“Politika” interview with historian Samuel Moine

Especially for “Politika”

Samuel Moine – Berlin interview 

Samuel Moine is one of the most influential contemporary historians. His texts attract a lot of attention, and his lectures attract a large audience. After teaching at Harvard and Columbia, Moine teaches history and law at Yale University. During the last decade, his books had only one topic: human rights. In his youth, he believed that global concern for human rights was a just goal.

At the time of the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999, he was an official in the US National Security Council and he chose which information about the bombing would reach the American press. Today, he is a fierce critic of humanitarian interventions and US foreign policy.

Where do human rights come from?

My view is that the idea that individuals have rights goes far into the past, but that it gained in importance during the American and French revolutions, primarily to justify violent revolutions. The goal was to replace empires with republics or to limit the power of monarchs. There was no desire to establish a global human rights regime. Rights were then associated with nationalism, justified by universal principles. My argument is that something happened to human rights later, they lost touch with the revolutions, primarily due to decolonization in Asia and Africa. People became horrified at the cost of the revolution. Violence used to be justified in the name of human rights and tolerated despite the price, while now we criticize violence in the name of human rights. If any violence is justified now, it is the violence of the international community during its interventions. Human rights have shifted from the revolutionary side, from the side of nationalism, to the side of those who criticize the violence that is happening for the sake of national emancipation.

You write about the significance of the seventies for the change that took place and about the role of various humanitarian NGOs, which did not advocate for colonial liberation, but for the protection of individuals from the state. Did something happen in the 1990s? Did the relationship between the nation-state-sovereignty-human rights triangle change then?

Yes, I emphasize or overemphasize the seventies, but it should be said that the nineties are the time when the ideology of human rights matured. The meaning of human rights in the 1970s was a critique of authoritarian regimes and totalitarianism. No one thought about military interventions or the new world order. The fall of communism and the fall of a large number of dictators in the southern hemisphere changed everything.

At the turn of the century, philosophers Jurgen Habermas and John Rawls called on the United States to take on the role of a global policeman. The last decade of the 20th century is the time when human rights become “armed”?

In the military sense, yes. Humanitarian interventions are an old phenomenon, especially common in the 19th century. Humanity is a topic that runs through the interventions, especially in the name of Christians in the Ottoman Empire. Hitler then claimed that his intervention in Eastern Europe was humanitarian. People then understood that humanity could be used as an occasion and that is why the UN Charter does not allow humanitarian interventions. Later, due to the events in Biafra, Nigeria and Bangladesh, individuals tried to revive the idea of ​​intervention, but at that time they were not related to human rights. After 1989, it all mixed up. I think the 1990s are a key moment, when human rights cease to be a moral critique and grow into potential military interventions and legal institutions. You are right about the intellectuals who join all this. Rawls did less than Habermas, but Rawls also argued that if there were renegade states that fell below the minimum standards, we should be allowed to punish them in the name of human rights.

What is the role of intellectuals? When we talk about human rights, we may agree that sentimentalism is very selective. How important are intellectuals today, in the time of mass politics, to convey the message why interventionism is justified?

Sentimentalism is absolutely selective and intellectuals are crucial, and probably always have been. The interventions of the great powers in the 19th century are not always led by states, but also by the public that demands interventions. We think of intellectuals as individuals who oversee power, and of newspapers as an independent element. Historians know that this is half true at best. Intellectuals and newspapers are often very close to their policies and serve them as much as they undermine them. You are right when you suggest that in the 1990s intellectuals failed to see what was really going on, and that was the awakening of the imperial world after the end of the bilateral Cold War arrangement. Intellectuals have contributed to the creation of the myth that there will be a moral end to history. Today we can see that darker forces were at work. 

During the bombing of Yugoslavia, you were part of the National Security Council. Then you dedicated four books to human rights. When did you notice the duplicitous character of humanitarianism?

My story is representative of my generation, which during the 1990s believed that it was necessary to extend human rights to those who do not enjoy them. Especially due to the danger of ethnic cleansing. I worked at the White House as an intern at the time of the bombing of Yugoslavia. I “sowed” the stories published in the “Washington Post”. It was selling war and explaining its virtues. My moment of truth came a little later. I wanted internationalism to coincide with the awakening of progressive policies, but it was only after the Iraq war that I realized that in my twenties I was engaged in something that had dire consequences. My writing about human rights is also a way of self-reflection on all these events.

What does it mean to “sow” stories?

During the war, especially in modern times, there are few journalists who get much access. The government controlled the information and I had a task, which was called “public diplomacy”, and I was able to provide journalists with certain facts about the war. Of course, I did not publish all the facts, but only those that were in favor of our presentation of the war. The problem is that there has been little independent journalistic search for facts. In Vietnam, journalists sought much more of their own truths, which is no longer the case with the American wars.

The bombing of Yugoslavia did not have its own Seymour Hersh, who with his research destroyed the dominant media narrative during the war in Vietnam?

I think that’s true.

Is a modern vision of American excellence possible without humanitarianism? The UN and the League of Nations have sought to describe rights and create protection systems. However, the interventions took place without UN support.

I am currently writing about the changes in the war. Both the League and the UN were focused on peace rather than justice. Woodrow Wilson wanted to give nations nations in order to create conditions for peace. The situation after 1989 is a story about the decreasing restriction of the war of the great powers. Especially when a permanent member of the Security Council is waging war, like Russia in Crimea or the United States. I think American excellence cares less about peace and more about humanity. The Americans are worried about how the prisoners will be treated or how many civilians will be killed by drones, but it does not seem to worry about the endless war as such. This is new. In the past, the legitimization of interventions was to prevent, curb or end the war. Now politicians are not facing pressure to make the war legitimate, but they are trying to make the war humane. Trump campaigned as an anti-war candidate. When he recently announced attacks on targets in Iran, people were most excited because he said that he would bomb the cultural heritage, and they were not upset that he was breaking the law. Obama said that the American war was exceptional in its humanity.

You recently wrote about Obama, a “war president who won the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Yes. And if you look at his sermon in Oslo, and Samantha Power went with him there and asked for it to be part of the speech, he said that he would have to intervene in the name of humanity. The idea is that even if we wage a boundless war, we will wage it humanely.

Numerous civilian casualties are following the interventions. At the time of the bombing of Yugoslavia, Jamie Shay, then a NATO spokesman, said that the price of the fight against evil was always paid. When we look at both Iraq and Libya, is it weird that it’s so easy to get over the price that ultimately pays?

That’s right. We have two things. One is that Kosovo was specific because, as Michael Ignatiev said, it was a virtual war. NATO troops were not at risk. But you ask a much bigger question: do actors take into account the long-term consequences. In that sense, politicians have failed. We have very few successful humanitarian interventions, the intervention of India in Bangladesh, the intervention of Vietnam in Cambodia to stop Pol Pot. We can also say that Obama managed to save the Yazidis in Syria, because they were located in a limited area. In all other cases, the long-term problems and suffering only got worse. In Iraq, humanitarianism was only one element, but Libya is a textbook example of how tragedy arises.

Modern fighter jets have dropped-and-forget missiles, and Libya is almost an intervention-and-forget case. Do you agree?

Absolutely. We are all waiting for Barack Obama’s memoirs, in which he will say that the intervention in Libya was the biggest mistake made during his presidency. I hope that Obama will be honest about the human cost of humanitarian interventions.

What will the outcome of the US elections mean for foreign policy?

Trump promised to end the endless war. All Democrats, even Joe Biden, stressed the importance of ending wars. Of course, we don’t know what they really mean by that. In Trump’s case, it was an attempt to get out of certain wars, even when most of the national security sector is protesting. At the same time, Trump increased the military budget, expanded the drone empire and used special units more than Obama. It seems that Trump’s way to end the war is to end the presence of soldiers.

Are we going back to the virtual war that Ignatiev talked about?

Exactly. A virtual war that goes to extremes. What is terrible is that Trump really thinks that he should strike hard, without any regard for international law. Bernie Sanders promised something different. Other Democratic candidates are repeating phrases about ending the war. But we have a reliable anti-war candidate only in Sanders and that is why I support him. However, no one knows how to curb Washington’s national security experts, let alone the military-industrial complex. It is a challenge for several generations.