We haven’t heard the expression ‘free world’ for a while and we certainly haven’t heard the US president call himself a “free world leader” when Donald Trump was in office. But when I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, these terms were common in international political discussions. Although obsolete, they are no less relevant today.
By the end of World War II, European, North American and other democracies recognized the military and political threat posed by their former ally, Stalin, to the Soviet Union. They abbreviated themselves as ‘West’. U.S. diplomat George F. Kennon used the term in his famous 1946 ‘Long Telegram’ from Moscow, in which he described the fundamental challenge to our freedom and way of life, the perspective of reality as opposed to open capitalism.
‘Free world’ is an overused term. It sometimes merges liberal countries like some around the Mediterranean run by unelected generals — and it occasionally runs a campaign: How can anyone oppose freedom? But this concept is a useful way to define the cooperation of large liberal democracies with socio-market economies.
These countries have governments that can replace their citizens in peaceful and fair elections. Political majorities are constrained by respect for minority views. Such societies had constitutional checks and balances, the rule of law, and allowed freedom of the press and freedom of inquiry, religion and dissent. Moreover, they joined alliances, without being subject to large and threatening neighbors.
To be sure, these democracies are not perfect. They make mistakes, sometimes adapting to their own standards and values (they usually know when they are doing so). But according to the concept of their rule, the law served the people and not vice versa. Citizens were not afraid to knock on the door when they died at night, and prosperity increased and spread — if not as widely as ever desired.
The American President is the agreed leader of this alliance of countries with shared principles. America played a key role in the victory over fascism, Nazism and brutal nationalism, and then decided to build an international rule-based order in which everyone would be subject and all would prosper in peace. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the broad consensus in liberal democracies was that the fall of Soviet Communism meant a victory-free world for them.
Today, however, liberal democracies face enormous challenges in maintaining their values and in rebuilding the world order that Russia and China (with its growing economy) accept in good faith, and accordingly they maintain their relations with others. How can those of us who live in open societies and those who want their values to survive save the free world today?
We can begin by recalling some of the messages in the Cannon Telegram to his political masters in Washington. America needs to “create and put forward a more positive and constructive picture for other nations [the] Kennon argues, “We must have the courage and confidence to adhere to our own practices and notions of human society.”
This is now one of the many challenges facing US President Joe Biden. Trump is a trauma nationalist who does not believe in allies or universal human rights. Although he rightly pointed out some of China’s worst behavior, he hated America’s traditional friends, largely ignored Russia’s cruelty and failed to provide any focus on freedom and democracy to mobilize support and international opinion.
For Biden, the global agenda begins at home: defeating the coronavirus epidemic, protecting the U.S. economy, healing racial divisions, and restoring respect, dignity, and responsibility to the American public debate. To the world, he has already said he is ready to work with China and Russia in trying to address global issues such as climate change, but the US request has not played a role. The Biden administration can cooperate with other developed countries to provide Kovid vaccines to the poorest parts of the world and help with sustainable development assistance, as China does, rather than suffering from huge debts to finance questionable projects. Doing. It should be made clear that these countries want to address inequalities and apply the World Rule on Trade and Human Rights fairly to all.
Furthermore, liberal democracies must provide economic and security protection to those threatened by China or Russia. We must see to it that freedom is universally applied. We must stop forcing individual nations to take actions that are clearly detrimental to their interests.
The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and confidence” Kennon says.
This is the best way to ensure the survival of our own concept of human freedom. And survival, it turns out.
Chris Patton is the former British Governor of Hong Kong and former EU Commissioner for External Affairs and current Chancellor of Oxford University
© 2021 / Project Syndicate