Sleepwalking through War Crimes and Genocides
The globalization of indifference and empty political posturing prevents America from having a strategic debate about the role of moral values in U.S. foreign policy.
Earlier this week, news broke that President Joe Biden finally decided to start sharing U.S. evidence of Russia’s war crimes in the Ukraine war with the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague. This relatively minor news item served as a reminder of just how diminished the role of moral values has become in U.S. foreign policy debates during the past few presidential administrations, and this diminishment didn’t just happen by accident.
The reported Biden move is an important policy step to help efforts aimed at holding Russian officials accountable for crimes committed in Ukraine—but it took a while, coming more than a year after Vice President Kamala Harris called for war crimes investigations of Russia during the early weeks of its invasion of Ukraine.
Almost a year and a half into the war, thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed in the conflict so far, and Russia continues to deliberately target civilians. Biden’s foreign policy team, whose default mode combines technocratic managerialism with a “balance of power” realpolitik approach, was slowed by objections from the Pentagon and worries that sharing evidence with the ICC might someday make America vulnerable in ICC prosecutions, even though America has decided not to join the court.
It’s a modest step in the right direction, but also a reminder of just how little has been done on multiple fronts to deter and impose costs on countries and leaders responsible for war crimes and genocides in places spotlighted by the Biden administration during its first years in office. China’s genocide of Uyghurs and ongoing atrocities in places like Burma, Syria, and Ethiopia, among other places around the world, have received too little attention from America and other democracies.
America’s broader foreign policy debate doesn’t take up the issues of humanitarian protection the way it used to for a number of reasons: indifference, apathy, exhaustion, lazy thinking, information overload, and attention deficit disorder. But now’s a good time as ever to try to revive the long-running debate about what should and could be done to end conflicts and protect human life.
An extraordinary history lesson slowly being forgotten in the 21st Century?
Nothing adequately prepared me for a visit I took earlier this summer to Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of many death camps used by Nazi Germany during World War II in its horrific campaign of mass extermination of Jews and others. I’ve read many books, watched films, and visited the Holocaust memorial museums in Washington, D.C. and Jerusalem, but this was my first trip to the scene of such a massive crime.
The Auschwitz memorial and museum in southern Poland honors the memory of the more than one million people who lost their lives there. In the world today, there is nothing like the massive scale of the crimes Nazis committed here, and it’s a risky proposition to draw comparisons between the Holocaust and current-day atrocities and conflicts targeting innocent civilians. But the Auschwitz memorial and museum does seek to impart vital lessons about the necessity to protect our fellow human beings from similar campaigns in the future.
As I toured the grounds on an overcast early summer afternoon, the sheer magnitude and methodically organized dehumanization and depravity hit me hard, and it’s difficult to find words to capture what the memorial conveys. If these old buildings and grounds could talk, what an awful story they would tell: gas chambers, burning bodies, slave labor, and the plundering of the wealth of the murdered, a history so real but so hard to comprehend how human beings could be so cruel to others.
What’s still difficult to absorb is that the reality of what happened here is still denied by some despite extensive facts and evidence. The Nazis kept records of their crimes and photographed many of their victims before they murdered them. In some of the buildings in Auschwitz, the faces of the murdered stare out from black and white photographs hung on the walls of some of the blocks of the former concentration camp.
During my visit, I read a riveting and devastating story of one man, Walter Rosenberg, who survived and escaped the death camp with another prisoner in 1944. A book published last year, The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World by Jonathan Freedland, tells his story: a Slovak Jew who survived slave labor in the death camp, escaped, and tried to tell the world about what was happening in order to stop the killing.
Rosenberg—later known by the false identity he assumed after his escape, Rudolf Vrba—shared what was happening in the camp in an account that informed a detailed 32-page report complete with maps of Auschwitz. “An emissary from the grave” who somehow narrowly escaped the fate of most of his fellow death camp prisoners, he briefed officials (including a papal envoy) and urged action to stop the murders, with a focus on Hungarian Jews, who were the next target in the Nazi genocide.
These efforts to get the word out and prompt actions that would stop more killings didn’t have the effect Rosenberg hoped, and the forced deportations and mass murders continued. British journalist Walter Garrett received a copy of the detailed report on Auschwitz shortly after Rosenberg escaped, published articles based on the information, and tried to get the news out to senior officials across the world. He sent versions of his story via telegraph messages to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, among other leaders. Garrett even directly contacted Allen Dulles, the future Central Intelligence Agency director and at that time the most senior U.S. intelligence official in Switzerland and shared the information directly with him. Dulles said, “We must intervene immediately.”
But the information didn’t produce any major changes in how the United States and its allies fought the war. As Freedland writes, “the inaction came from the very top.” The book notes that in the spring and summer of 1944, U.S. planes were in the skies over Auschwitz taking aerial reconnaissance photographs, and some U.S. bombers later that summer conducted strikes on other slave labor and death camps.
Freedland speculates that Walter Rosenberg’s efforts may have ultimately helped save 200,000 Jews from immediate deportation from Budapest to Auschwitz, a significant accomplishment. Jewish tradition holds that to save one life is to save the whole world. Getting the word out about what is happening is a crucial first step, as the book’s author argues: “The difference between truth and lies can be a difference between life and death.”
But at the same time, the author makes clear that much of the world, including leaders in America, knew what was happening in the Nazi death camps across Europe long before Rosenberg even escaped. Adolf Hitler had openly announced his goal of “the complete annihilation of the Jews” years before, and there were detailed press accounts about the death camps such as this one in publications like the New Republic magazine in 1942—before millions lost their lives.
The biggest challenge wasn’t lack of information about what was happening. Breaking through the barriers presented by disbelief that something so awful was taking place on such a large scale was another challenge. Freedland notes several instances from the death camps when people who knew they were being led to their deaths rejected that this was what was happening, with many clinging to the lie they were told that this was all part of a “resettlement” process rather than mass murder.
For the outside world, the biggest failures came in not doing enough: in failing to comprehend the enormity of what was happening and prioritize the protection of human life, and then generating the political will and imagination to do something different to stop the killing.
Reading this book while on my trip to the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial and museum, my mind kept on coming back to the question of what lessons should we take away from all of this and how can they be applied to very different challenges the world faces today in conflicts, war crimes, and genocides occurring at this time.
Today’s indifference to atrocities and civilians being used as pawns of war
The scope and scale of what’s happening in the world’s conflicts and genocides in 2023 is nowhere close to what the Nazis perpetrated during World War II. But the pledge of “Never Again” many made after the Holocaust is meant to remind us of the importance of prioritizing the protection of human life—preferably before it reaches the terrible levels of 1945. Yet our collective prioritization of this goal has slipped substantially in recent years.
Remember the debate about the “responsibility to protect,” or R2P?
This was an idea debated in the first decade of this century, after the Rwanda genocide of 1994 and the wars in the Balkans that made “ethnic cleansing” a household phrase. The idea that the international community should halt the mass atrocities—genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity—was affirmed at the World Summit in 2005. But no one really talks about this idea anymore.
More than a decade after foreign policy analyst Stewart Patrick raised the question, “RIP for R2P?” in the wake of the early stages of a disastrous Syria war that changed the world, high-level U.S. foreign policy discussions on these issues is mostly an embarrassed silence, punctuated with episodes of surface-level partisan and ideological posturing. And the atrocities inside of Syria—and Ukraine, and Ethiopia, and Sudan—continue.
Sometimes the humanitarian violations occur in quieter, more invidious ways such as the use of hunger and access to food as a weapon of repression and war. Take Russia’s veto at the United Nations earlier this month that suspended humanitarian aid delivery to a part of northwest Syria held by groups opposed to the Assad regime: Khaled Ahmed Haj, a resident of Atalrama camp in that part of Syria, told PBS Newshour the decision to block aid amounts to a death sentence.
The closure of the crossing will cause us to suffocate and starve to death. The camps depend only on U.N. aid and closing the crossing means killing us.
What’s been happening in Syria for more than a dozen years now is not on the same order and scale of what the world saw in the Holocaust during World War II, of course. But the brutality, dehumanization, and targeting of innocent civilians in places like Syria shows that we still have much to debate when it comes to coming up with more effective policies that don’t make the same mistakes that were made in the past.
In the case of aid to northwest Syria, the United States and other countries who want to prevent Russia and the Assad regime from using hunger as a weapon for war should form a coalition of their own to bypass the blockade and ignore the stalemate at the United Nations. R2P means more than military intervention; it can be used to marginally circumvent sovereignty in certain situations with methods that fall well short of the use of force.
More broadly, America’s foreign policy debate should wrestle with these tough moral questions surrounding humanitarian protections more than it currently does. The globalization of indifference to responding more effectively to genocides and war crimes can be traced in part to the deteriorating quality of foreign policy debates inside of the United States.
Some are in effect little more than knee-jerk isolationists that cheerlead for inaction, Many “restraint” foreign policy thinkers and self-styled “progressives,” for instance, remain stuck in the past decade and have little to offer in terms of policy options on how to deal with the question of war crimes and atrocities against civilians. Their response often amounts to little more than a shrug, or an argument that inaction represents some higher form of morality, one based on hard-headed calculations of national interests. Those voices calling for a more passive U.S. response in places like Ukraine and Taiwan often argue that countries like China and Russia have their own spheres of influence and America should just accept that as a reality. These arguments have echoes from past figures like Burton Wheeler, Robert Taft, and Charles Lindbergh, all of whom argued against American involvement in World War II in the first place.
The silver lining in 2023 inside of America is that public support for steady U.S. engagement in the world remains quite strong. It’s not 1941. The loud isolationist fringes on the far left and right are mostly an elite phenomenon disconnected from public opinion, and a fairly strong center lane exists in U.S. politics for America to lead in the world on these difficult questions of how to respond to war crimes and atrocities.
The Biden administration could have moved more quickly to share information for investigations into Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine, but it deserves praise for ultimately moving in the right direction on this particular policy question. It now needs to build on these steps and articulate a clearer vision on how it will help Ukraine win the war, because in the end, Ukraine’s victory and Russia’s defeat is one of the main elements ways the world can to hold Moscow accountable for the war crimes it has committed.