Values Make History

This week is the 75th anniversary of the Allied landing in Normandy, France and the 30th anniversary of the repression of the Tiananmen manifestation in China. Both events teach us the same lesson: at the root of human behavior are values.

Yes, interests also drive our actions but interests are values too. What we prefer is of value to us. More importantly, when national politics and war are concerned, the value of legitimacy takes on special importance: is it legitimate for us to follow our interest, to defend it against others, to enjoy it?

On what grounds are our interests so deserving that we can seek them even at the expense of others? That is a question of right and wrong, the ethics of living in community with others. What is right is legitimate. Legitimacy reveals what is within our right to do. Legitimacy is about core values.

For the Allies in World War II, the German Reich was an aggressor and military action against it was legitimate, so legitimate that the great expense in blood and treasure necessary to defeat that German government and its army was easily accepted as very worthwhile.

In the case of aggressive war, international law is accepted by nations as the test of legitimacy. What international law will sanction is legitimate and cannot be opposed with force. Aggressive war was outlawed by the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact.

The bloodshed in Tiananmen Square in 1989 came as a result of political conflict among Chinese over the legitimacy of the state. Protestors and the Chinese Communist Party leaders did not agree on the terms of legitimacy for a government in China. The Party believed its values should govern Chinese; the protestors wanted the Chinese state to be legitimated by some open political process and not imposed by the Party alone. It was a conflict of values.

The question we are left with is: what right does violence have in creating legitimacy for values?

The Greek historian Thucydides recorded an Athenian perspective on this: “The strong do what they will; the weak what they must.”

I align with the Allies of World War II and those gathered in Tiananmen Square: legitimacy imposed by violence has no claim to our allegiance. We must insist, even to the point of violence, on the rule of law and ethics as the basis for state power.

In my legal history course, we read the exhortation of Henry de Bracton in his commentaries on English law of 1235: “Not under man but under God and the law.”