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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.

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