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Michael Ignatieff is a Canadian member of parliament and a former member of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS), which released its report on the Responsibility to Protect in 2001. Ignatieffs article discusses Gary Bass book entitled reedoms Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention, and an overview of the evolution of humanitarian intervention.
Gary J. Bass has written a wonderfully intelligent and sardonic history of the moral causes clbres of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: Byron and Greek independence in 1825, the European campaign to save the Maronite Christians of Syria and Lebanon in 1860, Gladstone and the Bulgarian atrocities in 1876, Henry Morgenthau and the Armenian genocide of 1915. Bass resurrects these forgotten causes to remind us that humanitarian intervention did not begin in the 1990s. For nearly two hundred years, the impulse to save strangers from massacre has rivaled raison detat as a driver of European statecraft. As we respond--or do not respond--to the Rwandas and Darfurs of the future, we can still learn from this forgotten history.
() One clear message for the humanitarians of today is that they cannot allow themselves the luxury of indifference to the strategic consequences of their own moralism. Before they call for action, they must, as best they can, examine--or game out, as we now say--how the dominoes are likely to fall.() 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. ()

In the grim present, humanitarian intervention feels like an idea whose time has come and gone. The reasons for this are worth exploring. For ten years after the end of the Cold War, stopping ethnic cleansing and massacre in other countries became the cause clbres of every liberal internationalist. () By early 2000, the idea that all states have a "responsibility to protect" civilians at risk of ethnic cleansing or massacre in other states appeared to carry all before it--it became something approaching a principle of international law.

() The U.N. report that advocated the new doctrine of the "responsibility to protect" was sent to the printers in late August 2001. It was the high-water mark of the humanitarian faith. When it appeared in late September 2001, as the ruins of the World Trade Center were still smoldering, it was already irrelevant to American and European policymakers. Their overriding concern had shifted from protecting other country's civilians to protecting their own. And homeland security, not humanitarian intervention, has remained the policy imperative ever since. ()

It is not that the need for intervention has disappeared. The case for intervention of some kind--to compel Mugabe to leave Zimbabwe, to compel Burma to allow relief workers to help cyclone victims, to protect Darfurians being murdered by the Janjaweed--remains as forceful as ever. The demand for humanitarian intervention is high, but the supply has dried up. The need to do something remains, but the moral conviction, together with the political will and the material resources to do it, has dwindled or disappeared.

From all this we might draw the wrong conclusion, namely that humanitarian intervention was a hectic but fleeting moral fashion of the 1990s--an opportunity for the West to display its insufferable moral superiority at low cost, and for liberal intellectuals to wear their consciences on their sleeves. Bass helps us to see our own moral history in a more serene and clear-eyed light. There was more to the interventions that saved the Bosnians, Kosovars, and East Timorese than moral vanity. The philosophical beliefs that drove those foreign campaigns had a history going back to Byron and the Greeks. Thanks to Bass's fine book, we can uncover the lineage of some enduring intuitions about the duties that people owe each other across borders. These moral intuitions may be in retreat right now, with great power politics in the ascendant; but it would be foolish to pronounce their demise. The impulse to save and protect others will survive this parenthesis of retreat. We are not done with evil, and so we are not done with humanitarian intervention. Its time will come again; or it had better come, if we are to continue to respect ourselves.


For a critique of Ignatieffs article, see George Jonas essay, published 13 September 2008, in The National Post at


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