The most troubling fact about international politics in the nineteenth century is not that moral appeals to save suffering humanity were absent but that they were commonplace. The British, who led the international campaign to end the slave trade, and then slavery, abused that credential by tirelessly citing their national moral superiority as a justification for imperial rule–including invasion and expansion. The crimes of savage peoples and backward states had to be stopped, and the British–self-styled agents of humane values–were the ones to do it. "Nations which are still barbarous," even liberal John Stuart Mill explained, "have not got beyond the period during which it is likely to be for their benefit that they should be conquered and held in subjection by foreigners." Among many other expressions of enlightened humanitarianism, such rhetoric justified numerous "small wars" in the hinterlands, where the civilizing constraints on armed conflict that Europeans had developed for their contests were neither suspended nor disobeyed because they did not apply in the first place. As Lytton Strachey might have put it, the history of Victorian humanitarianism will never be written: we know too much about it.
Gary Bass thinks otherwise. In Freedom's Battle, he claims that the European nineteenth century is a precious and neglected resource for anyone who wants to champion human rights in contemporary politics, especially when atrocities take place in distant lands, provided that the suffering is accurately depicted by a free and disinterested press and armed intervention is the only alternative to standing idly by while evildoers slaughter the innocent. Bass recovers a few early cases of humanitarian intervention he considers legitimate in order to supply today's humanitarians with a noble tradition that can be invoked to defend themselves against conservative realists, leftist anti-imperialists and academic nitpickers who doubt the virtues of "humanitarian intervention."
To his credit, Bass is aware of the long and sordid history in the West, going back to the European discovery of the New World and intensifying in the nineteenth century, of false claims to care about foreign evil and human suffering–and co-optations of true claims to false ends. Surveying the decidedly mixed history of intervention a century ago in the first English-language treatise on the subject, Ellery Stowell admitted that only a few invocations of humanity passed the straight-face test, since they typically featured high-minded rhetoric masking low-minded imperialism. "In this polite age," he wrote, "conquest is usually effected [through] war proclaimed to have been undertaken in defense of international law rights." The most notorious humanitarian imperialist of the polite age, probably, was King Leopold of Belgium, who took the gift of the Congo from the great powers, promising to eliminate vile slavery and bring civilization, then turned the country into his private extraction ranch and a nest of untold cruelty. Bass knows that Victorian humanitarianism often exported to foreign lands the savagery it purported to be banishing from them. He simply asks the reader to bracket such contradictions at the outset and see if anything noble is left to be salvaged; he wants us to acknowledge the generally tainted nature of nineteenth-century humanitarianism and move on. "There were some important episodes even in a horribly imperialistic age," he writes. "There were, and are, real universalists."