International rescue and the "responsibility to protect"

Governing the World: the History of an Idea - review.

A view of Sarajevo through a former sniper position
A view of Sarajevo. UN intervention in Bosnia shaped attitudes to Libya. Photograph: Getty Images

Governing the World: the History of an Idea
Mark Mazower
Allen Lane, 496pp, £25

There are two ways of writing a book on this subject. Mark Mazower has chosen the hard one. It is relatively easy to concentrate on the words and deeds of statesmen and to move smoothly from the Congress of Vienna to the Treaty of Versailles and so by way of the League of Nations to the construction of the United Nations in 1945. The result is a narrative that flows steadily on because it confines itself to the words and deeds of those who take the decisions in the modern world. Such a book, Diplomacy, has been written by Henry Kissinger.

Mazower, by contrast, is concerned with every eddy of intellectual speculation. He pauses to examine each wayward doctrine to see whether it fits into a general pattern. It might be sensible to choose this method if we were reaching for a hopeful conclusion. We would be less likely to complain about the weariness of the journey if we could be sure that somehow the river wound safe to sea. But after more than 400 pages Mazower’s conclusion is gloomy; we do not seem to be any further forward:

[T]he rituals of international life are well established in the world; heads of nations flock annually to the UN General Assembly. There are discussions of reform and grandiose declarations of global policy, which largely go unmet. Politicians, journalists, bankers and businessmen make their pilgrimage to the highly guarded precinct of Davos seeking to confirm that a global ruling elite exists and that they belong to it. The idea of governing the world is becoming yesterday’s dream.

The 19th century was full of dreams and dreamers. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 the rulers of Europe assembled in Vienna and restored as best they could the status quo that the French Revolution had so rudely interrupted. But the new century would create its own character together with the prophets to proclaim it. Mazzini and Marx battled in one corner, each contending for his own view of freedom. In another corner, Cobden and Prince Albert proclaimed free trade as the best guarantee of peace. Victor Hugo hailed that century as a precious and admirable epoch, in which “everything is moving at once – political economy, science, industry, philosophy, legislation conveying us to the same end, the creation of well-being and benevolence”.

But the ancient forces of militarism and mercantilism had not been finally defeated. For example, even as an International Peace Congress was being held in Paris in 1849, French troops had been sent to Italy to restore papal rule. It was agreed that Italy should not be discussed at that conference. One participant observed: “They put padlocks upon their own minds and handed the keys to the government.” The new bourgeois merchants might have advocated peace, but the crowds in the street were soon shouting for war against Russia. Louis-Napo - leon might have started his career as an Italian nationalist, but by 1851 he was the ruler of France, a confused revolutionary acting as protector of the Pope. Europe had an abundance of confused revolutionaries. Mazower sums up the situation. “Internationalism in its modern sense of co-operation among nations and their peoples was moving from the margins of ideas into the mainstream.” But in the mainstream they still had to contend against more conventional attitudes, which they found well entren - ched and ready to fight back.

In 1857 Lord Palmerston called an election in Britain in which the only issue was his own aggressive China policy; he won at a canter. In 1914 the crowds called for war against Germany and denounced anyone found with a German name. By 1918 there was a change. The slaughter on the Western Front had silenced even the most bellicose of patriots, whether British, French or German. The victorious powers gathered yet again in Paris and agreed the Treaty of Versailles, to which was appended the League of Nations. Mazower deals kindly with the League. “It is not the League’s failure that we should focus on but its enduring influence as a vehicle for world leadership based on moral principles and the formal equality of sovereign states.” The League was the first body to marry the democratic idea of a society of nations with UN intervention in Bosnia shaped attitudes to Libya the reality of great- ower hegemony. The 1945 settlement faced both ways. On the one hand, it rewarded Stalin by consecrating the right of veto for the great powers and allowing him to bring two satellite members to New York in his train. At about the same time, Churchill and Stalin reached a private agreement on spheres of national influence in the new Europe, thus proving that the old-fashioned concept of realpolitik wasn’t dead.

The institutions and aspirations of the United Nations soon multiplied and its membership increased rapidly. Mazower focuses on the most important innovation of recent years – the UN has endorsed the notion of “the responsibility to protect” (R2P). As on many similar occasions, the baptismal name is misleading. The responsibility to protect is not so much about protection as about intervention. The doctrine confers on member states the duty to intervene when one of their number starts tearing itself to bits in civil conflict, or when it carries its contempt for human rights to extremes of barbarity.

The public attitude towards questions of humanitarian intervention has always been powerfully influenced by recent experience. The fate of Srebrenica and of Rwanda was influential in persuading Britain and France to intervene in Libya. By contrast, the heavy losses suffered by all sides in Iraq and Afghanistan have had a depressing effect on the prospect of more enterprises of this kind.

Tony Blair attempted to define the rules of humanitarian intervention in Chicago in 1999. He did not sufficiently stress one provision that more recent events have shown is necessary. Before attempting to justify an act of humanitarian intervention which involves loss of life, a power must have reasonable grounds for assuming that its intervention will improve the situation. It is clearly not enough to lunge forward in righteous indignation without a sober assessment of the likely consequences. We should not be scared off such an approach by accusations of double standards. It may indeed happen in the future, as it has in the past, that where two similar situations arise, one of them passes the test just described whereas the other fails it. There is nothing in R2P that compels a nation into foolishness.

Douglas Hurd, a Conservative peer, served as foreign secretary from 1989-95.