How the doves turned hawkish

The postwar generation that now rules the west cares for human rights above all else, and it will fi

Opposition to war, along with outright pacifism, has usually found its place on the left. It has been combined with a version of internationalism, which stresses the role of bodies like the United Nations, and before that the League of Nations, as instruments for avoiding war through negotiation or sanction. War might be sanctioned if it were in self-defence or, as in Spain in the 1930s, if it were a war on fascism that was usurping a legitimate government. Otherwise it would be opposed, on principle. The working class should not be called to fight and die in wars determined by ruling-class interests.

It is precisely to this tradition that the old left - and the main spokesmen are indeed old - presently speaks as it voices its opposition to the Nato attacks on Kosovo. Tony Benn and Denis Healey fought in the second world war, a war against fascism; for that generation, Serbs are among the boldest of the anti-Nazi fighters.

But for the next generation, which is that now largely in power, the Serbs are moral outcasts, beyond the pale of reason or pity. Their obloquy, the suffering they are visiting on the Albanians of Kosovo, is in itself a cause of war. Labour in power has made of the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia a moral crusade in which the cause is justice itself; a truly selfless war. Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, ensured that it was British special forces who were the first among the Nato troops to arrest, in the summer of 1997, Milan Kovacevic, an anaesthetist who had overseen the herding of Bosnian Muslims into concentration camps. The other governments of "pink" Europe have taken the same position. The French Socialists, in spite of their traditional coolness towards Nato (of which France is not a full member) are fully engaged. So are the German Social Democrats, who gave the Luftwaffe its first combat mission since the second world war. So are the members of the Italian Ulivo coalition, whose leader, the former communist Massimo d'Alema, has fought dissenters in his own ranks to keep Italy on the Nato line - which, given that its bases are those used by the aircraft flying missions, is the front line. The objective these governments are pursuing is the protection of human rights.

So the baby boomers have become baby bombers. And not just bombers: indeed, the further left, or the more liberal, you go, the more force is called for. Few have been so avid that Nato ground troops be sent in to complement Nato bombing than the academic and author Mary Kaldor - among the most prominent opponents of Nato in the 1970s and 1980s. Ken Livingstone, heir to the mantle of leader of the left when Tony Benn passes it on, takes a similar view. Of all the parties in British politics it is the Liberal Democrats, with their strong concern for civil and human rights, who have been the most keen for ground troops to be used.

The Milosevic regime has shown itself to be a mixture of two elements western leftists and liberals have been brought up to hate more than any others. The first is a most vicious ethnic hatred used as a tool of state policy; the second is the unashamed self-enrichment of the bandit elite which, promoted by Milosevic to the highest offices of state, grabs the property of the murdered and fled. Postwar generations, who are producing the political leaderships of almost all western countries, prize the pursuit of ethnic cleansers and the defence of minorities' civil rights more than they care about global balance or regional stability. Kosovo is a new kind of war: a liberals' war, fought for humanitarian reasons only.

The Nato allies have no vital interests to protect in Kosovo. The province produces nothing we need, nor does it sit athwart any vital trade routes. Serbia has not attacked any Nato country, nor any Nato ally. Kosovo is internationally recognised as part of Serbia. Though we do have a general interest in regional stability (a specific one in the case of countries like Italy) that, on most calculations, would have been much better served by treating Serbia's wars within the former Yugoslav borders as its own business, as we did when Russia made war on its province of Chechnya. Such a position is no longer politically possible because this generation of politicians believes that it is not morally tolerable. As Tony Blair said in his broadcast to the nation last Friday, stressing the point by repetition, the slaughtered, violated and homeless of Albania are "our fellow human beings".

This warlike humanitarianism is complemented by what had, previously, been the accompaniment to pacifism - internationalism. International humanitarian law - crucially, the 1988 Convention Against Torture - underpinned last week's decision by the law lords that General Augusto Pinochet could be legally extradited to stand trial for crimes against humanity. The development of international law, though it is still shaky, will provide the basis for armed intervention in other countries. Even as it launched the attacks on Serbia, Nato was in the last stages of adopting a protocol that would give such ventures a sounder legal base.

The postwar generation of politicians has been formed by (among other things) the huge growth in the power of the media and the human rights organisations. For the past decade or so, these two have gone in parallel and often joined hands. The hidden agenda of much reporting, especially on television, is the overt agenda of the human rights groups - because TV thrives on presenting clear images, as of slaughter and flight, and promoting simple messages ("something must be done"). Fifty years after the promulgation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, those groups have real power - because they can affect the decisions of politicians, who have also come to believe that something must be done, and find they can do it.

The end of the cold war was central to this development. As Kenneth Roth, the director of Human Rights Watch, puts it, human rights during the cold war were "applied primarily for the benefit of political dissidents and opponents . . . it said little about the great mass of people who suffer violation of their rights not because of their immersion in politics but because of discrimination, police abuse, mistreatment in custody, indiscriminate warfare and the like". Only when the cold war ended, less than a decade ago, were human rights expanded to take account of that "great mass"; and it was not until 1993, when the "genocide" in Bosnia was observed on every TV screen, that international humanitarian law was mobilised and began to be applied to regimes within their own territories.

The right has been deeply disturbed by all this. Outside the more conservative areas of the US, it has already lost the debate on the family to liberals and leftists who seek to reconstruct the family around parenting rather than making a doomed defence of heterosexual monogamy. Now it is losing the debate on internationalism. It wants to defend the nation state, but does not want to be tarred with the brush of Milosevic's national fascism. It instinctively supports the realpolitik view (most clearly expressed by Henry Kissinger) that one should act only in support of one's own or one's allies' national interest. But few, at least in Britain, will argue the case for leaving the Serbs alone to get on with it in "their own" country. The Tory party is stuck with a slightly grudging support.

It is on stronger ground in the Pinochet case. Here, it can make a stand against the liberal internationalism which it has felt constrained to go along with in Kosovo. Pinochet had been "pardoned" by the democratically elected government in Chile; putting the old dictator on trial really can be represented as an unwarranted interference in another nation's business.

The right is anxious about nationality and sees in its defence, in Britain, a possibility of a recovery in political fortunes. It also wishes to oppose any suggestion that the supranational - whether in the form of the UN or the EU - should take precedence over national law. However, the logic of the nation state - which has neither permanent friends nor enemies but only permanent interests - can no longer be elevated as a political principle in a world where the media, and so far their audiences, support interventionism on moral grounds.

In the past decade, the dethronement of realpolitik and the elevation of humanitarian militancy have become accomplished facts. They have become the assumption behind much geopolitical argument. For example, the writer Timothy Garton Ash passionately supports the extension of the EU to embrace Eastern Europe. Making the case for this, rather than the creation of the euro, to be the centre of EU policy, he charged in an essay published last year that "we fiddled in Maastricht while Sarajevo caught fire". The comment does not seem remarkable now. Yet it takes for granted that we should be sending soldiers, some of whom will die or be maimed, and spending hundreds of millions of dollars to protect Europeans whose loss of life or rights does not affect our security - and that we should be doing this instead of creating a currency which (arguably) will make us richer.

It is said that we live in a selfish world, where the policies of democratic governments are determined solely by material interest. Yet now it seems that we have become truly good people, fighting evil in the Balkans.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 1999 issue of the New Statesman, How the doves turned hawkish