Stephen M. Walt

The Polish tragedy

There are many ways one could respond to the shocking plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczyinski over the weekend, but I was most struck by the reaction of a young Polish man — Adam Tychoniewicz — who chose to honor the dead president by riding his bicycle behind the motorcade carrying Kaczyinski’s body ...

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images
JOE KLAMAR/AFP/Getty Images

There are many ways one could respond to the shocking plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczyinski over the weekend, but I was most struck by the reaction of a young Polish man -- Adam Tychoniewicz -- who chose to honor the dead president by riding his bicycle behind the motorcade carrying Kaczyinski's body from the airport to the presidential palace. Tychoniewicz offered a simple but eloquent statement about the value of legitimate constitutional orders and the rule of law. "I'm not afraid," he said. "This is what the laws and the Constitution are for."

Precisely. Poles can react to their shock and grief with calm and resilience because they live in a society where stability and safety do not depend on the leadership of a single individual or the unchecked authority of a single political party. Rather, it depends on the existence of a legitimate framework of laws and institutions than can provide continuity even in the aftermath of an enormous body blow -- the death of a president and dozens of top officials.

In Iraq, by contrast, the removal of Saddam Hussein and the dismantling of the Ba'ath party brought a rapid descent into the state of nature, leading quickly to brutal sectarian warfare.  This is because Saddam's Iraq was an arbitrary order where his will was law. Government there did not exist to protect the people from each other or from arbitrary authority; it existed to keep Saddam and his henchmen in power. Once they were gone, there was no set of stable and legitimate institutions to take over, and as we have learned to our sorrow, trying to create them is a difficult, time-consuming, and uncertain task.

There are many ways one could respond to the shocking plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczyinski over the weekend, but I was most struck by the reaction of a young Polish man — Adam Tychoniewicz — who chose to honor the dead president by riding his bicycle behind the motorcade carrying Kaczyinski’s body from the airport to the presidential palace. Tychoniewicz offered a simple but eloquent statement about the value of legitimate constitutional orders and the rule of law. "I’m not afraid," he said. "This is what the laws and the Constitution are for."

Precisely. Poles can react to their shock and grief with calm and resilience because they live in a society where stability and safety do not depend on the leadership of a single individual or the unchecked authority of a single political party. Rather, it depends on the existence of a legitimate framework of laws and institutions than can provide continuity even in the aftermath of an enormous body blow — the death of a president and dozens of top officials.

In Iraq, by contrast, the removal of Saddam Hussein and the dismantling of the Ba’ath party brought a rapid descent into the state of nature, leading quickly to brutal sectarian warfare.  This is because Saddam’s Iraq was an arbitrary order where his will was law. Government there did not exist to protect the people from each other or from arbitrary authority; it existed to keep Saddam and his henchmen in power. Once they were gone, there was no set of stable and legitimate institutions to take over, and as we have learned to our sorrow, trying to create them is a difficult, time-consuming, and uncertain task.

Realists are often criticized for ignoring domestic politics, but the accusation is at best half-true. Realists do tend to think that other factors are more important in explaining a state’s foreign policy behavior — at least most of the time — but their relatively pessimistic view of human nature makes realists appreciate the importance of legitimate domestic institutions that will constrain our worst impulses.

After all, it was Thomas Hobbes — a realist if ever there was one-who warned about the harshness of life in the state of nature (it is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short") and who emphasized the need for strong institutions to control our selfish tendencies. Similarly, the American Founding Fathers were well aware of the dark side of human nature and sought to devise a system whose laws could channel it in a beneficial directions. As James Madison famously wrote in Federalist No. 51:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

That is why retiring Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens was so worried by the majority decision in Bush v. Gore, the case that decided the 2000 Presidential election. It wasn’t the outcome of the election that mattered; it was a majority decision he believed would undermine our faith in the legal order itself. In the words of his dissent:

It is confidence in the men and women who administer the judicial system that is the true backbone of the rule of law. … Although we may never know with complete certainty the identity of the winner of this year’s Presidential election, the identity of the loser is perfectly clear. It is the Nation’s confidence in the judge as an impartial guardian of the rule of law."

And that is also why Americans should be worried by President Obama’s decision to authorize the targeted assassination of an American citizen who is now suspected of supported terrorist activities in Yemen. When any U.S. president can issue death warrants against a U.S. citizen on the basis of suspicion alone (no matter how well documented) and shorn of any due process, we have taken one further step towards a dangerous concentration of executive authority.

We are far from either tyranny or the state of nature today, no matter what some Tea Partiers might think. But a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and when you’re on a slippery slope, one or two steps can start you sliding towards the point of no return.

So let us grieve for Poland’s loss, and take solace from its resilience. And let us also reflect on the value of living in a constitutional order where the rule of law exists, and imagine how frightening it would be to live in a land where whoever was in charge could do whatever they wanted. Laws and the Constitution exist for a reason. As Mr. Tychoniewicz reminded us, they are there so that we don’t have to be afraid.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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