Evil and Foreign Policy
Aporias, Aphasia and Reality
Hieronymus Bosch (circa 1450-1516), An Angel Leading a Soul into Hell; Source: wellcomeimages.org
Evil is certainly the primary philosophical question. It haunts every person who is supposed to think. No thinking can eliminate the question of evil, let alone fail to distinguish between evil and good—and, as Hannah Arendt has often written, he who does not do so is not really thinking. In a way, we find this debate across the centuries in the opposing assertions of Arendt and Kant. For the latter, every person, at least in extreme situations—the man whose neck will be untied if he agrees to bear false witness and who will otherwise die—will perceive what is good and bad conduct, whatever his decision ultimately is. For the former, on the other hand, there are people who would have no such conscience and, therefore, neither remorse nor shame.
David Rousset, at the end of L’univers concentrationnaire (The Concentration Camp Universe), one of the first books (1946) on the Nazi death camps from which he escaped, stated that “normal persons do not know that everything is possible”. This sentence can only haunt us in the face of the persistence of crimes that go beyond any explanation for anyone endowed with reason—and I have tried to show previously how much the understanding of the world must lead us beyond even the classical ideas of rationality and reason.
In fact, the presence of evil on a large scale, which in fact becomes a policy of evil on the part of a State, destroys the very idea of normality or, rather, the separation between normality and abnormality. The judge of peace could be custom, sometimes even religion. Neither of them avoided evil, and they were sometimes active accomplices in it. But if the evil reached the lives, it spared at least some formal principles. So, certainly, evil and good could not be defined, or when they were approached, it was often to condemn, vituperate and banish. The designation of evil has often been a politics of evil—let’s think of the Inquisition in particular and of the sermons of Patriarch Kirill today—precisely because it was not guided by thought and the doubt that inhabits it before any analysis and any condemnation. To freeze things in a canon or in a syllabus—one thinks first of Pius IX’s—is anything but a work marked by morality, because it is not guided by thought.
Arendt evoked the “banality of evil”, an expression that has often been commented on and misunderstood—for what makes it banal is precisely that it is rejected by the one who does not think. For this reason, the latter can be an actor of “radical evil”. In the international sphere, the reality is that evil is trivialized, dismissed and, as it were, rejected in the depths of silence. It is not only put under a layer of clay by the one who perpetuates it, but by the one who witnesses it and does not have the courage to oppose it. It is perhaps by this means that we must understand, because it is not obvious, how evil affects foreign policy: the point of knotting is not in the designation of evil, but in the awareness of it. It is, in other words, the way in which the singular actor, who can also be a head of state or government, not only perpetually questions himself or herself on what he or she is doing, but is, or is not, capable of assuming his or her responsibilities in the face of the evil committed before him or her. The question of the evil returns finally to this politics of the singular beings of which I had tried to trace some lineaments.
For a ruler or for a simple citizen, the perpetuation of evil becomes even more probable when it is not designated as such. When it is not—one thinks in particular of the crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere—one ends up not discerning that evil is inseparable from the policies of certain regimes. I have often said how the absence of explicit condemnation of war crimes in Syria, and before that in Chechnya, has removed any perception of the nature of Putin’s regime. On the contrary, if governments had dared to have this perception, they would not have been surprised by the action of this regime in Ukraine—perhaps they would even have had the wisdom to prevent it.
The impossible collectivization of evil
However, the use of the term “evil” in international politics often takes other, familiar detours. The instrumentalization of morality—however sincere it may have been—has been a long tradition in American politics, going back to Woodrow Wilson, if not to the previous century. In the end, it has been more of a handicap for the United States than a serious asset in terms of communication. It probably culminated less with Reagan’s famous phrase about the “evil empire”, uttered in 1983 to designate the Soviet Union, than with George W. Bush’s phrase about the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address.
This invocation, whatever our appreciation of the policies it has inspired, is precisely the opposite of moral. First, it designates and vituperates, whereas morality analyzes. Secondly, it transfers the appreciation of evil from the individual to the collective, from consciousness to an entity, which presupposes some discursive precautions. As much as it is important to show how dictatorial, tyrannical or a fortiori totalitarian regimes have as a project and sometimes as a result to destroy as much as they can this individual consciousness—precisely because it is endowed with this faculty to distinguish good from evil—, the qualifier “evil” to designate these regimes, as soon as one does not explain in what precise way they embody it, risks to complicate the apprehension of the mechanisms by which they bring it about.
Collective words such as “communism” or even “Jihadism”—certainly, by construction, politically abominable—“are” evil first of all by this elimination, in the person, of the conception of good and evil. A collective designation can lead to forgetting the concrete reality of the horror they represent, which is first and foremost the suppression of the person. This suppression can be understood in a double sense: mass murders, forced disappearances, torture, unbearable humiliations, etc., but also enslavement and dehumanization not only of the victims, but also of the executioners. We have seen this even in the attempt of certain regimes or Islamic terrorist groups to eliminate all capacity to think and all faculty of dignity in the youngest children.
This globalization in the designation of evil poses another considerable problem, generally well perceived, but not always correctly analyzed: the arbitrariness of the designation. When a designation is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as arbitrary, not only does it become relative, but it can be copied and give rise, indefinitely, to other arbitrary and all relative propositions. If regime X is “evil”, regime Y can also become evil. It will be enough to use certain terms to designate the adversary—“terrorists”, “bandits”, “extremists”, “Nazis”—to instill the idea that it embodies evil. This means that, beyond even a false imputation of certain acts by countries whose custom it is, the regimes that use this rhetoric no longer need to analyze the reality and the mechanisms that lead to the inattention to evil. They categorize a phenomenon, but they do not analyze how it works. By failing to grasp the causes, we give up on providing a lasting solution.
The other risk, from the moment we detach evil from the singular subject, is that evil ends up being detached from crime. We designate a collective as “evil”, but we avoid the question of the individual responsibility of each actor. In a totalitarian regime in particular, evil becomes a policy because it encourages each individual to commit it and to shelter behind the law of the system. To the collaborators of the Nazi regime who invoked the “system”, the criminal justice of Nuremberg and the other trials that followed rightly referred each one, although certainly not a large enough number, to their individual responsibility. If tomorrow, as is essential, those responsible for the Russian regime are tried for their war crimes, it will be essential that no one should feel protected by the “orders given”. The responsibility for the crime lies on the shoulders of each individual person who will have to be judged.
In international politics, evil is most often a way of designating something else. It is in this sense that the question of evil in international politics has been the subject of numerous academic books, notably the one edited by Renée Jeffery, which cover both the discussion of the use of the word and the lessons to be learned in terms of justice and the ability to forgive or not. Another reference book, by Patrick Hayden, examines the lessons that can be drawn from the concepts uncovered by Hannah Arendt, who has also inspired other scholars. Evil cannot be designated globally, as it would remain an abstraction, but we can adequately find a qualification of evil in the acts to which a collective entity—a state or a group, such as a terrorist group—incites.
From this point of view, an ideology can be the ferment of evil. An ideology of destruction—the ideology being as such, as we have shown, perfectly compatible with a criminal motivation—can lead to evil, if not even institutionalize it. It is enough that it is embodied in an organization which asks its members to commit crimes. Ideology becomes evil from the moment when a power transforms it into action—and it is certainly the project revealed by the action that, more often than not, produces the ideology as an instrument of legitimization. Ideology becomes the narrative that excuses evil—this is as true of Hitler’s and Stalin’s ideologies as of Vladimir Putin’s.
It has often been said, with good reason, that these great criminals have always announced their crimes and that they have not been taken seriously. For all that, we cannot escape a normative definition of evil. But the difference between political and religious thoughts that define evil in order to denigrate the opponent’s right to exist—let’s take the case of the Inquisition, for example—and those that define evil as, fundamentally, a project of destruction of a part of humanity is twofold. While the former designate a group as evil—those who do not follow the “true religion,” those who behave in a “deviant” manner, etc.—the latter first make evil an attack on what is properly humanity. Second, while the former posit evil independently of any effort at thought, the latter link evil to the very destruction of thought and of each person’s ability to think.
Does evil merge into the legal norm?
Dictatorial regimes always use relativism to whitewash their crimes. By this, of course, using the well-known technique of whataboutism, they aim to trivialize not only their misdeeds, but also the evil as such. But the reality is that the simple discussion between evil and good becomes impossible as soon as there is no longer a stable and indisputable foundation on which to base the rule. The very notions of common sense, of horror in the face of crime, of the value of human life, of the refusal of violence and of respect for humanity become, to put it bluntly, labile and are carried away in the whirlwind of divergent representations. It is as if, today, it were no longer possible to write—beyond even the reference to God—this famous sentence of the Declaration of Independence of the United States of July 4, 1776: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The reference to natural law in the previous paragraph would be excluded today, a fortiori in a universal declaration. There is no more self-evidence.
What we take as our moral self-evidence is embodied in law. Since these self-evident truths are widely shared, they could also be enshrined in international law as forged first in the nineteenth century, and then especially in the twentieth century in the aftermath of the Second World War and with reference to the Holocaust. It is the fact that these evidences are common to an increasing number of people throughout the world, including those who live today in tyrannical regimes, that gives them a universalist value. I have been able to speak of a “practical universalism” in the sense that it was forged on shared experiences and claims, and not only, or perhaps even primarily, on a theoretical corpus. One does not need to have read Grotius, Spinoza, Locke, Kant or The Federalist to claim, like Syrians, Yemenis, Ukrainians, Hong Kongers and many others, the right to freedom. There is no need for philosophy to find the massacre of civilians unbearable. But international law gives us the instruments to make accusations and to prosecute the instigators of these crimes.
Our only valid reference for distinguishing between right and wrong remains today international law. It is not “the” morality, but the corpus that allows us to at least approach it. It is not by chance that the great criminals of this world, from Assad to Putin, and certainly many others, aim to destroy it. And it is international justice that, on the basis of an impartial investigation, can apply this right, because proof of the facts is essential. This makes it possible to reject allegations that are as absurd as they are infamous—think in particular of Putin’s delirious assertion of an alleged “genocide” in the Donbass committed by the Ukrainians or his reference to crimes perpetrated by them when he is the only one guilty. This justice must designate the culprits of the crimes and, by doing so, it also says what our common understanding of evil is.
While some people want to relativize war crimes by reducing them to a war where there is no longer an aggressor or an aggressed and therefore no longer anyone responsible, and always try to put two parties back to back, justice takes sides, because certain acts are not neutral in axiological terms. If, precisely, the notion of non-applicable crimes was introduced into international law, it is to designate crimes for which there can be neither forgetting nor forgiveness. These crimes affect humanity and, as such, can be morally qualified by reference to the moral category of evil.
Of course, we seem to face a difficulty here: international law by definition enacts a general norm, in a certain way external, whereas morality is based on the inner conscience of each person. International law hardly penetrates this conscience if not as an external obligation, but the law is not internalized in the form of moral obligations. How then can we move from the legal norm to the inner norm? This is undoubtedly where politics comes in. It is likely that the majority of democratic citizens, whether or not they have a conscience that allows them to think about the distinction between good and evil, are not aware of the meaning of international law, particularly that which governs crimes against humanity and war crimes. The fact that the leaders of democratic countries have been largely silent about Putin’s crimes in Chechnya and Syria, for example, while they have generally condemned those of Assad, has prevented citizens from becoming aware of them. Their silence has done even more: it has deprived them of reference points and corroded the ultimate meaning of the requirements of international law. It has prevented them from understanding how these principal rules are also a way of nourishing the conscience of each individual.
The attack on the singular person
Just as there is no collective understanding of evil and good, so there is no collective evil in the literal sense of the term. Evil comes first from a singular person, even if, as the head of a state or of a criminal group, he can drag others along with him, and it also always targets a singular person. The discussion has been ongoing since the famous controversy between Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, so remarkably recounted in Philippe Sands’ book East West Street, between those who favored the crime against humanity to designate mass crimes such as the Holocaust and those who emphasized the crime of genocide. It should be remembered that in legal terms, there is no “hierarchy” between the two. Moreover, the crime of genocide includes crimes against humanity—one would not speak of genocide if there were no crime against humanity.
The term genocide adds to the characterization of the evil. It expresses its magnitude and a particular intention: to annihilate the members of a group as part of a group. It expresses a project of total extermination. As much as it is fundamental to characterize it as such in the case of the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in particular, the globalization of the crime must not obscure its primary nature; absolute evil comes from the fact that a human person lays hands on another human person.
The other difficulty arises from the fact that, when two armies clash or when a guerrilla movement fights an occupier, people also kill other people. But regardless of the qualification of the act of aggression—and the debate about whether it is lawful to speak of a just or unjust war—jurists have coined the notion of “legal war” or, more precisely, of a “legal” act of war. The soldier or resistance fighter does not kill another soldier as a man or a woman, but as a “representative” of a state. There have been many discussions also about the notion of “war without hatred”, but it is true that the soldier of one nation does not always hate the soldier of another nation as a person.
In war crimes or crimes against humanity, something else is at stake: one does not kill the soldier or the enemy, but directly, intentionally, a person, even if one does not know him or her. In particular, one does not kill the soldier of another country, but the civilian of another nation. It is not by accident that international humanitarian law has distinguished between an attack on an enemy’s military base and an attack on a hospital, school or market. The tragedy experienced by the family of a killed soldier is certainly the same as that experienced by the relatives of a murdered civilian. But the act that presided over this action has nothing to do with it.
This is probably the most accurate definition of evil as practiced by the accomplices of the great international criminals: an act of violence, murder or torture, carried out by a singular person against another singular person. The act of a troop against an army remains a collective act; the murder of civilians by the same army, as we see daily in Syria and in Ukraine on the part of Russian forces, is each time an individual act. The order given to an army to fight is a collective order; the order given to the same army to murder civilians becomes an order that each person receives individually. Certainly, these dictatorial regimes aim to dehumanize both the victims and the executioners, the former by rendering them nameless, the latter by making them the cold and mechanical objects of a criminal project. But the latter can always resist, and if they don’t they will be infinitely guilty.
In his film There Is No Evil, Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof tells four stories of men who have to face the issue of the death penalty in Iran. The executioner, a generous man and good family man, does not see or think what he is doing. Another saves his conscience, at great risk, by evading his “duty” to execute a condemned man. A third, a coward, becomes aware, too late, of the crime he has committed and is overwhelmed with shame. A fourth also evaded, but sacrificed himself as he sacrificed his own and did not try to change the system.
In large systems of oppression, evil will continue to exert its hold and make it more difficult to escape its collective presence until the executioners begin to think. This hypothesis remains fragile.