Europe, values and security

The defence of our values must become the basis of our security strategy.


Talking about human rights in the field of foreign and security policy seems naïve: how can one evoke values in a field that is that of the sole ambition of power? Such an approach is condemned in advance for its supposed lack of realism. Democracies admit that human rights are desirable, but in international strategy they see them at best as an extra soul. Yet it is in the name of realism and pragmatism, and by methodically discarding any reference to values, that we will demonstrate that the defence of the values associated with human rights - freedoms, democracy, respect for international law - must, on the contrary, become the basis of our security strategy. We will start with the facts.

Revolution of universalism

An intellectual revolution has taken place over the last thirty years, with immense practical consequences. No country and no society can no longer be regarded as inherently suffering from an inability to conceive of freedom and human rights. The contrary argument of the so-called realists and relativists is contradicted by the facts.

The former assert that certain countries will remain forever alien to "our" values (those that the West has chosen to make its own): in our diplomacy, it would be pointless to insist on this. They thus consider that the Russian, Chinese or Arab peoples, for example - with fallacious historical and culturalist arguments - are forever doomed to submission and dictatorship. On the basis of a so-called "soul" of the peoples, they consider that leaders are of no importance and that no society ultimately evolves. And to sweep aside Russian and Chinese dissidents, Arab Spring insurgents, African Muslim women fighting against female genital mutilation, African or Arab homosexuals and Hong Kong protesters with a wave of the hand

The seconds, in line with MahathirThe European Commission, for its part, believes that the West should not impose its values on the East - the Confucian and Islamic societies that Samuel Huntington was too hastily embracing - and that freedom, human rights and democracy are Western values. If the West was certainly the land where these values developed and if the West did indeed have an influence on the rest of the world, people far removed from this tradition were able to conceive of and demand these principles for themselves independently of any legacy: this was the case of the Arab Spring uprisings - beyond possible recuperation elsewhere - but also in Uzbekistan, Burma, Indonesia and in several African countries.

People do not need to claim the West to fight oppression and to have read Spinoza, Locke and Tocqueville to love freedom. This quest for freedom is not reserved for the intellectual elite. The universality is not that of Western philosophy and moral duty, but that of lived and perceived reality. The aspiration to rights knows no cultural, social or religious boundaries. It is a universalism of facts, not a theoretical universalism.

Common law or clash of sovereignties?

The second development is the result of the recent conflict opened up by globalization. Globalization is exerting pressure in two opposing directions: on the one hand, increased normativity through elites trained in international schools that convey the same concepts, and on the other, a subsequent affirmation of the particularity of States, which goes hand in hand with a certain de-institutionalization of international organizations with a political vocation.

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The first movement leads to a standardization of references - despite cultural and social traditions that remain -, to an increased number of countries conforming to common legal principles and to a progressive adjustment of elites to standards that are universally disseminated.

The second leads each national elite to seek the best strategy within the framework of what it defines, often abusively, as its country's own interest - read, the capture of rent for its own benefit - and to free itself from the rules laid down by multilateral institutions precisely because they are supposed to prevent strategies that are contrary to the common norm in terms of law as well as "governance". In this fight against the rule of universal scope, those countries that reject the idea seek to instrumentalize States and areas that have remained outside this diffusion of liberal principles and to destabilize those who subscribe to them.

The first movement opens the hope of a more stable and peaceful order, the second closes it. This new context, marked both by a growing struggle for freedom and a concrete and visible conflict between two philosophies, represents a major risk for the security of the world in the coming decades.

Human rights: a key element for political risk analysis

Going back to the origin of this risk forces the realist to articulate domestic and foreign policy. In a state with potentially threatening armed forces, the violation of human rights, free media and civil society offers a good prediction of a foreign policy that does not respect international law. These regimes, both internally and externally, practice lying and disinformation.

From a strictly realistic perspective, helping free movements in these countries and reacting to every infringement of rights is a necessary policy for our security. The international policy analyst should look at what is happening inside these countries - Russia, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt - to build the scenarios of the future. The control of the economy by a group linked to the ruling power, the sacrifice of the productive economy for the benefit of raw materials - which means the refusal to see the development of a middle class that might aspire to freedom - and the poor development of a research and higher education apparatus are also indications of the future strategy of dangerous countries.


After twelve years of thorny negotiations, an agreement was signed in Vienna on 14 July 2015 with Tehran on nuclear power. Gugganij/Wikimedias, CC BY

Let us go further: the destruction of all rights and dignity has the logical effect of a warlike contagion on an entire area. It was doubly criminal not to put an immediate end to Assad's genocidal activities: for its people and for regional security. Moreover, in the new context of the aspiration for freedom, disregard for fundamental rights accentuates the instability of countries that can then become the breeding ground for violent revolutions that are threats to regional security.

New responsibilities for free powers: Europe's new dilemma

Much has been said about how to define the new world: it is no longer bipolar, unipolar or multipolar. Provisionally or definitively apolar, it has been described as G-zero or anarchy. This situation is at the same time worrying for the progress of law and the multiplication of high intensity conflicts. Unless the threat of instability spreads, it cannot remain ungoverned, so much so that it will be impossible to avoid a situation of instability. doctrinally than security, because of the two realities that shape it.

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The first is the conflict between countries that wish to converge towards a universal rule of law and the others - a conflict that has replaced the East-West conflict and has nothing to do with a clash of civilizations. The second is that it is no longer possible to practice, as it was during the Cold War, a policy of containment. Many realists who advocate appeasement with major human rights violating States remain imbued with such a scheme and the illusory idea of world domination and cantonization. Globalization of the world does not allow for this - we know that terrorist and criminal threats know no borders - and States that break with universalism do not remain confined to their own zone: we see this with the Russia.

This confers a particular responsibility on those states that consider themselves responsible for the world order: the United States and Europe in the first place, which are there first and foremost to contain and limit the first global threat: lawless zones. They must be able to remind, in a credible manner, that the preservation of security does not tolerate weakness towards rights.

This issue is resurfacing in the heart of Europe. An exceptional economic and institutional success, it has long since ceased to be thought of as a geo-strategic entity to be built because it has not combined the emphasis on rights, which is at its core, with its security. This first conception made Europe first and foremost the land of law. Its ideal of freedom and the promotion of international law was destined to spread, firstly through the integration of neighbouring countries whose political development testified to their adherence to these principles, and secondly through its propagation, through cooperation in the field of institutions and justice, beyond the European continent.


The migrant crisis, a test for Europe's security and values. Robert Atanasovski/AFP

Many considered that this Europe could not express any power objective of its own. Conversely, the advocates of a Europe of power, a major economic but also geopolitical player, expressing its global existence against competitors, but above all against threatening regimes, have insufficiently tied this ambition to the values of freedom. By reaffirming the primacy of rights and by tying them to power, we will reconcile these two conceptions by endowing Europe with geostrategic ambitions and the means to achieve them. The universalism of rights obliges Europe to geopolitical realism, especially towards Russia, whose regime threatens rights and the world order, but also aims to corrupt its values.

A practical agenda

The fight for human rights and the fight for security are doubly linked. Firstly, the powers that want to break free from the world order also commit violations of basic rights. Secondly, the denial, through an ideology relayed by all the instruments of propaganda, of the relevance of any universal idea is also a means of legitimizing their struggle against the rules of international law and all the institutions that are supposed to protect and apply it.

This fight by the free powers certainly involves the classic panoply which must be further strengthened: assistance for democracy and dissidents on the ground and aid for free media, insistent invocation of the subject of human rights in our dialogue with non-democratic States, refusal of the relativism of the rule of law and constant pressure on all democracies not to be complacent with countries which are not, as this would undermine their fight, and intensification of the fight against disinformation.

It then implies a firmer commitment to the responsibility to protect, so scandalously - but also strategically absurdly - flouted in Syria. This implies intelligent management of the aftermath. The regime change issue doesn't have to remain a taboo subject.

Finally, double talk must be avoided: a strategically consistent human rights policy should not lead to sparing its allies. Not only would it undermine the legitimacy of the one who would only target his opponents (and discredit him in case of a regime change in the protected country), but it would also be irresponsible towards that ally. We have to tell not only Russia, China and Iran what they are doing and oppose them to a policy of firmness, but also to the TurkeyNATO member Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Experience also shows that unprincipled regimes are also the most versatile in their alliances.

In this policy linking rights and security, the large states must be the primary target of our action, even if any parallel between China and Russia would be abusive. Moscow, today, through its direct military action in Europe and Syria and the propaganda it deploys, is an immediate threat that is out of all proportion to Beijing. Together with the major regional powers, these countries constitute the main risk in themselves and because their power to spread the risk is greater. If Europe allows an America - which is increasingly backward and hesitant - to lead this fight on its own, there is a strong risk that it will become a useless power and, because it is on the front line, the most immediately threatened.

Nicolas TenzerAssociate Professor of International Public Affairs, Sciences Po - USPC

Former student of the Ecole Normale Supérieure (Ulm), Diplômé de Sciences Po Paris, Master's degree in History (Paris X), Former student of ENA 
Taught political philosophy at Sciences Po from 1986 to 2001, then at the Paris School of International Affairs (Sciences Po) in the Master International Public Affairs. Also teaches at the ENA and is a visiting professor at many foreign universities (United States, Canada, South Korea, Morocco, Serbia, etc.) on geopolitical and international issues as well as on policy-making processes and public strategy (Public Strategy). 
He was also a rapporteur at the Court of Auditors, head of department at the Commissariat Général du Plan and in charge of several international missions for the French government and the European Union. 
Author of 21 books, including Political Philosophy (PUF, 1994), The Values of Modern People (Flammarion, 2003), France: the Impossible Reform? (Flammarion, 2004), When France disappears from the world (Grasset, 2008), The world by 2030. Rule and disorder (Perrin, 2011), France needs the others (France, 2012). 
Presides over the Centre for Study and Reflection for Political Action (CERAP), a think tank independent of any party or interest group, and directs the review. The Banquet.
The original text of this article was published on The Conversation.


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