We all know how defeatists exploit the recent comments of General Valery Zaluzhny, the Ukrainian Chief of Staff, who spoke of a possible strategic impasse in the absence of a qualitative leap in military technology. Pro-Russians and Putinophiles want to see this as an admission of defeat that must now be accepted. At the same time, the argument of moralism re-emerges: the West, by supporting Ukraine, would be giving in to the moralizing “conscienciousness” impulse, or even to quixotism. But no.
In the propaganda in favor of Moscow, accusations of “neo-conservatism” come up again and again. According to a false dramaturgy, French foreign policy is a battleground between this current of thought, specifically American, and those who espouse Charles de Gaulle’s and François Mitterrand’s diplomatic and geopolitical doctrine and who are concerned with preserving France’s greatness and position, described as a “counterweight”. In this vein, proponents of French-style Titoism obsessively quote George W. Bush’s speech of January 29, 2002, when the US President spoke of the existence of an “Axis of Evil” that included Iraq, Iran and North Korea1. If some analysts are to be believed, it is this type of rhetoric that drives the people and systems of power thus designated to take action. We did not know that despots and tyrants were so sensitive to the gaze of others.
The distinction between politics and morality
In fact, the reactions to Bush’s January 29, 2002 speech, and its over-interpretation as an explanation for the actions of evil regimes, are indicative of the involutions at the heart of Western societies. In a context of advanced secularization, the social sciences’ claim to axiological neutrality and the development of a hedonistic counter-culture have combined to establish moral relativism (“Everything is relative except the proposition that everything is relative”) as the yardstick for the problems of our time. In accordance with Gresham’s law, bad money has driven out good, and the therapeutic language used by the media (‘malaise’ for ‘bad’; ‘well-being’ for ‘good’) has replaced the vocabulary of moral philosophy, eclipsing the words that enable us to think and express ethical references (the “moral clarity” necessary for a great policy).
But let us return to George W. Bush’s speech. In 2002, the American president was careful not to reduce “good” to the limits of a secular state, inevitably forced to resort to physical force to fulfill its proper function (violence is the specific means of “politics”); all he did was designate a small number of liberticidal and murderous regimes as the “Axis of Evil”. This was by no means scandalous. Just as there is a negative theology (Dionysius the Areopagite), or a negative epistemology (Karl Popper), so there is a negative morality. Just think of Pascal: “Although we cannot assign what is just, we can see what is not” (Pensées, fragment 120). While there is no such thing as an ideal civil society or political regime, not all evils are created equal: the evil nature of the regimes with which Westerners are confronted is self-evident.
Of course, politics and morality are different in regards to their nature, defined by Julien Freund as orders of activity consubstantial with the human condition. They have their own purpose and their own presuppositions — that is, the constitutive conditions that make this activity what it is, not something else — and their own specific means2. Thus, politics — “lo politico”, as opposed to “la politica”, subject to historical contingencies — responds to a primary given: conflict and the friend/enemy polarity. Its purpose is the common good of the human community it serves: the internal harmony and external security of this political grouping (chiefdom, city, state or empire). To achieve this, the political authority relies on force, power and, if necessary, armed violence.
As for morality, it is based on the distinction between good and evil, which is an existential condition of human beings. For Julien Freund, morality responds to an inner demand, and concerns the rectitude of personal acts according to the norms of duty, with each individual assuming full responsibility for their own conduct. This has the particularity of being an end without means. Unlike political action, economic activity or religious ritual among others, it is not possible to carry out a moral action per se, which would mobilize specific means. Morality concerns all actions, without exception, and relates to the entirety of the act (intention, means and consequences).
Distinguishing differs from separating
Distinguishing orders — in this case, politics and morality — does not mean separating them. While Julien Freund rules out moral politics, because the aim of political activity is political and not moral, he insists on the importance of acting morally in politics, i.e., of working to achieve one’s own end, by articulating means to ends, according to a rule of proportionality: “The political end consists in protecting citizens by ensuring internal concord and external security, so that the morality of politics lies in the proper accomplishment of this task”.
In the Ukrainian war, Western powers did not give in to excess, quite the contrary. If Vladimir Putin had been content with a revision of the Russian-Ukrainian borders, albeit by armed force, the reaction of the United States and its European allies would probably have been no greater than in 2014, after the manu militari annexation of Crimea and part of the Donbas region. In fact, some revealing statements had escaped Joe Biden, shortly before the “special operation” of February 24, 2022 (he had made a distinction between an “incursion” and a general offensive). It was the act and the proclaimed desire to destroy the Ukrainian national state, with the destruction of the West as its goal, that determined Western reaction. In view of the prevarication over arms deliveries and the nagging illusion that it would be possible to negotiate a “white peace”, or a definitive territorial arrangement with Russian power, it has to be said that many Western powers, far from erring on the side of hubris and grandiloquent objectives, persist in underestimating the threat posed by Russia, the support it enjoys in Beijing, Tehran, and Pyongyang, and the reverberations of the Ukrainian war in the “Global South”3. Ultimately, Ukraine is sometimes seen as the distant theater of a local war, the effects of which would be less fearsome than food inflation.
In short, Sancho Panza”s prosaic nature and the shortcomings of his imagination (the “true imagination” of the Platonists) too often outweigh Don Quixote’s ardor. Perhaps it is this attitude that Russophiles, but also sincere observers, hold up as the pinnacle of “realism”, at the expense of reality (reality is not “realistic”).
Julien Freund, in his masterly work on decadence, was hardly given to lyrical illusion but he stressed that every political order carries a moral code; if it were limited to the simple objective of self-preservation, this would be a sign of profound decline. In the face of such an attitude, it must be hammered home that political and moral support for Ukraine is a vital requirement.
Ronald Reagan once referred to the USSR as the “Evil Empire” (Orlando speech, March 8, 1983). ↩
Cf. Julien Freund, L’Essence du politique, Sirey, 1965. ↩