Does the Third World still exist? In its poverty and underdevelopment more than ever; in its “nonalignment” less and less. Most of Asia has already been divided into Soviet, American, and Chinese spheres of influence. The end of the war in Vietnam seems, at least temporarily, to have stabilized ideological frontiers and reinforced within each satellite country the power of the national party leaders. The war, sometimes open and sometimes covert, between Vietnamese and Cambodians is to a considerable extent a bloody translation of the Soviet-Chinese rivalry for domination of Southeast Asia. The great powers have largely abandoned even the pretense of morally justifying their actions: now anything goes that advances their interests at their rivals’ expense. And in this game, any regime, no matter how monstrous, can find a protector. China has its Cambodia, the USSR its Uganda, the United States its Chile. In these conditions Carter’s rather vain and timid efforts to limit the barbarity of the nations in his camp may strike us as a kind of unconscious diplomacy. But they deserve to be encouraged rather than scorned or mocked.
Never has the criminal aspect of relations between states and peoples—an aspect that is magnified by the diffusion of information and is unaffected by ideology—seemed so prevailing a norm. Never has the play of the great powers—the management of alliances and conflicts—been conducted with such cynicism about neutrality and such indifference to the suppression of individuals. “Look out for your hordes and we’ll look out for ours”: the words of the Austrian minister to his Hungarian counterpart in Franz Joseph’s empire continue to apply to the division of the world among the great powers.
Now that Africa has entered the storm zone, its internal political and social conflicts are largely overshadowed by the politics of the great powers. The few years of relative national autonomy that followed decolonization are, for the weaker and more artificial of these new countries, now little more than a memory. The reversal of alliances in Ethiopia and Somalia, and the strange coalitions now being formed, underline the absurdity of trying to apply ideological criteria imported from the West to the countries of Africa. A year ago the revolt of the Eritrean rebels against Ethiopian domination was said to be a “just” cause. Are we now, after a year of shifting alliances, to think it has become “reactionary”?
Still, many in Europe and elsewhere continue to look to the Third World to redeem their lost illusions. The image of the Soviet Union has been so devalued, even in the eyes of European Communists themselves, that it has become a kind of negative example—the incarnation of lies and oppression. But the USSR continues to figure—often understandably—as a model for the progressive nations of Africa. Grappling with the aftermath of colonialism, or with new forms of post-colonial oppression supported by the West, African political movements committed to social or ethnic revolt turn naturally toward the USSR: the enemies of one’s enemies are seen as one’s friends. And of course Moscow also profits as the influence of the West is weakened and new spheres of influence take shape.
Unfortunately, after the installation of socialism in Cambodia, Vietnam, and Guinea, we have a good idea what to expect—that African socialism will take a totalitarian or authoritarian form. Must we choose, in the name of a devalued sense of history, between, on the one hand, a capitalist Africa that is unjust, police-ridden, and often bloody and, on the other, a socialist Africa that is anarchic, tyrannical, and no less bloody? Can we avoid making such a choice, short of deliberate abstention? It is clear, in any case, that we do not help Africans by continuing to send them our ideologies, our conflicts, and our contradictions. Nor by exporting those of our principles that have proven bankrupt.
The time has come to realize that the right of peoples—the right of “self-determination”—is now the principal instrument of the suppression of human rights. We continue to live and to reason according to the conviction of the revolutionaries of 1848 that, in the fight against tyrannical raison d’état, there is an indissoluble alliance between the principle of nationalism and the principle of freedom. This idea, originally European, has since figured in most “progressive” attitudes toward international relations. It gave rise, more or less propitiously, to the reconstruction of Europe in 1919; more recently it led to the decolonization of Africa and Asia. Hitler also invoked the principle of nationalism when he marched into Czechoslovakia in 1938. A national state was thought to guarantee the freedom of a people.
We know today that this is not so. The peoples of the Third World may be free as long as they are fighting for national independence; but as soon as this is won they tend to fall into the hands of pitiless dictators who use ideology essentially as an instrument of power. Today such states have expropriated the rights of people to manage their own lives, using the power thus gained to dictate without interference which of their subjects should live or die. The UN has largely sacrificed its liberal ideals to the principle of noninterference, and has thus become the instrument of the most bloody of religions—the religion of the state, legitimized by the precept of national sovereignty. Even international sport, supposedly carried on in the spirit of global fraternity, is also now used in the service of this religion—in the service of raison d’état. We see in Argentina, for example, that repression and torture do not prevent the World Cup football matches from taking place.
That is why we can no longer, when the Third World is in question, serve up paternalistically the debris of a progressive philosophy of history—while we see every day new evidence of its bankruptcy and of the crimes committed in its name. To organize a people in a nation state must no longer be equated with the expression of the freedom of a people. There are indeed two camps in the Third World, but they are not the American and Soviet camps. There are instead the torturing states, on the one hand, and the martyred peoples on the other. A truth difficult to admit, and even more difficult to translate into policy, for there is little hope that it can or will be applied by governments. A French government, no matter what its politics, can do next to nothing for the Czech people. Nor for the Cambodians or the Vietnamese or the Argentinians. Nor will it help the Ethiopians or the people of Zaire.
But we, who are not the government, must learn to think of the Ethiopians and the people of Zaire themselves—as we now think of the Czechs and the Argentinians. We must include them in what might be called an “Internationale of human rights”—the only response to the “Internationale of sovereign states.” As long and as narrow as it may seem, this path is today the only one possible. To take any other view is to become the accomplices of butchers.
—translated by Tamar Jacoby
July 20, 1978