own state was far from completely secure, and that such missions could have dangerous strategic consequences on the Continent.

In short, realism cannot explain away the humanitarian interventions of the nineteenth century. Britain repeatedly went against its own realpolitik interests, including the core securiry concern of checking Russian expansionism, in the name of humanity. There really is such a thing as humanitarianism; it is not just veiled imperialism; governments can sometimes be made to send troops not because of self-interest but because of a genuine sense of humanity.


The radical premise of human rights is that human lives are human lives, near or far. As Immanuel Kant argued, "Because a ... community widely prevails among the Earth's peoples, a transgression of rights in one place in the world is felt everywhere." Edmund Burke, denouncing British corruption in India, declared, "The laws of morality are the same every where." To a pure liberal, if people are dying in a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing, all that matters is that people
are dying.

For the ideological heirs of the Enlightenment, all men are created equal, and our moral sensibilities should recognize that. Adam Smith notes, "We are but one of the multitude, in no respect better than any other in it; ... when we prefer ourselves so shamefully and so blindly to others, we become the proper objects of resentment, abhorrence, and execration." Victor Hugo compared "the two ideas of country and humanity,--country, the idea which enlarges the heart; humanity the idea which enlarges the horizon." More recently, John Rawls argued that we should make society's rules as if we did not know which family or ethnic group we belong to. For liberals, there is something obnoxious about nationalist discrimination. When patriots or nationalists arbitrarily value one
group of people over another, they are, to some liberals, little better than racists.

Thus one of the harshest indictments against bystanders to genocide is that they are lulled by their own bigotry. Would Americans have stood by if the Rwandans were white, or if the Bosnians were overwhelmingly Christian? David Wyman, the leading historian of the United States' reaction to the Holocaust, cannot escape the conclusion that the country's passivity was driven by American anti-Semitism. As the poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote, of Bosnia, "The lives of the well-fed are worth more than the lives of the starving." Nelson Mandela said that Africans and Asians had to envy the willingness of the world to save Kosovo.

These kinds of biases are a particular concern for the press, which is supposed to be making judgments about news, not race. As Carr wrote, "An American newspaper correspondent in Europe is said to have laid down the rule that an accident was worth reporting if it involved the death of one American, five Englishmen, or ten Europeans." In 1970, the publisher of the New York Times, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, asked his editors, "Why is it that when the National Guard kills four white students we put it on page I, and when the National Guard kills six black people we put it on page 32?" When an explosion of army munitions in Lagos killed over a thousand fleeing Nigerians, it was not front-page news in the Chicago Tribune, which instead ran pieces on Illinois prescription drug coverage and corruption charges against a Chicago businessman, How can one justify this kind of partiality? At home, it is intolerable; abroad, it may be equally intolerable, but it is commonplace.

Against that kind of discrimination, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in 1821 that "we are all Greeks." He was using the same leveling kind of moral language as John Kennedy's "I am a Berliner," or the American civil rights movement slogan "I am a man," or Le Monde's headline after September 11 that "We are all Americans." That is the essence of human rights: the suffering of the distant is put on the same level as that of ourselves.

The crucial point is that, in liberal states--today and in the nineteenth century--the ambit of solidarity is potentially unlimited. Everyone's lives count. Pan-Arabism and pan-Slavism are limited to lands where Arabs and Slavs live; the same is true for even the biggest world religions and nationalisms. And in despotic countries, the apparatus of state power demands fealty to the state, not to other communities; dictators are jealous rulers. But liberal political leaders, while jealous, too, confront a unique problem in trying to keep their populations loyal to themselves alone. Their state ideology has no natural end point. It encompasses the entire human race.

Thus, it is possible to see liberal stares pursuing a foreign policy in the interests of humanity. John Stuart Mill scorned

the eternal repetition of this shabby refrain,-- ... "We ought not to interfere where no English interest is concerned." England is thus exhibited as a country whose most distinguished men are not ashamed to profess, as politicians, a rule of action which no one, not utterly base, could endure to be accused of as the maxim by which he guides his private life,--not to move a finger for others unless he sees his private advantage in it.

Instead, Mill cheered at British foreign policy conducted, so he thought,

rather in the service of others than of itself,--to mediate in the quarrels which break out between foreign States, to arrest obstinate civil wars, to reconcile belligerents, to intercede for mild treatment of the vanquished, or, finally, to procure the abandonment of some national crime and scandal to humanity, such as the slave-trade.

Here was the interventionist language of "crimes against humanity," almost a century before Nuremberg.