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Defending the Free World Again

The overwhelming consensus within liberal democracies was that the fall of the Berlin Wall, and with it Soviet communism, was a victory for the free world. But today, open societies again face huge challenges in defending their values and rebuilding a global order that Russia and China will accept.

LONDON – We have not heard the expression “the free world” for some time, and we certainly didn’t hear the president of the United States referred to as “the leader of the free world” when Donald Trump was in office. But when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, these terms were commonplace in discussions of international politics. Despite having fallen into disuse, they are no less relevant today.

At the end of World War II, European, North American, and other democracies recognized that they were confronted by the military and political threat of their erstwhile ally, Stalin’s Soviet Union. They described themselves in short as “the West.” The US diplomat George F. Kennan used this word in his famous 1946 “Long Telegram” from Moscow, in which he outlined the fundamental challenge to our freedom and way of life posed by a system whose view of reality was incompatible with that of open capitalist societies.

“Free world” was an overused term. It sometimes incorporated countries that were anything but free – such as some around the Mediterranean that were run by unelected generals – and it occasionally performed a propaganda function: How could anyone be opposed to freedom? But the concept was a useful way of defining the cooperation of countries that were by and large liberal democracies with social-market economies.

These countries had governments that their citizens could replace in peaceful and fair elections. Political majorities were constrained by respect for minority opinions. Such societies had constitutional checks and balances, the rule of law, and allowed – indeed, encouraged – freedom of the press and of inquiry, religion, and dissent. Moreover, they were joined in alliances, not subjugated by big and bullying neighbors.

To be sure, these democracies were far from perfect. They made mistakes, sometimes falling short of their own standards and values (although they usually knew when they were doing so). But under their notion of governance, the law served the people and not vice versa. Citizens did not fear a knock on the door in the dead of night, and prosperity grew and spread – if not always as widely as one would desire.

The acknowledged leader of this alliance of countries with shared principles was the American president. The US had played a crucial part in the victory over fascism, Nazism, and brutal nationalism, and thereafter set about building an international rules-based order to which all would be subject and in which all could thrive in peace. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the overwhelming consensus within liberal democracies was that the collapse of Soviet communism meant victory for them – the free world.

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Today, however, liberal democracies again face huge challenges in defending their values and rebuilding a global order that Russia and China (with its surging economy) will accept in good faith and according to which they will conduct their relations with others. How should those of us who live in open societies and want them and their values to survive set about defending the free world today?

We could start by recalling some of the messages in Kennan’s telegram to his political masters in Washington. America “must formulate and put forward for other nations a much more positive and constructive picture of [the] sort of world we would like to see,” Kennan argued. “We must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society.”

This is now one of the many challenges confronting US President Joe Biden’s administration. Trump was a bruising mercantilist nationalist who believed in neither allies nor universal human rights. While he correctly highlighted some of China’s worst behavior, he disdained America’s traditional friends, largely ignored Russia’s brutishness, and failed to provide any vision of freedom and democracy to mobilize supportive international opinion.

For Biden, the international agenda starts at home: defeating the coronavirus pandemic, rescuing the US economy, healing racial divisions, and restoring decency, dignity, and responsibility to American public debate. To the world, he has already said that he is prepared to work with China, and even Russia, in trying to tackle global problems like climate change, but not with the US playing the role of supplicant. China, for example, is arguably more challenged by global warming than any other country.

The Biden administration can cooperate with other developed countries in an alliance of the free to provide COVID-19 vaccines to poorer parts of the world, and to help them with sustainable development aid, rather than saddling them with huge debts to finance questionable projects, as China is doing. These countries should make it clear that, both domestically and internationally, they want to tackle wealth inequalities and apply the global rulebook on trade and human rights fairly to everyone.

Furthermore, liberal democracies must offer economic and security protection to those who are bullied and threatened by China or Russia. Freedom must be seen to be universally applicable. We have to stop individual countries from being coerced into actions that are plainly detrimental to their own interests.

The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will.

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