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The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention

by Gary J. Bass

Pub Date: Aug. 20th, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-307-26648-4
Publisher: Knopf

Cogent, reasoned analysis of 19th-century humanitarian intervention, especially as practiced in Victorian Britain.

In this tightly restricted academic study, Bass (Politics and International Affairs/Princeton Univ.; Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals, 2000) skillfully demonstrates that the interventions demanded by outraged governments, their citizens and press during recent crises in Bosnia, Rwanda, Congo and Darfur evolved from human-rights activism developed in 19th-century England, America and France. The author looks carefully at the connections (and disjunctions) between humanitarianism and imperialism, liberalism and realism. He discusses cases in which governments actually did make decisions based on morality, such as Britain’s abolition of the slave trade. He analyzes four conflicts in detail. First is the movement sparked by the vicious Ottoman retaliation against the Greek nationalist insurgency of the 1820s, championed by Lord Byron in defiance of realpolitik. French attempts under Napoleon III to protect the Syrian Christians after a series of Druze massacres in 1860 are characterized by Bass as “a triumph in the management of the tangled international politics surrounding a humanitarian military intervention.” Atrocities committed by the Ottomans against the Bulgarians in 1876 fed the pan-Slavism crusade and fired the heated rhetoric of British Prime Minister William Gladstone. President Wilson’s commitment to neutrality rendered ineffectual the American response to the Turks’ genocidal 1915 assault against the Armenians. Bass examines the rise of a free press as instrumental in arousing public indignation and looks at cases in which Christian sympathies or Muslim bigotry diluted humanitarian responses. Considering the sticky issues of national sovereignty and despotism, he debates the recent calls for a benevolent U.S. imperialism in the wake of 9/11. “There are terrifying hazards involved in meddling in other peoples’ conflicts,” notes Bass, but international responsibilities are also urgent and undeniable.

Historical precedents shed timely light on ways “to keep a bright line between empire and humanity.”