Gary Bass’s Freedom’s Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention (Knopf, 2008) is an outstanding work, really a model of how to bring long forgotten conflicts to life and, without fudging the record, offering important lessons for contemporary predicaments. The subject, broadly, is European humanitarian intervention in three separate 19th century episodes, in Greece (the 1820s), Syria (1860) and Bulgaria (1875-78). Each entailed high-stakes diplomacy among the European Concert, responding to Turkish atrocities that shocked British opinion and produced fervent advocates for intervention, with Lord Byron for Greece and William Gladstone for Bulgaria leading the most famous of these campaigns.
About four fifths of this thick book (at some 500 pages) consists of a deft history of these events, but the narrative is enveloped by introductory and concluding essays that discuss the broader problem of intervention and offer direct comparisons with the contemporary period. Herein you will find just about every argument that can be made about humanitarian intervention, pro and con. Bass’s sympathies are clearly with the interventionists. He is at pains to distinguish humanitarian from imperial aims, no less a problem today than in the nineteenth century, and he is insistent that the duty of intervention cannot be escaped. But he gives the other side of the argument, and is not afraid to show the atrocitarians in a somewhat dubious light.
For the diplomatic historian, this is as much a case study in the modalities of multilateralism—what, back then, was termed the Concert of Europe—as of the dilemmas of humanitarian intervention, but it is, for either purpose, compulsively readable. Who knew that Dostoevsky was a towering public figure urging Russia to war in the name of pan-Slavism in the Bulgarian crisis? That Gladstone the humanitarian sputtered with unholy fire regarding the worthlessness of the Muslims?
These excerpts give the tenor of Bass’s overall approach to humanitarian intervention: (1131 words)
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If new identities can form within borders, they can surely form outside of borders, too. The same kinds of processes that generated national identity could create some kind of solidarity with foreigners, as well. This solidarity might not be as strong as that within a country, but it could nevertheless come to play an important role in international politics. (27)
The humanitarian interventions of the nineteenth century can be seen as, at the least, the froth of that era's cresting wave of nationalism. This was a century of great xenophobia, but there were other more hopeful currents, too. In other words, the same forces of modernity that forged a sense of common British political identity between impoverished Welsh villagers and London aristocrats, or between French citizens in metropolitan Paris and slowly integrating Lorraine, could also create a weaker but still politically important sense of solidarity with foreigners facing massacre. Just as the growth of national consciousness relies on knowing about the lives of other members of the national community living far away, the growth of humanitarian concern for foreigners relies on knowing about the lives of foreigners. So the causes of humanitarian intervention lie with the latter stages of the parallel marches of political liberalization and of mass media technology. (27-28)
This is not to say that publics will always demand humanitarianism, nor that governments will always accede. The fact that liberal ideology mandates sympathies for all suffering humanity hardly means that state policy will follow. The free press can miss or botch the story; the elites and mass public can fail to react to the stories; and the government can decide it would rather face the repercussions at home than take a misstep in its foreign policy. As Gladstone wrote, "Indignation is froth, except as it leads to action." But liberal states are torn between national and international considerations, between self-protection and solidarity—and in that clash lies much of the basic political drama of this book. (29)
The problem with realism is it does a better job of identifying [the] problem than of solving it. Yes, if it were really true that a humanitarian intervention would cause a vastly larger war, or embitter the rest of the world against the intervening state, then the mission probably would not be worth it. But conservatives sometimes give up too easily. Instead, this book will look for ways to manage the practice of humanitarian intervention. The diplomatic challenge is to prove benevolent motivations, with firm and credible commitments not to turn an ostensibly humanitarian mission into imperial aggrandizement. This book will show that, in the nineteenth century, diplomats had some impressively successful ways of doing just that: using a combination of multilateralism, self-restraint, and treaties as tools to reassure other states about the good motivations behind a humanitarian mission. The leaders of that century were remarkably skilled at convincing rival states of their nonthreatening motives—even in a century of rampant imperialism. Just as it is irresponsible for liberals to hold justice so far above peace that they spark major wars, it is unconscionable for realists to hold peace so far above justice that they overlook ways to make it possible to save innocent lives.
This book is about the nineteenth century, as an imperfect way to better understand our own current predicament. The politics of human rights have a long and tangled history, and the dilemmas faced by today's human rights advocates are often reflections of those faced by like-minded people who have long since turned to dust. Tsarist manipulation of Russian panSlavist public sentiments would be totally familiar to Vladimir Putin; Benjamin Disraeli, digging in his heels against public calls for protection of human rights in Bulgaria, sounded fully as exasperated as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger struggling to create the United States' alignment with China.
The image of humanitarian intervention as an untested novelty is wrong. There were some more or less humanitarian interventions waged outside of Europe this century: India's war against Pakistani brutality in Bangladesh, and Tanzania's ouster of Idi Amin's junta in Uganda. To this roster, along with Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Ituri Province in Congo, this book means to add the nineteenth-century European experience of humanitarian intervention. As John Stuart Mill wrote, considering bloody civil wars in general and of Greece in particular: "It seems now to be an admitted doctrine" that outside powers "are warranted in demanding that the contest shall cease, and a reconciliation take place on equitable terms of compromise.
Intervention of this description has been repeatedly practised during the present generation, with such general approval, that its legitimacy may be considered to have passed into a maxim of what is called international law." Far from being radical innovators in Bosnia after 1995 and in Kosovo, Clinton and Albright were walking in the footsteps of Canning, Gladstone, James Madison, and Theodore Roosevelt, as well as the moral tradition of Lord Byron and Victor Hugo.
This book is not just about a tradition of humanitarian interventionism, but also about a tradition of honorable and principled opposition to such adventurism. Sometimes the politicians who do not want to save oppressed foreigners are callous or willfully ignorant, but not always. Lord Castlereagh and Disraeli were fixated on maintaining the peace of Europe, and were convinced that this would sometimes unfortunately mean the subjugation of smaller peoples. It is no comfort to the victims that they seem to have been quite sincere in this belief, but it does put them in a different category from more current Western leaders who ignored slaughters overseas for rather less lofty reasons. Castlereagh stayed out of the Balkans because he valued peace more than justice, and John Quincy Adams stayed out of the Balkans because a weak United States could only endanger itself; Clinton stayed out of the Balkans until 1995 without any such excuse.
Nor is this book a celebration of interventionism—and still less of imperialism. There are terrifying hazards involved in meddling in other peoples' conflicts. Outsiders are often lethally ignorant of local politics and cultures, as in Vietnam and Iraq; and foreign meddling can exacerbate local tensions. Ostensible humanitarianism can all too easily shade into bigotry, or can be based on ignorant or biased information. It can be manipulated to fit a country's imperialistic or expansionist designs, or it can bring big powers lurching into a major war. The atrocitarians were not always pure of heart, and they were often reckless and blind to the potentially devastating consequences of their activism. But all of these flaws are also why the atrocitarians are worth understanding: a better grasp of previous efforts at taming and routinizing the practice of humanitarian intervention should contribute to a more humble, sober version of the practice in the future. (40-42)
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It is questionable, as Bass seems to claim, that the humanitarian interventions of the past generation have been greeted with such widespread approval as to now constitute a rule of customary international law. UN approval of the “responsibility to protect” is conditioned on action being undertaken under the auspices of the UN Security Council, and does not offer a blanket right to any state to undertake such interventions by itself. How far such illegal interventions are “legitimate” is an interesting and vital question, which we have to answer these days about every six months, but it is important to be clear on the legal rule.
Be these criticisms as they may, Freedom’s Battle is a great book that any student of international relations will enjoy reading, and that students considering papers on the subject should start with.