By George F. Paik
Free people worldwide are uneasy. Democracies confront terrorism, economic disruption, and immigration from unstable regions. Elected governments appear incompetent or unresponsive. Nativist movements are rising in France, the U.S., and elsewhere. Countries from Hungary to Thailand are accepting constraints on democracy. And this is happening against a backdrop of China’s rise, with a paradoxical market economy encased in a one-party state, jihadis who claim Islamist governing mandates, and other counters to democratic norms. In new scientific findings, religious and ideological twists, and communications technology, the world increasingly defies intellectual ordering. That democracy is better than the Islamic State’s theocracy is not universally obvious.
The free need to reaffirm their worldview of rights. Whatever the ultimate aims of jihadis, China’s rulers, or Putin, they present moral cases for their actions. Against the institutional power of the West’s Liberal World Order, moral narrative is their only tool to support any claims that cross Western interests. All contravene, to some degree, the moral principle that government exists to facilitate rights. Free societies rest on that principle, but in this arena of moral narrative, their governments simply add a tool, dubbed “soft power,” to their military, economic, and institutional levers. Essentially waging PR campaigns, they raise doubts as to whether free societies carry any moral convictions at all.
Narratives only emerge in lasting concert of policies, actions, and sometimes sacrifice to a clear rationale. Western international actions have lacked coherence since the Cold War. To bind those who don’t share our ideals to our worldview, we need first to know its philosophy, real life implications, and nuances.
Non-liberals don’t realize, and free peoples forget, that freedom is not license. It is not counterbalanced by needs such as security, income, and community. Satisfaction denotes an “increase of persons’ capacity to live as they choose,” which, according to Amartya Sen, actually is freedom. Circumstances focus people on different choices, but the subsistence farmer who worries more about eating than voting and the meditator seeking nirvana need the same rights. All seek to grow in “self-actualization” in a drive integral to mental health, which psychologist Abraham Maslow described as “full humanness.” This quality is a human need as innate as food. Freedom is comprehensive, natural, and essential.
Real world conditions do require recognition of the nuances of this idea. Free societies separate individuals’ right to their beliefs from any question of the beliefs’ truth. This counters almost all social traditions, which historically facilitated order and economic organization. Current dysfunction in free societies and the economic accomplishments of regimes like China’s highlight the tension. Securing tangible needs while promoting the intangible values of free conscience requires an art of reconciliation. Policymakers can best reconcile the two by treating the former objectives—prosperity, security, even democracy—not as competing ends to be sorted out, but as means to the fundamental end of freedom.
Fundamental commitment to the worldview of rights does require a choice, even for free societies. Most nations have traditional points of identity, which could survive without individual rights. Many societies must weigh an ethos of rights against traditional demands to uphold sect, tribe, or clan interests.
The United States, the most powerful liberal state, is also the most dependent on freedom’s moral narrative. The U.S. justified its creation on the principle of individual liberty. Its national interest calls for telling a coherent moral narrative, and by orienting policy according to this narrative the U.S. will debunk misconstructions and voice its true ends. Societies will see the value of rights; as they adopt this worldview, they in turn will provide evidence of its appeal, and promote further adoption.
As one speculative measure, the primary Western alliances—NATO, U.S.-Japan, NORAD, ANZUS—could be explicitly re-oriented to support the principle of freedom. They were originally created to contain the Soviets. That purpose is gone; Putinism is no equivalent. But the allies are largely established democracies featuring a high degree of self-actualization. Under the rationale of individual rights, the U.S. could propose resolutions in the charters of these bodies, dedicating them to security for that worldview. Upon adoption, the alliances could be integrated operationally. The logic of their purpose suggests a rebalance of forces, away from power projection and toward protection of maritime, air and space, and cyber commons connecting free societies. The same logic suggests a diplomatic doctrine for the integrated alliance that promotes global development in freedom, ultimately offering membership to countries that develop firm commitments to rights.
Of course any initiative has costs as well as benefits. Concerting the West’s technological and defense resources to protect points where freedom is vulnerable would reduce land and expeditionary forces. As challenges cannot be predicted, that loss could pose dangers. But the goal is to offer a security umbrella that incentivizes others to respect, and perhaps strive to join, the free community. In this stance free countries’ policies align with each other in a binding commitment to freedom. Opposing no one, encouraging others to join, and taking a defensive posture, it brands hostility to these countries as hostility to freedom itself.
If the creed of freedom consistently underlies the free world’s foreign policy, free peoples can be confident that their right to choose their pursuits is secure and valid. With or without a Liberal World Order, the moral conviction of freedom will flourish.
George F. Paik is a former political affairs officer in the U.S. Foreign Service and a U.S. capital markets veteran. His diplomatic career straddled the end of the Cold War, in Washington and at postings in Brazil and in Trinidad and Tobago. Paik holds a BA in Social Studies from Harvard and an MBA in Finance from Wharton.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]