The notion of honor in foreign affairs runs deep in the American psyche, even if recent controversial tactics such as prisoner torture in Abu Ghraib and secret drone attacks in Pakistan contradict the ideal for some. This high-minded U.S. ambition derives from the country's Anglo-American heritage and the belief that with power comes responsibility. The principle, however, often fails in practice. Why? This article analyzes one reason: the very genesis of the lofty impulse.
The beginning of U.S. military, political, and financial clout dated to the end of World War I, with the armistice in November 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. U.S. influence grew after it helped Allied forces, spearheaded by Britain, France and Russia, defeat Germany and Austria-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. Fresh from victory, a growing economy, and a perception of its elevated rank in the postwar order, the U.S. lent money and offered advice to devastated countries across Europe. This abetment created an opportunity for America to challenge Britain as the new global hegemon.
But the U.S. did not completely throw off the British mantle. Instead, leaders including President Woodrow Wilson remained influenced by the aims that had guided Britain's internationalism during the height of its dominance in the 19th century. Part of that inheritance was the insistence that honor and responsibility inform geopolitics. In other words, WWI, which commenced 100 years ago this summer, became the initial test for America to act abroad on its values.
During the war, the killing of more than 1 million Armenian civilians by the Ottoman Empire outraged the West) Europe's Great Powers declared it a "crime against humanity." This first large-scale extermination of a people in the 20th century demanded a legal and humanitarian response.
Outrage over the Armenian Genocide of 1915 did not come out of nowhere. Antecedents traced to 19th-century Great Power politics, when Britain had asserted its prerogative as a defender of minority rights. (2) The outcry over the "Bulgarian Atrocities" of May 1876, when Ottoman soldiers killed thousands of civilians on the eve of the Russo-Turkish War, set the standard for Britain's burgeoning duty to protect persecuted minorities. (3) The 1878 Treaty of Berlin that ended the conflict made Britain the primary protector of Christian minorities in the predominantly Muslim Ottoman Empire. Nations such as Russia and France joining with Britain in the Concert of Europe understood that a social conscience was integral to transnational governance. (4)
For Britain this mandate loomed especially large. The slaughter of 200,000 Armenians in a series of massacres committed in the mid-1890s under the despotic rule of Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II further crystalized the imperative of what the London Times called a "humanitarian crusade" on behalf of Armenians. (5) Former British Prime Minister W. E. Gladstone invoked the "language of humanity, justice and wisdom" (6) and used the Berlin treaty to galvanize public and private advocacy organizations on a quest for justice for minority Eastern Orthodox Christians living in the Ottoman Empire and belonging, many experts contended, to a religion that shared a common origin with the Church of England. (7) Religious and secular groups alike accepted the charge, raising money and conducting outreach.
Thus, the 1890s Armenian massacres further confirmed Britain's role as enforcer of humanitarian principles codified in international law in the late 1870s as well as in popular consciousness. (8) The campaign appealed to the compassionate disposition to stop "the hugest and foulest crimes that have ever stained the pages of human history" (9) This righteous indignation would resurface during the 1909 bloodshed at Adana, when an estimated 25,000 Armenian Christians perished at the hands of Ottoman Turks. …