In This Review

Genocide and the Europeans
Genocide and the Europeans
By Karen E. Smith
Cambridge University Press, 2010, 290 pp.

In world politics, idealistic schemes often begin with high hopes and end with disappointment. Such has been the case with Europe's response to recent genocides. So, also, is the experience of this book's author in applying trendy social science to this issue. Smith sets out to vindicate so-called constructivist theories of international relations, in the form of the proposition that international law alters the ideals, identities, and norms to which states adhere. The Genocide Convention, she conjectures, may encourage states to combat massive violations of human rights, and if any government in the world takes human rights seriously, surely it must be those in Europe. But after examining the official responses of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom to crises in Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Darfur -- or, more often, their nonresponses -- Smith becomes more skeptical. Governments do tailor their actions to their public rhetoric. Yet Paris, Berlin, and London, just like Washington, also respond by recalibrating their rhetoric to duck responsibility, choosing whether to define events as "genocide" depending on their interests. The German government has been the most likely to use the term, in large part because it knows its smaller military is unlikely to be called on to intervene. France and the United Kingdom have been less likely to do so, because they might be obliged to deploy their more robust military forces. The result is perverse: Europe remains divided, self-interested, and cautious, even in the face of the worst atrocities. As François de La Rochefoucauld wrote, "Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue."