From the book Worse Than War: Genocide, Eliminationism, and the Ongoing Assault on Humanity by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Excerpted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2009. For more information, please visit
All eliminationist onslaughts end sooner or later, but not for the same reason. Why they end is an important question. Why they do not end earlier is perhaps an even more important question. Answering these questions requires us to broaden our view, to examine not only the perpetrators and their states and societies, but also their relations with other peoples and states
The effects of mass murder and elimination are well known. The perpetrators are roundly condemned and repudiated abroad, except by self-interested apologists. Less well known, discussed, and analyzed are the broader contexts in which mass murders transpire, which include the reactions of neighboring countries and the world. This is not because the topic is insignificant. The international environment critically influences political leaders’ decision-making about people’s fundamental rights within their own countries and abroad, and how, as a practical matter, they must govern and treat different people and groups. Witness the prominent and often dominant emphasis on human rights in international relations. During the past two decades, various countries, regional entities such as the European Union, and transnational and international institutions have encouraged countries to move toward democratic politics and free markets, positively influencing many countries’ societies and politics.
We must reinsert our thinking about eliminationist and exterminationist politics into an understanding of international politics. Eliminationist politics is part of a world system of countries that, by acting or not acting, affect one another economically, politically, socially, and culturally, and over life and death. The formal position and claim that countries do not intervene in other countries’ affairs has governed the international state system for generations and is enshrined as binding international law in the UN Charter. Nevertheless, (1) countries’ political intervention, singly and in concert, into other countries’ affairs has actually been normal, and (2) countries, by varied means, regularly signal other countries about possible interventions.
States have always tried to influence the character of other states, societies, and peoples. Conquest and colonization have been staples of human civilization, including during our age. Countries successfully repulsing aggressors have continued beyond their own borders until the attacking countries sue for peace, often relinquishing territory, or are conquered, the offending regimes replaced, or critical features of state or society are altered. A central goal of international institutions and alliances and of individual countries’ foreign policies has been to support and create abroad favorable political regimes and economic systems, and to undermine or prevent unfavorable regimes. During the cold war, much of the world was divided into two camps led by the two superpowers, with each side seeking to sustain its members’ political and economic systems, undermine those of the opposing camp, and influence nonaligned countries’ domestic politics and economics to make them friendlier. Today many countries interfere in other countries’ domestic politics by promoting democracy and free markets, among many more specific features of state and society. Such attempts employ the full range of political means available, from implementing military intervention or its threat; to imposing economic sanctions or their threat; to setting down political, economic, and social conditions and human rights standards countries must meet in order to make treaties, join international federations, participate in international organizations and commercial relations; to diplomatic initiatives; to public praise or denunciation. Regardless of whether such acts accord with international law and treaties, states have always tried to shape other countries’ domestic politics and practices, and they have often succeeded.
The notion that states must not intervene in other countries’ domestic affairs and that sovereignty is inviolable is, in practice, ignored all the time. Intervention today is typically done in the name of freedom and other higher, universal values, and the rule of law, though this is often cynical cover for motives of political or economic power or advantage. Either way, intervention has been and is a common practice, and noble principles are put forward and often accepted as legitimizing justifications.
States have been able to influence other countries’ leaders who contemplate and then begin to carry out eliminationist assaults. Yet, in contrast to all the other ways that states have claimed to be legitimately influencing the domestic practices of other states, societies, and peoples, political leaders have rarely defended the innocent abroad by seriously trying to forestall or stop mass murder, let alone mass elimination.