Round Two - April 11, 2000
Tempted as I am to use my turn in the second round to defend Cullen Murphy's account of what took place in Kosovo against Benjamin Schwarz's reprise of the Belgrade Ministry of Information's greatest hits, I will not tax the readers' patience by prolonging a debate that -- given that we disagree on almost every question of fact (never mind
To understand this, it is important to widen the frame and think not just about the nature of war or power, as it has traditionally been understood, let alone the requirements of foreign policy in any conventional sense, but about the public mood in these millennial times. This period of unparalleled comfort in the West, when most people live better than their ancestors ever did, is also a period of unparalleled hypocrisy and sentimentality. A statement like, say, "the poor will always be with us," is simply not one that could pass the lips of any of our political leaders, whether of the so-called right or the so-called left. It is too defeatist, downbeat, cynical, real; call it what you will. And the apparent victory of euphemism and wishful thinking in our public culture has influenced our views about the rest of the world as well. A society united by a godlike view of its own potential and a godlike disdain for any conception of limitation is hardly likely to be tempted by the somber conclusion that it does not have the ability to affect the sufferings of others.
I do not understand why Edward Luttwak writes so contemptuously of the aid workers, except, perhaps, to buttress his carefully cultivated reputation as a tough guy. "A plague of NGOs." I doubt anyone who has spent any time in a refugee camp would find that his views have any relevance. Where Luttwak's point and mine might abut, however, is in the fact that the prestige of humanitarianism has become so great, particularly in Europe, that the NGOs are now an extremely potent pressure group egging their governments on toward actions of the type that NATO undertook in Kosovo or the Australians undertook in East Timor. But again, it is important to see this rise of humanitarianism in its proper context, which is as a kind of secular religion -- a "revolution of concern," to borrow Michael Ignatieff's adulatory phrase. Humanitarianism, human rights: these have become the moral lodestars under which secular, well-intended people -- the constituencies of Clinton, Blair, Schroder, and Jospin -- organize their moral imaginations.
From my point of view, there is little use in complaining about this, or pointing out the struts, the guide wires, and the painted backdrops. I don't particularly approve, whatever that may mean, of nationalism; neither Edward Luttwak nor Benjamin Schwarz particularly approves of humanitarianism. But it has become part of the Zeitgeist, like or not. We are incapable of looking at our televisions, seeing some horror in some distant place, and saying, in effect, "Sorry, there's nothing we can do." Perhaps we should; perhaps Schwarz is right that this, of all burdens, is one that great powers like the United States should not take up. But in an age when politicians are incapable of speaking hard truths, the sentimental road is always going to be the one we travel down.
Yes, it may be utter hubris to believe that we can help. But it seems like utter callousness to insist that we can't help, particularly since, in the short term, such help often is effective. The humanitarian intervention in eastern Zaire in 1994 saved many thousands of lives and cost the U.S. and its allies little or nothing. Should we have said, "Sorry, those Hutu refugees must die," when we had the means, and, for once, the political will to act? I do not see what cause -- moral, ethical, or geostrategic -- is advanced by such cruelty. In French law, it is a crime not to intervene when someone has been hit by a car or is otherwise in danger. In this age of CNN, translating what the French call the duty of interference to places like Rwanda, or Kosovo, or East Timor, seems, intuitively, the only right thing to do. Blame it on poor old Marshall McLuhan, or economic globalization, or post-modernity; just don't imagine it can be wished away.
And, lest we forget, humanitarian intervention has its rewards. In truth, after all, it is only going to be undertaken in places where the outcome is fairly certain and the risks fairly low -- like Kosovo or East Timor -- or through surrogates, as in Sierra Leone, where even defeat will not have all that many repercussions. Anyone fearing some humanitarian "over-reach," some Icarus-like act of folly, has only to look for reassurance at the utter failure of Western leaders even to denounce the slaughter in Grozny, let alone talk of humanitarian intervention or war-crimes tribunals for Putin and his gang of murderers. And while it is all very well for policy analysts to worry about inconsistency, in fact the public's attention span is fairly short and its appetite for good deeds fairly limited. The occasional intervention should do. And for Western European militaries, in particular, the prospect of peacekeeping deployments and humanitarian interventions has been a godsend. Otherwise, they might see their budgets even more radically scaled-back.
So here, in short, is an idea -- humanitarian intervention -- that both answers the real moral qualms and anxieties of vast numbers of people in the West and allows the elites and policy makers to protect their own vested interests while permitting them to rationalize away globalization's undermining of the nation state as a victory for human rights and humanitarian solidarity. Of course it has triumphed.
New! Round Three: Concluding Remarks -- April 14, 2000
Join the debate in a special conference of Post & Riposte. We'll highlight selected readers' remarks as the Roundtable progresses.
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