September 13, 2008


The Duty to Rescue: Freedom's Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention by Gary J. Bass (Michael Ignatieff, New Republic)

Bass argues at length that while Western intervention in the Ottoman Empire was driven by both imperial and humanitarian motives, the two impulses were distinct. Many humanitarians -- Jeremy Bentham, for example -- were vehement opponents of their own empires. Byron did not die for the British Empire. He died for the Greeks, and of course for his own glory. Despite these examples, it is possible that Bass works too hard to persuade us that humanitarianism is unclouded by imperial impulse. Imperial racism toward Muslims in general and Turks in particular played a recurring role in propelling the European conscience to action. Gladstone's famous pamphlet Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East -- one of the Magna Carta documents of the modern human rights movement -- was, as Bass rightly notes, a mixture of over-the-top moralizing and raw anti-Turkish bigotry. Gladstone knew exactly nothing about Islam, the Turks, or the Ottoman Empire. But this did not stop him from characterizing the Turks as "the great anti-human specimen of humanity."

Humanitarians may be as racist as realists. The same condescension that prompts realists to stay out of the quarrels of little peoples can prompt humanitarians to plunge in to save them. If humanitarians -- then and now -- often underestimate the costs of intervention, it may be because they condescend to the capabilities of the butchers they are out to defeat. If they overestimate the gratitude of the people on whose behalf they intervene, it may be because they are too much in love with the fantasy of helpless and thankful victims.

Bass argues strenuously that these nineteenth-century interventions reveal a conspicuously modern human rights consciousness, secular and universal in character. It is less clear to me that the humanitarians drew a distinction between saving fellow Christians and saving fellow human beings. This is not to say that abstract moral universalism was not available to the humanitarians of the nineteenth century. Since Grotius in the 1620s, philosophers of law had argued that the moral duty to protect and to save extends to human beings per se and not simply to co-religionists or fellow subjects. Enlightenment figures such as Adam Smith had castigated the moral partiality of religious sectarians. It is also true that unbelievers such as Byron went to Greece to save the Greeks, not fellow Christians. Still, the fact that the enemy was Muslim and the victims were Christian seems to have shaped the moral partialities of a devout Christian such as Gladstone.

While Bass does make the case for an independent self-subsisting moral universalism in Western culture, in the instances of intervention that he discusses Christian solidarities seem more salient as motives than the human solidarity of the modern human rights variety. But these are minor quibbles about a book that is a spirited and elegant contribution to the moral history of humanitarian emotions and their tangled relation to imperial interest and religious faith.

Recent humanitarian interventions have, likewise, been led by Christians--Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, John Howard, George W. Bush--and opposed by secular "humanists"--French, German, Canadian and whatever else.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 13, 2008 12:15 PM
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