Freedom on Trial

Freedom on Trial

If the United States is to maintain its international leadership in the coming years, it will have to define, explain, and execute a new vision for leadership that can secure long-term domestic support while recruiting committed allies, partners, and others to work toward shared goals.

On January 20, 1994—thirty years ago today—Richard M. Nixon announced the creation of the Center for Peace and Freedom (later renamed the Center for the National Interest). “The communists,” Nixon said, “have lost the Cold War. But it is a mistake to say that the West has won it.”

What did he mean? This lifelong anti-communist explained that “now freedom is on trial. Can freedom provide those material things that people need and want … as well as the higher freedoms—freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom in all of its great and glorious aspects? That is the challenge we have today.”

Today, the United States continues to face this very challenge. In some respects, it appears even more daunting. And not only internationally, but—probably quite surprisingly to the former president, who expressed his optimism that freedom and technological progress would go far in dealing with problems like “inadequate health care and hunger”—domestically as well. Indeed, populist sentiments on the right and the left are the clearest possible indication that many Americans believe that their government has failed, or is failing, to ensure that free political systems (democracies) pass Nixon’s basic test. That many other such systems face the same predicament is a powerful warning.

In these few lines, Nixon expressed a fundamental and often forgotten aspect of America’s political system and the freedom and democracy the United States has sought to promote internationally. Freedom and democracy are means—not ends. People in America and around the world see that clearly; striving to meet their needs and wants, material and beyond, often largely defines their lives. Governments that fail to support them in this, whether free or not, risk public wrath. If they fail to do so over an extended period, their citizens question not merely the competence of specific personalities but the effectiveness and fairness of the political system itself. In the United States, Republican and Democratic political candidates have routinely attacked the American government on both points for quite some time without apparent concern for the fact that widespread loss of confidence in systems of government can (and does) have calamitous consequences. It turns out that Americans have been listening to them.

Like Nixon, many of America’s founders also understood that what they called popular governments are tools for the societies they represent. They wrote just this in the preamble to the United States Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The purpose of the Constitution and the government it created was to serve Americans and advance their interests.

U.S. political and media elites defined Americans’ interests too expansively in the decades following the Cold War. In doing so, they promoted long, costly, and destructive wars. They attempted to implement sweeping political and economic changes in a variety of far-flung countries that, more often than not, proved committed to their own traditions, resistant to outside advice or direction, and internally divided about what changes were desirable or acceptable. At the same time, business elites moved money, equipment, and jobs globally—as political and media elites facilitated or encouraged this—to maximize financial returns for investors and bolster American values through trade and investment. Despite some benefits, the results have not impressed Americans. The 2016 presidential election was not the first evidence of this, but it was likely the starkest.

The United States led the establishment of the modern international system at a time of unprecedented American power following World War II. As a result, today’s international system is uniquely favorable to the United States. Indeed, if the modern international system and its various institutions and agreements vanished overnight, Washington would probably lack the military, economic, or moral power to recreate them. 

To be clear, this is not about the “rules-based order,” a poorly understood, excessively discussed, and misleading concept, but about having an international system that helps the U.S. government to advance its citizens’ interests. People who think the current international system impedes or harms the United States and is best overturned or abandoned should consider the possible and probable alternatives. Conversely, however, those who think that the United States can indefinitely preserve each individual aspect of a system established in the wake of a global war that devastated every other participating major power—after decades of recovery as well as U.S. efforts to promote global prosperity that have helped to elevate new powers—should reflect on the risks to such an approach. 

The massive changes underway in today’s international system make the failure to define and execute a form of U.S. international leadership that Americans will support not merely damning but dangerous. Successive administrations and America’s broader elites—who benefit to an even greater extent than most Americans from U.S. leadership—have fostered public rejection of American leadership and the desire to withdraw from the international system rather than the popular embrace of these instruments of U.S. power. Only U.S. leadership can preserve and utilize what is most important in the current international system to help and protect Americans.

Part of the problem is that many—especially political leaders and media pundits—are confused about U.S. leadership in the same way that they are confused about freedom and democracy. If “leadership” and “democracy” were indeed ends, invoking the words might be enough. This is what President Joe Biden and many administration officials are trying to do in responding to former President Donald Trump’s frequent attacks. It isn’t working because democracy and leadership are not ends; they are means. Democracy, including the rule of law, provides a means for voters to pursue their interests, including prosperity, security, and their freedoms. Leadership is a means to leverage American power, with support from others, to defend and advance those interests internationally.

Moreover, leadership is much easier to claim than to earn; by definition, it requires followers, who are better-termed allies and partners, in that sovereign governments have their own citizens’ interests to advance. This, in turn, requires that the leader is responsive to allies’ and partners’ concerns and priorities, sometimes at the leader’s expense. Indeed, one reason that China and Russia have thus far struggled to win true allies, as opposed to subordinate clients, is that officials in Beijing and Moscow have been unwilling to sacrifice their interests (national and otherwise) for others. (The fact that they have only subordinate clients is also the reason that many Chinese and especially Russian officials appear to believe that America can “order” its allies to act in various ways.) If the United States took a similar view of American interests and leadership, Washington might eventually find itself in a similar position. 

Successful leadership is also quite difficult because America’s considerable but still limited power requires establishing priorities and accepting tradeoffs that will inevitably please some (domestically and internationally) while disappointing or angering others. Leadership requires understanding—though not necessarily accepting—others’ points of view, making tough cost-benefit decisions, and thinking several steps ahead to consider how others might respond to U.S. actions and to avoid damaging unintended consequences. Finally, of course, leadership often requires persuading others that the leader is worthy of leadership, including not only in capabilities and skill but also morally. Yet, like America’s voters, foreign governments and peoples will judge our capability, skill, and morality not through our rhetoric or even our actions but on the outcomes that U.S. policy produces. 

If the United States is to maintain its international leadership in the coming years, American officials and politicians will have to define, explain, and execute a new vision for leadership that can secure long-term domestic support while recruiting committed allies, partners, and others to work toward shared goals. Before all else, this means developing a shared and realistic understanding of the United States and the world that can serve as foundations for such an effort. It similarly requires a hard-headed definition of U.S. national interests and priorities, though not a self-absorbed and narrow definition like that of America’s rivals, but one developed through an enlightened and strategic approach. And it requires recalling Richard Nixon’s prescient warning that freedom and democracy are on trial, not primarily among nations but within them, for only there can they prove their value.

In its next thirty years, I hope the Center for the National Interest and The National Interest can contribute to a new and enduring American leadership for the twenty-first century and beyond.

Paul J. Saunders is President of the Center for the National Interest and a Senior Advisor to the Energy Innovation and Reform ProjectHe was a State Department Senior Advisor from 2003 to 2005.