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  • Arms and the Humanitarian
  • Clifford Orwin (bio)
Freedom's Battle: The Origins of Humanitarian Intervention. By Gary J. Bass. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. 528 pp.

In Freedom's Battle, Gary J. Bass charts the nineteenth-century pre-history of what today we call humanitarian military invention. He offers richly detailed accounts of the Greek independence struggle of the 1820s, the Western intervention in Syria and the Lebanon in the 1860s, the Bulgarian crisis of the 1870s, and the Armenian genocide of 1915–16. In the first three of these episodes, his emphasis is on the response of European publics and statesmen; in the fourth, the focus shifts to the United States. He concludes with a series of chapters summing up the lessons to be drawn from these cases.

Bass is a political scientist and a journalist, not a historian. While he clearly enjoys history, his preoccupations are emphatically contemporary. And while suitably attentive to the pitfalls of humanitarian intervention, he strongly supports the practice. He seems actuated by two principal concerns: to tell a series of roaring good stories, and to draw lessons from them useful for contemporary interveners.

Bass is undeniably successful at the first of these tasks. He gets the most out of his successive casts of colorful characters. Here history has dealt him a fine hand, including such scene stealers as Castlereagh, Canning, Bentham, Lord Byron, Metternich, Disraeli, and Gladstone. It is a pleasure to read history bent neither on debunking the motives of political men nor on discounting their importance relative to that of social trends. While attentive to these last (and especially to the rise of a free press and other free institutions as enablers of humanitarianism), Bass writes [End Page 168] political history, stressing relations among states and between national leaders and their respective publics. With few exceptions, he accords his subjects the benefit of the doubt, treating them as serious men struggling to do their best in trying situations.

Bass is particularly concerned to dispel the canards that nineteenth-century humanitarianism was merely a facet of imperialism and that it was utterly circumscribed by racism and sectarianism. Without denying the obvious fact that these considerations too were present in the policies of the European powers, he shows how routinely humanitarian sentiments and policies transcended them. He also shows how often tensions between humanitarianism and the national interest were resolved in favor of the former. Britain, for example, pursued a settled policy of supporting the Ottoman Empire as a buffer against the power of Russia, but several times in the course of the century it intervened to protect oppressed subjects of the former, sometimes even in concert with the latter. It galled British statesmen to have to do so, and a series of them not only grumbled but resisted mightily before succumbing to the dictates of their consciences and those of their constituents.

The book is enjoyable to read. Bass's narratives are absorbing, which attests to his experience as a journalist. His reliability as a historian, however, cannot be presumed. His grip on Russian events seems particularly shaky. He presents, for example, Czar Nicholas I as the son of his predecessor Alexander I (p. 129). In fact Alexander died childless and Nicholas was the younger of his two brothers. The gaffe is particularly glaring because the Decembrist uprising of 1825, a watershed in the evolution of Russia autocracy, erupted only because Alexander's popular second brother, Constantine, had secretly abdicated the throne in favor of Nicholas, whom no one had expected to reign. Similarly, Bass describes Alexander in old age (p. 62) but in fact the frail autocrat never achieved that venerable status, dying at 47. Such obvious errors leave the reader wondering how many less obvious ones may lurk.

One might also quarrel with the organization of the book. While each of Bass's episodes is a case study in the politics (both foreign and domestic) of intervention, his approach to each is discursive rather than analytic. Instead of ending each case study with a comprehensive statement of its relevance, he states his conclusions in a series of chapters bunched at the end of the book. Here he draws upon all the...


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pp. 168-171
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