Mark Mazower

World Affairs Journal, March/April 2010


On November 9, 2001, George W. Bush created a new public holiday—World Freedom Day. The United States, he explained, would lead the global fight for “liberty, freedom and the universal struggle for human rights”; it would try to help the “more than two billion people” still living under repressive regimes. The idea that America could, or should, do this had informed a certain kind of Washington mind-set throughout the Cold War. But after the Berlin Wall came down, freedom’s crusaders increasingly set their eyes not so much on Communism as on violators of human rights in general. They unfurled the banner of humanitarianism and, righteously, scorned the cowards and skeptics who wanted to keep America’s powder dry.

Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, and Kosovo were all crises that the humanitarian interventionists embraced; largely indifferent to their particularities, they saw them as part of a single phenomenon—the moral bankruptcy and extreme violence of many post–Cold War regimes. They called for the use of force—for going to war (although they shied away from calling it war)— if that was what it took to prevent mass human rights violations. While they generally preferred that force to be sanctioned by U.N. approval, they were often ready to urge the United States and other Western democracies to take the lead and go it alone if necessary.

View the essay here: Saviors & Sovereigns – The Rise and Fall of Humanitarianism