After the Soviet Union collapsed, Christopher Hitchens recalled a brief and “blissful” period when liberal democracy seemed ascendant around the world:
There would be possibly a new internationalism, a new comity internationally, a new renunciation of force, some spare money, and a common feeling that the values of pluralism and democracy were worth having for their own sake and had, so to speak, proved their worth in ideological combat against both fascism and Stalinism.
But upon witnessing Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and Slobodan Milošević’s genocidal assault on Bosnia immediately following the end of the Cold War, Hitchens could see that this hopeful new era would still be afflicted by the old blights of tyranny and aggression and racism. While these dictators certainly didn’t pose an existential threat like the great totalitarian systems of the twentieth century—to borrow a term from George Orwell, they were petty führers whose reach was limited to victims within their borders and countries just beyond their frontiers—they could still disrupt and destroy the lives of millions of people. As Hitchens later reflected: “Of course we were not yet out from under the rule or the danger that is posed by psychopathic dictatorship.” This grim rediscovery prompted a reconsideration of several of his most fundamental assumptions about the purpose and structure of the international system.
Hitchens came to believe that powerful states have a responsibility to proactively defend human rights by taking action when those rights are threatened on a mass scale—a position that would have been anathema to him during the Cold War when he was one of the most vehement critics of US foreign policy in the American media. When Hitchens made the case for western intervention in Bosnia, he didn’t just do so because he thought it was a disgrace that the United States and its transatlantic allies were allowing a genocide to take place in the heart of Europe. He regarded the defence of the country as a “civilizational” question. In his writing about the conflict, Hitchens always emphasized the fact that Bosnia “had long been a multicultural polity … the capital city of Sarajevo was a place of mingling and synthesis where large communities of Serbs, Croats, Jews and Bosniaks did rather more than merely coexist.” He argued that Bosnia represented the “values of multicultural, long-evolved and mutually fruitful cohabitation” in Europe. If Milošević was permitted to subsume this small, diverse democracy into an ethnically cleansed Greater Serbia, Hitchens argued that this would “negate the whole idea of Europe, not to say civilization, and could only lead to more war and further despotism.”
The common caricature of Hitchens’s political trajectory presents the morning of September 11, 2001 as the moment he decided to abandon his left-wing convictions and become a defender of the American Empire. If Bosnia is mentioned in this narrative, it’s presented as a suggestive detail—like Hitchens’s support for Margaret Thatcher’s decision to recapture the Falkland Islands from the Argentine junta in 1982, which shocked his left-wing friends at the time but came across as little more than a bout of eccentricity or a holdover from his naval upbringing. However, this view ignores the fact that Hitchens spent several years obsessively focused on Bosnia and would later make a similar case for intervention in Kosovo. His criticisms of the left’s insularity and neutrality in the face of a “full-dress reprise, in Europe, of internment camps, the mass murder of civilians, the reinstitution of torture and rape and deportation as acts of policy” were every bit as caustic as they would later be over the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
After the Cold War, a radical reconception of human rights, international law and state sovereignty was taking shape within western governments and institutions. The United States and its NATO allies intervened in the Balkans to stop ongoing campaigns of genocide and forced displacement. The catastrophic failure to intervene in Rwanda demonstrated how high the cost of inaction in the face of mass atrocities could be. The International Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda were established in 1993 and 1995, respectively. Kofi Annan’s 2000 report to the United Nations declared that state sovereignty shouldn’t be considered inviolate: “Armed intervention must always remain the option of last resort, but in the face of mass murder it is an option that cannot be relinquished.” In an April 1999 address (which Hitchens once described as the “only speech by any statesman that can bear reprinting” from the 1990s), Prime Minister Tony Blair said, “We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries if we want still to be secure.”
Blair observed that “Globalization is not simply economic—it is also a political and a security phenomenon,” an argument Hitchens echoed two years later in Letters to a Young Contrarian:
The next phase or epoch is already discernible; it is the fight to extend the concept of universal human rights, and to match the ‘globalisation’ of production by the globalisation of a common standard for justice and ethics.
Hitchens’s campaign against Henry Kissinger invoked this common standard. In The Trial of Henry Kissinger, he argues that “recent evolutions in national and international law have made [Kissinger’s] position an exposed and, indeed, a vulnerable one.” He believed Kissinger could be held legally liable for his role in war crimes committed during the Vietnam War, the attempted kidnapping and assassination of Chilean General René Schneider in 1970, and a range of other offences. In a 2002 interview, he explained the importance of applying consistent laws and standards to the representatives of all countries, including the United States:
Are human rights campaigns and human rights hearings and human rights tribunals and procedures to be applied only to losers and/or to small countries or small political leaderships? Is it just a means of cleaning up the nastier element of the small fry, or is it really supposed to apply to the whole of humanity?
Hitchens’s case against Kissinger is often presented as standing in awkward juxtaposition to his positions on Afghanistan and Iraq (he delivered a lecture about The Trial of Henry Kissinger the night before the September 11 attacks)—his residual but evaporating left-wing convictions set against his sudden conversion to neoconservatism. But this is a false dichotomy. His belief that certain rights and responsibilities should apply to the whole of humanity was the animating principle of his politics in his last two decades. He didn’t just support the war in Afghanistan because the Taliban harboured an organization that massacred thousands of civilians on US soil on September 11—he believed that the most retrograde theocratic government on the planet should be removed from power. He supported the Iraq War because he regarded it as a reversal of the brutal and cynical Cold War realpolitik which treated Saddam Hussein as a client when he waged a devastating eight-year war on Iran. He was always disgusted that Washington ignored and obfuscated Hussein’s use of chemical weapons on the battlefield and against civilians, continued to support him during the genocidal Anfal campaign against Iraq’s Kurds, and refused to support Kurdish and Shia rebels who were slaughtered when they rose up against Baghdad after the Gulf War (at the urging of President George H. W. Bush). Wasn’t the United States’ decision to wage war on Hussein a turnaround?
After the Cold War, Hitchens argued that the “era of the client state is gone and that the aim is to enable local populations to govern themselves.” Quixotic and hazardous as the effort was, he believed the United States had taken the side of dissidents and democrats in Iraq:
People say it’s risky. All right, then, I’ll admit it. That’s part of what I like about it. It does take the risk that democracy and self-government is both more desirable—more stable and more defensible—than dictatorship or proxy rule. And I think it can be consistently argued.
One consequence of the Iraq War—a risk that Hitchens didn’t take seriously enough—was its role in halting progress toward a more coherent and robust set of international standards governing human rights and intervention. The war split NATO, violated the relevant UN resolutions, and generated massive protests around the world. President Barack Obama made his opposition to the war a central part of his campaign in 2008, and his fear of embroiling the United States in “another Iraq” led him to abandon Libya after the NATO intervention in 2011—which he later described as the “worst mistake” of his presidency—and kept him from taking more direct action in the Syrian Civil War. President Trump’s hostility to the Iraq War turned out to be a popular position among the growing nationalist and populist contingent of the American right (embodied by figures like Tucker Carlson).
The interventionism Hitchens advocated in the 1990s and 2000s has become politically toxic. When I told a friend I was writing a book about Hitchens, he pointed out that it’s “almost impossible to get a fair hearing for the interventionist viewpoint from anyone, left or right, these days.” Fair enough, but the subject can’t be avoided if you want to understand how Hitchens’s political thought evolved after the Cold War.
Hitchens died in 2011, when it still seemed possible that the Arab Spring would lead to radical political change in the Middle East and North Africa. While he was circumspect about the prospects for a democratic transition in these regions, he didn’t believe that the people who lived there were “doomed indefinitely to remain immune from the sort of democratic wave that has washed other regions clean of despotism.” But a reassertion of autocratic rule has in recent years smothered the hope of democratic revolution in the Arab world.
One of Hitchens’s most revealing essays is his introduction to the last collection of articles published while he was still alive: Arguably, released just days before the tenth anniversary of September 11. In the book, he examines two different types of martyrs. When the Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after government officials confiscated his scales (which were essential for his livelihood), it was an act of desperation—but it was also the act of martyrdom that sparked the Arab Spring. Bouazizi was “not trying to take life,” Hitchens writes, but demanding that life be “lived on a higher level than that of a serf, treated as an inconvenience by a moribund oligarchy.”
Hitchens counterposes the image of Bouazizi with that of Mohammed Atta: “A cold and loveless zombie—a suicide murderer—who took as many innocents with him as he could manage” on September 11. “Martyrs” like Atta, Hitchens writes,
claim that they will win because they love death more than life, and because life-lovers are feeble and corrupt degenerates. Practically every word I have written, since 2001, has been explicitly or implicitly directed at refuting and defeating those hateful, nihilistic propositions, as well as those among us who try to explain them away.
This sentence is a clear tribute to Orwell’s declaration in “Why I Write”: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.”
In the closing decades of his life, Hitchens wrote that he had taken an increasingly decided position in a
long historic dispute. Briefly stated, this ongoing polemic takes place between the anti-imperialist Left, and the anti-totalitarian Left. In one shape or another, I have been involved—on both sides of it—all my life. And, in the case of any conflict, I have increasingly resolved it on the anti-totalitarian side.
It’s not that Hitchens became indifferent about western imperialism or, as many of his critics alleged, an enthusiastic supporter of it. But after the Cold War, he thought the reflexive left-wing charge of imperialism had been warped beyond any useful meaning—what natural resources was the United States trying to secure in the Balkans? Meanwhile, the threat posed by “psychopathic dictatorship” remained awfully persistent.
In the introduction to Arguably, Hitchens also pays tribute to Ali Mehdi Zeu, who loaded “his modest car with petrol and home-made explosives and [blasted] open the gate of the Katiba barracks in Benghazi—symbolic Bastille of the detested and demented Gaddafi regime in Libya.” When Hitchens argued that NATO should intervene in Libya, he didn’t just use the neutral diplomatic language of “human rights” and “no-fly zones.” He attempted to capture the sheer unnatural horror of dictatorship:
It was particularly satisfying to see, in the filling of Green Square in Tripoli and the over-running of the vulgar Xanadu of Muammar Qaddafi’s so-called private “compound,” the use as real space of areas that had hitherto been reserved for that special kind of degradation and humiliation—the rally for The Leader. Picture four decades in which compulsory attendance at such a ritual—kissing your owner’s feet and shouting his praises in unison—was a major cultural activity. So addicted was Qaddafi to this sadomasochistic enactment that he, and his ghastly sons, continued it until the very last minutes. So, of course, did Saddam Hussein. So, as we speak, does Bashar Assad. In the nightmare state so cherished by such fantasy rulers, mere acquiescence or subjection is not enough. You must become a full participant in your own oppression, and find it in yourself to adore the collectivization of compulsory enthusiasm.
While Hitchens understood that the totalitarian impulse is ineradicable and capable of mutating and surviving in new forms, he also saw dictatorships like Gaddafi’s as hideous anachronisms. Despite the fact that his post-Cold War optimism was shaken by the Gulf War and a resurgence of ethnic violence in the Balkans, there really was an unprecedented profusion of liberal democracy after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 1989, there were 105 autocracies and just 51 democracies in the world. But by the early twenty-first century, democracies outnumbered autocracies (92 to 84 in 2002). This makes it all the more tragic that billions of people still suffer under the rule of dictators who believe they own their citizens.
Many of the essays in Arguably were written in the last decade of Hitchens’s life—a depressing reminder that he was stricken with oesophageal cancer just as he reached the height of his literary ability. It’s a controversial point, but I believe he was at his best politically in his final years as well. One constant in Hitchens’s career was his orientation toward first principles—as he often explains: “It matters not what you think, but how you think.” After realizing that international socialism was no longer a viable political movement, Hitchens began to emphasize these fundamental principles more explicitly. He observed, for instance, that the Eastern European revolutionaries in 1989 asked for no more than basic democratic rights—they wanted “a life not unlike that of Western Europe, where it was possible to express everyday criticism, register a vote, scrutinize a free press, and become a consumer as well as a producer.”
“The secular republic with the separation of powers,” Hitchens wrote just months before his death, “is still the approximate model, whether acknowledged or not, of several democratic revolutions that are in progress or impending.” He believed that the values of the Enlightenment—secularism, pluralism, humanism and freedom of expression and conscience—are universally intelligible and applicable. And he thought the great cause of the twenty-first century was the development of a global civil society with a “common standard for justice and ethics,” a standard that would be based on the promotion and defence of those values. Hitchens believed that the most flagrant violators of this common standard should be held to account, which means attempting to remove them by force when they commit the gravest crimes imaginable: genocide, mass murder, mass deportation. As risky as these interventions are, he argued that acquiescing to volatile and aggressive dictatorships is far more dangerous.
When Adam Michnik (the Polish intellectual and dissident who played a major role in the anti-Soviet revolution in his country) said that the “real struggle for us is for the citizen to cease to be the property of the state,” Hitchens knew that the “implications for all political positions were enormous and that in order to stay true to the principle—once again, the principle of consistent anti-totalitarianism—one might have to expose oneself to steadily mounting contradictions.”
What were these contradictions? Hitchens had to admit that some of his positions couldn’t be reconciled—support for the Iraq War and opposition to the Gulf War, for example. He had to acknowledge the fact that, despite America’s often selective and hypocritical commitment to the international system it helped to build after World War II, it’s the one country without which that system would cease to function. And contra Orwell, he had to acknowledge that the great revolutionary cause of our time isn’t socialism—from the streets of Hong Kong to Tehran to Yangon to Moscow to Cairo, it’s the demand for freedoms and institutions that the citizens of liberal democracies already accept as their birthright.