French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s appointment of Bernard Kouchner as France’s foreign minister was a brilliant political stroke. Having beaten his Socialist rival, Ségolène Royal, Sarkozy decided to compound the Socialists’ crisis by appointing to his government several political figures long associated with the center-left. Sarkozy persuaded two women from immigrant backgrounds, Rama Yade and the well-known feminist activist Fadela Amara, to accept sub-cabinet positions, while Kouchner has been the most popular political figure in France for the past several years.
Kouchner’s popularity is a curious phenomenon. Although he has been in politics for decades, he has not held a government post since serving as deputy health minister under former Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Yet, whether through the force of his intellect and talent, as he and his supporters say, or his genius at self-promotion, as many of his detractors contend, Kouchner succeeded in remaining at center stage no matter who was France’s president or prime minister.
But the hour was growing late. Kouchner, the co-founder of the relief group Doctors Without Borders, who later split with the organization to found a second humanitarian organization, Doctors of the World, and who ran Kosovo as a United Nations protectorate after NATO’s war with Serbia in 1999, is now 67. Realistically, Sarkozy’s invitation was probably his last chance to play a major political and international role.
But what kind of role? Kouchner did not invent the so-called “droit d’ingerence,” which can be rendered in English as the right of intervention. That title belongs to the Italian legal theorist Mario Bettati. But he is best known as its champion. Since the 1970’s, Kouchner has argued that states have a duty to prevent dictatorial governments from committing the worst abuses against their people. While not denying that state sovereignty was the basis of the international system, Kouchner insisted that it could not be a license for governments to kill.
His words were eloquent and resonated with people of conscience throughout Europe. Arguably, the “droit d’ingerence” served as the inspiration for much of the so-called “humanitarian intervention” in the Balkans and in Africa in the 1990’s. Kouchner’s stance also set the stage for the United Nations’ adoption of the still more interventionist doctrine of the “responsibility to protect” – a call for outside military force to prevent genocide or widespread human rights abuses – during the secretary-generalship of Kofi Annan.
Kouchner was consistent throughout his career. His vision of humanitarian action was one in which relief was not only an end in itself – the traditional Red Cross view that humanitarians palliate the worst effects of war and natural disaster – but also a means for righting wrongs. That difference is fundamental.
Where the Red Cross view, adopted by Kouchner’s former colleagues at Doctors Without Borders, insists that humanitarian action is a vital but limited activity that can be coherent and effective only if it understands its limitations, the Kouchner view is that humanitarian action can be a lever for changing the world. Anything less is a dereliction of moral duty.
In practical terms, whereas the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders believe in neutrality and remain skeptical of the motives of outside states that might intervene, Kouchner’s view is that humanitarian action should be understood as part of what the Canadian writer-politician Michael Ignatieff calls a “revolution of concern.” Grave human rights abuses, ethnic cleansing, and genocide would no longer be permitted. When they occur, states would stand ready to intervene to put an end to them, peacefully if possible, by force if necessary.
The often unstated corollary to this doctrine is regime change. That was what activists like Kouchner called for, whether or not they admitted it even to themselves, in Rwanda and Kosovo. It probably explains why Kouchner was one of the few important French political figures to support the Anglo-American overthrow of Saddam Hussein (something Sarkozy did not do). After the debacle in Iraq, what is surprising is that a man who has regime change inscribed in his DNA could occupy so central a position in the French government.
Perhaps fewer lessons have been learned from Iraq than might have been hoped. In fairness to Sarkozy, his motives in appointing Kouchner had more to do with wrong-footing his Socialist adversaries than with the “droit d’ingerence.” And Kouchner himself, to the cynical amusement of the French press, has retreated radically from his insistence on an immediate intervention to protect refugees and internally displaced people in Darfur from further slaughter by the Sudanese government-backed Janjawid militia. That was the activist Kouchner. Foreign Minister Kouchner calls international conferences, speaks of establishing contact groups, and of the need for deliberate action.
There should be no surprise in any of this. Despite some of the more fevered declarations made by Kouchner and other human rights activists, states do not tend to behave altruistically, and electorates do not tend to wish to see their sons and daughters kill and die in altruistic wars. Indeed, Kouchner’s appointment is likely to demonstrate just how vain a hope humanitarian intervention always was.
This may not be a bad thing. Kouchner always wanted to be a minister. Perhaps now, humanitarian relief groups can get back to doing their vital but not world-transforming work.