Liberté, Egalité, and...?

(The Origin of Principles, 25 Mar 2013)

Bram De Ridder ·

In its first issue Distilled Magazine discussed the crisis in confidence the Western World currently experiences. The economic malaise, political opportunism, and a number of doubtful wars seem to hide a much more engrained sense of insecurity. In the texts they put forward, many of our contributors therefore debated the lack of faith some have in our society’s endurance. Although this certainly wasn’t their intent, I would like to rephrase the doubts they uncovered as one single question:

Are we still “modern”?

This of course doesn’t signify modernity’s material outlook. Indeed, the forces of steam, steel,and capital changed the face of the West, and they continue to be very much present. But when mentioned in a political context, modernity’s most compelling features are the ideals often associated with it. Free press, rule of law, and democracy form the inner core of our “modern world”. And when demanding world leadership on moral grounds, these are exactly the values western countries claim to have embraced.

For many, including most of the historical periodization models, this modernity begun in 1789 with the French Revolution rocking the Ancien Régime. With the masses revolting against kingly rule, the values mentioned above slowly untied the aristocratic stranglehold over Europe. And although theend of the Régime notoriously has been moved back and forth by historians, the notion of changeassociated with The French Revolution remains so strong that it still stands as a defining point in (global) history.

It therefore comes to no surprise that throughout the last 70 years world affairs have been consistently seen in the light of 1789 and its aftermath. The most recent example is of course the Arab Spring: although a winter might be coming, the hope remains that North-Africa and the Middle East have finally found their way towards more freedom and democracy. For many it looks as if, after some failed episodes of ‘benevolent’ colonialism in earlier centuries, the French Revolution finally continues its march towards global adherence. And through its French origins, one revolutionary cry is again at the heart of global politics: Liberté et égalité! Freedom and equality for all!

The Modern Failure

The question, however, remains to what extent we can rely on these principles. For now the balance seems to be rather negative; whenever the French revolutionary call was heard during the last two decades, it translated into something like this:

Afghanistan changed by NATO! Iraq liberated by US forces! Khadaffi bombed out of his palaces! Le Mali sauvé!

In all these cases, a particular discourse was connected to the actual events: the West would defend its core values, punish those in violation, and introduce people to the legacy of 1789. Although doubts are well-justified, Western policy at least nominally holds these principles at the center of its foreign policy. Following the above-mentioned wars, they even got a more official cover under the umbrella ‘Responsability to Protect (R2P)’ -concept. Although intended to deal only with crimes against humanity, the potential link with other overarching principles is rather clear. No intervention relating to R2P would succeed if it was only meant to end the bloodshed without dealing with the underlying causes.

And yet we feel that the missions we have partaken in so far have failed, and rather miserably to. None of the above mentioned cases has so far delivered a stable result. Despite our lasting belief in the worldwide applicability of the French principles, countries that tasted liberty and equality rarely managed to hold on to them. And this even counts for countries were there was no Western military intervention, such as Egypt. Although the jury is still out on what will transpire in this particular country, even here it seems that freedom and equality are more elusive than many would like. With or without our involvement, new Pharaohs always arise.

The reasons for these failures have been debated on numerous occasions. Many of the explanations halted at simple policy mistakes, the weakness of our current world leaders, and their inability to set an honest and focused course towards worldwide modernization. Few, however, have considered the possibility that the fault also lay in the principles themselves, and not merely in their implementation.

This is of course not to say that there is something wrong with freedom and equality. Admittedly,these principles are the ones Western societies rightly can be proud of. Although the process was very gradual and there were enough bumps in the road, the post-1945 generation has managed to hold true to the heritage of 1789. Not everything is perfect as of yet, as is demonstrated by some flaws in gay rights or hidden racial and gender inequality, but from a political perspective, Western citizens are now both free and equal.

The point about the current inability to implement them is, however, that something crucial is missing, something which is required if we ever want to defend liberty and equality in a successful way. Indeed, the present day motto of La Republique française carries a third principle: fraternité.

The Modern Restored

Although it would be improper to connect brotherliness in a historical sense to the core of the French Revolution, the triad of liberté, égalité and fraternité is widely considered to be its main set of principles. These ideas are at the heart of the French Nation and its Western brothers, and have been engraved in our conception of 1789. But if we know it is a triad an not a duality, then why is its last principle never connected to foreign policy? Why do we continue to stress freedom and liberty, but ignore brotherliness?

One potential answer is that fraternité remains a rather elusive concept. Therefore, it remains much less clear why we should apply it in the same way as we try to do with the other two.

Compared to the passive or external principle of liberty, brotherliness is a value that resides within us and needs explicit action to be effective. People can only be free as long as they are allowed to be so by those that govern them. Although resistance and revolution are possible, freedom remains fully dependent on the attitudes of the people in power. This dynamic is currently at work in Egypt: despite being brought to power through a revolution, it is still the new government, meaning those with actual power, who determine the amount of freedom granted. You cannot act as a free man without someone allowing you to.

The notion of brotherliness on the other hand is not dependent on the attitude of those above you. You can always consider someone like a brother to you, and there is no possibility for him/her to prevent you from doing so. The only condition, however, to this principle is that you also act upon it, that you make clear its meaning to you: It is both an internal and active principle.

To demonstrate the contrast a bit further we also might discuss the position of equality on this sliding scale. It actually resides in between the extremes of freedom and brotherliness, although somewhat closer to the latter than to the former. The concept is both dependent on internal and external beliefs and relates to both your active behaviour and the passive influences you experience, but ultimately depends on the status granted to us by the other. Simply put: although I might have an equal political status to you, and I display the corresponding behaviour, we will never be truly equal until you actively grant me the same status.

The Modern Restored?

This distinction between the different qualities of the principles we are talking about is crucial when it comes to foreign policy. If both liberty and equality are (partially) determined by external factors, you can defend and expand them without changing your own behaviour. Simply by altering a particular authoritarian government you can make its people free, as the West tried on so many occasions.

But with equality this already becomes much more of a problem. Although the external conditions might be changed, for example by constructing a constitution guaranteeing the same political rights to everyone, internal and active inequality still create immediate problems. And this is not only a problem of Sunni’s versus Shia’s or Pathans versus Uzbekis, but also of coalition versus collateral casualties. Over 12 years of campaigning in Afghanistan, Western lives have consistently prevailed over those of the local people. The external/passive conditions for equality are seemingly fulfilled, the internal/active not so much.

This is of course pretty demoralizing for the implementation of brotherliness. If this principle is entirely related to an internal belief and active behaviour, the demands we place upon our foreign policy become ever larger. And yet, without this concept, there is no point in fighting wars on behalf of the other two.

The reason why there is no point in doing so becomes a bit clearer when looking back to the European background of the French triad. Fraternité is as a concept very much related to nationalism: Frenchmen are free and equal, but they are also brothers within the nation. And despite having caused some of the most atrocious wars in history, nationalism as force within states has greatly reinforced the internal coherence of the upcoming Western forces. Although I am too unfamiliar with the actual historical debates, a case could be made that the brotherly nation preceded liberty and equality. The national wars of the 19th and 20th centuries after all antedated all-encompassing voting rights.

So whenever we ground our foreign interventions in the so-called modernity of 1789, we might want to consider that this very modernity does not have its footing in either equality or liberty, but in brotherliness. There is no point in fighting over the end products of a particular historical evolution when you tend to ignore the principle with which it all started, the third leg that stabilizes the whole tripod.

So one huge problem arises: if policy-makers would continue the analogy (as has been done in many instances with the Arab Spring) with the French Revolution and defend our modernity on a global scale, they would have to think about how to create a global brotherliness/nationalism. And despite Samni Devji’s argument that such a notion is already growing (through people as diverse as Ghandi and Osama Bin Laden), it remains a huge question how to adapt international policy to this realization.

Nevertheless, one core point remains. Although forgotten through our focus on liberté and egalité, fraternité also remains a powerful principle. It has changed the world before and might do so again. But given the dangerous side-effects we know it possesses, we need need to consider carefully whom we want to call our brothers, and through which specific acts we can demonstrate this in the most powerful way. How we tackle these questions, will eventually determine how ‘modern’ we still are.