Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Foreign Affairs

Promising Revolutions and the Harsh Realities of Re-emerging Tyranny

Jeff Sikkenga writes nicely and concisely in USA Today about the situation in Egypt.  As he puts it:  "A free society is within the capacity of any country, including Egypt."  So there is always good cause for hope.  Human beings are meant to govern themselves.  But the stark realities in the wake of nearly every modern revolution, following ours, ought to give us pause.  Our democratic republic "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" is absolutely the exception, and not the rule in the history of all political life.  Those seeking to discredit the notion that America is an exceptional nation should brush up on the history of modern revolutions and, I fear, pay close attention to the events unfolding in Egypt. 

We can hope that things in Egypt may get better than they have been in recent history.  And we should certainly pray that they do.  But to imagine that cries for "freedom" and the establishment of a "democracy" alone can sustain a society in justice and prosperity is to imagine that scaffolding is the same thing as a sound and beautiful structure.  It is not. Without a grounding in the habits of virtue or the principles of equality, similar to those that sustain (but are constantly under assault from within) the United States, Egyptian democrats may find themselves less than satisfied with the new boss. 
Categories > Foreign Affairs

Discussions - 8 Comments

Why all this effusive praise of military rule? Maybe it has something to do with open gaze in the military.

Well said, Julie (and Jeff). American's charitably assume all other people are capable of the achievements we've enjoyed, while failing to appreciate that precisely those achievements set us apart from most of the world because they have been so very difficult to replicate.

I wonder the lesson that would accompany reflection, 50 years from now, if Egypt again dissolves into dictatorship and Iraq acheives democracy. I hope the best for both - and expect that present change will at least partially benefit both - but the lasting freedom Americans have enjoyed is a unique gift and accomplishment. I pray the rest of the world is prepared to follow our lead.

I'm not sure that the American example of a Revolution not degenerating into terror is so exceptional. The following is from an article by Daniel Bell in Foreign Affairs:

Historically, 1688-type revolutions have been much more common: France in 1830, Germany in 1918, China in 1911-12, and many of the revolutions of 1848 (of which most ended in failure). 1789-type revolutions, by contrast, have been relative historical rarities: above all, 1789 itself, Russia in 1917, China in 1949, Cuba in 1959. They are not, however, necessarily revolutions of the left. One could also include in this category the Nazi seizure of power in Germany (which Hitler termed a "National Revolution") and Iran in 1979. The American Revolution, it could be argued, represents something of a hybrid case -- closer to 1688, yet with important features of the other type, thanks to the long process of consolidation and contestation that followed independence.

Indeed, it's easy to forget that, allowing for the much smaller population of late colonial America compared to late 18th century France, the American Revolution's death toll was as high as the French. And for all of the commitment to natural rights, what happened to Loyalists in the Revolution certainly bears a passing resemblance to a "Terror."

Radical change usually encourages radical means. As for Egypt, I doubt we'll see a fully-fledged democracy there anytime soon. There were reasons Mubarak ruled for 3 decades, and also reasons why the "strong--man model" is so prevalent in the Middle East. The Islamic fusion of economics, politics and religion doesn't help, nor does the poverty and corruption of Middle Eastern societies.

We'll see, but I'm not all that hopeful (and I sincerely hope I'm wrong). The very last thing we need in Egypt is another Islamic Republic.

John raises some good points, as always. In response, I'd ask two questions:

1. Post 1688, how many revolutions have given rise to liberal republics that have lasted as liberal republics for more than 50 years? France in 1830? Germany in 1918? China in 1911-12? Any of the 1848 revolutions?

2. How many leaders of the American Revolution called, as a matter of principle, for the permanent destruction of the life, liberty, or property of those opposed to the revolution? In 1816, the Supreme Court ruled that Loyalists were owed their land back (even Lord Fairfax). Which revolutionary court has made a similar judgment?

1. You're right, Jeff, but your "50 year" rule forces us to leave out all of the important revolutions in recent years--throughout the former Soviet bloc, for example, or the end of Apartheid in South Africa (a revolution of sorts). That's part of Bell's (and I misidentified him as Daniel, when it is David) argument: that 1688-style revolutions have become more the norm in the past generation or so. But it's important to note the title of Bell's piece: "Why We Can't Rule Out an Egyptian Reign of Terror." (the whole thing is available at He is optimistic, in other words, but only guardedly so.

2. I honestly had never heard this. I'd be interested in knowing how much property was actually restored, but you're right--it's a powerful argument in favor of the uniqueness of the American Revolution.

Constitutional states (at this time) of more than 50 years duration (bracketing out periods of foreign occupation and including periods as dependent territories):

-British Isles [two states]
-Scandinavia [five states]
-Western Europe, bar Iberia [13 states]
-North America [two states]
-Anglophone Caribbean [ten states]
-Antipodes [four states]
- Israel
-Costa Rica
-South Africa

Ireland had an insurrection and civil war, concluding in 1922. Finland had much the same, concluding in 1918. I think one of the revolutions of 1848 occurred in Switzerland, though they have a much longer history of constitutional government. Belgium was the product of a rebellion in 1830. The Netherlands were born of a 17th century rebellion against the Hapsburg monarchy. There was a revolution in the Napoleonic era as well. Italy was liberated in 1943-45 with the participation of Italian partisans. Israel had a war for independence. Adding the United States and Britain, that adds up to nine of 41 countries.

Adding to Jeff's second point, I'd call to mind the example of John Adams and his work on behalf of the British soldiers caught up in the Boston Massacre. No one knew better than Adams the propensity within human nature toward egregious acts of senseless violence--particularly when swept up in revolutionary passions and fortified by a sense of justification in a "cause." He had no romantic notions of the purity of the human heart when stirred by passion or interest--even (or, maybe, especially) when those passions or interests were said to be in the service of "liberty." And then, of course, there is the Constitutional Convention and the Federalist to consider--all meant not to stir revolutionary sentiment but to use that sentiment--as it was meant to be used--in the service of reason.

Whether or not other regimes are capable of that step will be the test of all of these new revolutions John mentions (including even the ones in the former Eastern bloc countries--which I am happy to exclude until that time passes). Freedom's just another word when it is devoid of a substantive and thoughtful commitment to individual rights. I think Jeff's 50 year rule is a good one . . . but I'd remain skeptical even after 50 years elapses. There is always reason to be guardedly optimistic . . . even HERE, if you follow. Just as there's never a reason to abandon justly felt sentiment on behalf of liberty, there is similarly never a good reason to let down your guard about what constitutes a genuine commitment to it. Every generation has to re-learn both things.

Leave a Comment

* denotes a required field

No TrackBacks
TrackBack URL: