The year 1948, writes Yehudah Mirsky, saw the birth of the basic elements of what came to be known—perhaps misleadingly—as the “liberal international order.” These included the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Genocide Convention, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, and the creation of Israel with the imprimatur of the United Nations. Mirsky argues that some of the failures of this order stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of those committed to defending it:
[Many] thought human rights and nationalism were antithetical, and that promoting the former meant pushing back on the latter. The architects of the world of 1948 understood better. As the historian James Loeffler has shown in his remarkable new book, Rooted Cosmopolitans, so many key figures in the human-rights revolution of mid-century were not only Jews but Zionists. For them, an international regime of protecting individual human rights as well as nation-states for persecuted minorities were necessary to overcome the Holocaust’s ghastly trauma of statelessness. The deep structural suspicion of the idea of state sovereignty woven into the human-rights framework, it seems, has unwittingly fostered the legalistic abstraction and airy disregard for political realities that has made that framework such a supple tool in the hands of dictators who couldn’t care less. . . .
[Moreover, many] underestimated the role of religion not only in people’s lives but in human rights and liberalism’s own foundations. Religion is about the search for the absolute and how that ultimate truth shapes what it means fully to be human. Liberalism and human rights are understood by many people in different ways, but there is no denying they make serious claims about the ultimacy of human dignity, so ultimate that there are certain things that no state, or collective body of any kind, can do to harm human dignity.