CONSIDER THE following capsule versions of diametrically opposing views about what it is reasonable for human beings to expect from historical change—or the lack thereof. The first is the work of an Irishman, the mid-twentieth-century poet Ewart Milne, who, having spent the Spanish Civil War delivering medical aid to the Republic, knew something about the subject. “History,” he wrote in “Thinking of Artolas,” “is a cruel country.” Milne’s is surely the traditional view, espoused by most people in most periods. In contrast, the second is unmistakably contemporary, progressive (one might even say revolutionary). It, too, was delivered by an Irishman, in the instance His Excellency John Paul Kavanagh, the permanent representative of Ireland to the United Nations, in 2009 in support of the responsibility to protect (R2P), the new international-security and human-rights norm for determining when and how the world should intervene in the affairs of states abusing their own populations. “If we truly wish to consign genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing to the history books,” Ambassador Kavanagh insisted, “[instituting this norm] is a path we must take.”
Can there be any doubt about which side of this argument most decent people today would find themselves on? In a world in which pessimism about the human condition is viewed as mere cynicism, the tragic sense of life expressed by Milne reads like willful defeatism, wholly inappropriate to our times, however much it may have applied to the Europe of the 1930s. After all, we live in the age of the fall of Communism, the color revolutions and now the Arab Spring. And aren’t these events, when taken in aggregate, commonly supposed to vindicate Francis Fukuyama’s claim that liberal democracy is the only “legitimate,” “viable” form of government and Michael Ignatieff’s suggestion that in the last half century, there has been a “revolution of moral concern”? Indeed, in such a world, there are no preordained limits on what international society can accomplish. For most of human history, Ambassador Kavanagh’s proclamation would have seemed as nothing so much as a fairy tale. But today, such ambitions not only seem possible, they have become the conventional wisdom of those pondering and forging policy. In Saul Bellow’s inspired phrase, “A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.”
The development, dissemination and UN acceptance of R2P is a perfect illustration of both the power of the illusion and the extent of the investment. In the beginning of the year, the Security Council invoked it in Resolutions 1970 and 1973, imposing sanctions on the Libyan regime and authorizing military force to protect civilians from attacks by Muammar el-Qaddafi’s government forces. According to Gareth Evans, the former Australian foreign minister who was one of the principle architects of the doctrine, and who remains one of its most impassioned advocates, the use of R2P set “a hugely important precedent.” A little over a month later, he developed this remark, arguing that the Security Council’s action, and the subsequent military moves against Libyan government forces and military assets, had given “extraordinary new momentum and authority” to R2P, whose implementation in practice had been “far from assured,” despite its having been endorsed by the UN World Summit in 2005, and reaffirmed by the General Assembly in 2009. And then Evans went even further than Ambassador Kavanagh had done, insisting not only that the acceptance of R2P held out the prospect that “genocide, ethnic cleansing and other major crimes against humanity and war crimes can be stopped, once and for all, in our time” but that its implementation in Libya meant that the second half of the journey toward this human-rights promised land was at last under way.
As Mark Twain once said, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt.” When Evans speaks of bringing an end to genocide, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and war crimes in our time, he is ostensibly talking about ending the criminal excesses of war. In reality, the project that he is outlining is the end of war itself. Mr. Kellogg, Mr. Briand, call your offices. Sarcasm aside, over the past half century a radical transformation of war has taken place. One need not oversimplify the matter, as, regrettably, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) did when it argued that whereas in 1914 there were ten military deaths for every civilian one, today there are ten civilian deaths for every military one, to see that a majority of the wars being fought now are intrastate conflicts. This is a (one hopes at least unconsciously) Eurocentric statistic that entirely ignores the fact that so many of the colonial wars of the great European imperial powers were in fact campaigns of extermination. Furthermore, in many battles of today the desired end state is ethnic cleansing—and the method for getting there is terror. Certainly, there is still a distinction to be made between war and war crimes, but whether there is much of a difference is highly questionable.Image: Pullquote: For the Global South, humanitarian intervention, 1990s-style, was worryingly reminiscent of humanitarian imperialism, 1880s-style.Essay Types: Essay