Courtesy Reuters

In Memoriam: Just Causes

The Case for Humanitarian Intervention

In This Review

Freedom's Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention
By Gary J. Bass
Knopf, 2008
528 pp. $35.00

Debates and discussions about humanitarian intervention tend (for good reasons) to be about American intervention. They also tend to share the assumption that the United States can afford, or at any rate has the power, to take or leave the option to get involved. On some occasions, there may seem to be overwhelming moral grounds to quit the sidelines and intervene. On others, the imperatives are less clear-cut. In all instances, nothing exceptional should be contemplated unless it has at least some congruence with the national interest. This interest can be interpreted widely: Is it not to the United States' advantage that, say, the charter of the United Nations be generally respected? Or the notion can be interpreted narrowly: If the United States had intervened in 1994 in the Francophone central African context of the genocide in Rwanda, then where would it not be asked to intervene?

In common with all such questions is the unspoken assumption that Washington can make all the difference if it chooses to do so and needs merely to be prudent and thoughtful before embarking on some redemptive project in another country. But, as I read Gary Bass' absorbing, well-researched, and frequently amusing book, I found myself rotating a seldom-asked question in my head: What about the days when the United States was the recipient, not the donor, of humanitarian solidarity?

When one places in context all those sapient presidential remarks about the danger of "entangling alliances" (Thomas Jefferson) or the reluctance to go abroad "in search of monsters to destroy" (John Quincy Adams), as Bass helps readers do, it becomes clear that they belonged to a time when America and Americans were in a poor position to conduct any intervention at all. It was no more than common sense to exercise restraint and concentrate on building up the homeland -- while exploiting the quarrels between the British, French, and Spanish empires to do so. This constraint must have been felt very keenly at least until the

Loading, please wait...

Related Articles

This site uses cookies to improve your user experience. Click here to learn more.