CAMBRIDGE, England — While you were on the beaches of Hawaii or Hainan or wherever else you spent the summer, the secretary general of NATO, or U.S.-led NATO as Beijing calls it, spelled out the new philosophy of that organization, as it was expressed in the Kosovo war. Referring to Kosovo in a speech at the Mansion House in the City of London, Lord Robertson said that “the international community has delivered a message: that where we can be decisive, massive violations of human rights will not go unopposed.”

For “international community” and “we,” read NATO. This statement was a neat encapsulation of “the new interventionism” that has been so upsetting to Chinese leaders and other non-NATO countries. It is worth a closer look, one it did not get at the time because so many people were away on holiday.

Lord Robertson spelled out two basic justifications for the intervention in Kosovo. The first was to stop what NATO saw as the “humanitarian disaster” being perpetrated by the Yugoslav Serbs on their fellow countrymen, the Kosovo Albanians. The second was to stem the tide of refugees from Kosovo to neighboring countries, because they would have “inevitably ended up traveling further, including to our own countries,”

So humanitarian disasters in the form of internal suppression of human rights will justify NATO intervention, especially if mass emigration to NATO countries will ensue if it is not stopped — but only if NATO countries can be decisive. “Massive violations of human rights” will, then, go unopposed NATO if massive emigration to NATO is not threatened and/or if NATO cannot act decisively. So tin-pot dictators in Africa and Asia, especially in ex-colonies of NATO countries, can repress their peoples’ human rights without fear of NATO intervention because they do not threaten mass movement of victims to Europe or North America. The Russians can bomb Chechnya to smithereens and the Chinese suppress the rights of Falun Gong and members of other faiths without fear of NATO intervention because NATO leaders have shown themselves unwilling to be decisive in these cases. Fijian treatment of the local Indian population and Israeli suppression of the human rights of Arabs within its borders and in the occupied territories can go ahead unimpeded by NATO.

So now we know that NATO’s new interventionist philosophy is very selective. We also know something else. In the reports published in the press this summer, there was no mention in Lord Robertson’s speech of the United Nations. But then there wouldn’t be, would there? It is enough for NATO to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries if the leaders of its members can act decisively in the face of the limited range of events that Lord Robertson defined, directly or indirectly. U.N. approval is neither sought nor needed, but will be accepted if it is forthcoming.

NATO, Lord Robertson appears to suggest, is now willing to intervene, selectively, in the internal affairs of other countries without a U.N. mandate whenever it chooses to do so. It takes this position presumably because it knows that the U.N. Security Council as presently constituted will virtually never approve such action as long as China is a member and as long as the veto system is in place. China is willing to go along with U.N.-led intervention if what is the legitimate government, in its eyes, invites it in, as in the case of East Timor. (Remember that little war — the one where Australia, NATO’s friend in the South Pacific, sent in troops without U.N. approval? Could they have been worried about massive migration to the lucky country?) But China is implacably opposed to U.S.-led NATO forces intervening in the affairs of other countries without the approval of the local government, whatever might be seen as a humanitarian justification.

Could it be that the Chinese leaders are worried that some of its activities look suspiciously like the sort of “massive violations of human rights” that NATO could use to justify intervention in China? Or that China is threatening to use its military might to subjugate what many NATO citizens regard as the independent nation of Taiwan (the one whose human right to independence was sold off in the 1970s by NATO leaders and others), but which the Chinese define as it own sovereign territory? Maybe, otherwise why would the Chinese government suppress what many people consider as a basic human right — freedom of information — both in general and in particular about the denial of human rights wherever they occur.

I remember being called to breakfast at the hotel of the leader of a high-level Chinese delegation to London at the height of the Belgrade bombing. The man was ashen-faced. Previously, he had argued against NATO intervention in Kosovo, but having spent a night watching CNN and BBC news coverage of the Serbian atrocities in Kosovo, he wasn’t so sure any more; he wanted me to know that none of this news coverage was allowed inside China. And remember it was the Chinese government that intervened in its own internal affairs in 1989, suppressing the most basic human right of all, the right to life, of some of its citizens in order to prevent among other things, it said at the time, a massive emigration of its citizens. That emigration has been taking place anyway, much to the benefit of the host countries, who welcome the new arrivals as long as they don’t arrive in the back of refrigerated lorries. Not much fear of NATO intervening in China to prevent that mass emigration.

Lord Robertson also said in his summer speech in London that the interventions in Kosovo and Bosnia were justified because they were having a direct effect on “our values.” What values are those? A geographically selective use of armed intervention in support of human rights, and only when massive emigration to NATO countries is threatened, seems an unlikely candidate. If there are any human rights that should be supported by armed intervention, then they should be universal rights and as such protected universally with U.N.-approved forces, otherwise the values being defended by Lord Robertson include hypocrisy. Right? Something for the NATO generals and political leaders to ponder on the ski slopes this winter.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.