Liberty at risk as threats to freedom grow

Non-western elites are redefining freedom on their own terms, as sovereignty, state security and stability. But the world becoming a lot less free should concern us all.

Eugène Delacroix's 'Painting of Liberty Leading the People'
Eugène Delacroix's 'Painting of Liberty Leading the People'. Credit: 20 / Alamy Stock Photo

Freedom is fundamental to conceptualisations of the modern world – at least in the West, where freedoms of speech, of the press, of sexuality and gender, of religious conviction, and many more, are central bastions of the societies we live in. These freedoms, we are often told, have been fought for by our predecessors and need to be defended for this and for future generations.

As we usually think about them, these freedoms evolved from the Enlightenment in Europe, where thinkers such as John Locke, David Hume, John Stuart Mill and many others articulated the principles of what it meant to be ‘free’, how important liberty was and why it mattered. This says more about how we think about history in general than about freedom itself, which was the question that was pored over by scholars and philosophers in South Asia and in parts of China 2,000 years ago. They thought long and hard about if, how, and why humans were able to be independent of nature, of each other and of higher powers.

The authors of the Upanishads, or scholars like Xunzi, writing more than 2,000 years ago, spent considerable energy investigating whether humans really acted freely and were able to control their own destiny — or whether they were constrained by divine will or by fate. In ancient Mesopotamian societies, astrologers and soothsayers looked for signs to help them understand meanings and portents, as well as for ways in which they (and contemporary rulers) could influence the future through making offerings.

Indeed, assessments of freedom were crucial even in Western societies more than a millennium before the Enlightenment: the law code assembled by the great Roman emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) took care to formulate a definition that could be applied in legislation. Freedom, says the code, is ‘the natural power of doing what we please unless prevented by force or law.’

This sounds simple enough. But it raises many additional questions, perhaps the most important of which concern the relative obligations between the individual and the state, and the ability of the latter to compel behaviour or make demands from the former. Much depends, in other words, on precisely what ‘force’ or ‘law’ mean and who is able to wield either or both.

So heavily embedded are concepts of freedom within western societies that during the Cold War, commentators often categorised the world as being divided into the Soviet bloc, on the one hand, and the Free World, on the other — a distinction that made more sense in the United States, Europe and former settler colonies such as Australia and New Zealand than it did in many parts of Africa, Asia and Central and South America.

Cynics might suggest that ideas about the ‘free world’ are a mirror of how Western societies not only like to present but also view themselves, namely as proponents of the most enlightened, progressive and sophisticated socio-economic and political model that is the benchmark to which other nations would want to aspire — perhaps best articulated in Francis Fukuyama’s seminal article and book, The End of History.

Whether such cynicism might be merited is one thing; but another is that one of the most prominent themes in global geopolitics in the last decade has been the push-back against Western models, for which there are many and complex explanations. Taken as a whole, the idea that the international legal order is one that was set up by Western powers to protect their interests and exclude others has found widespread and increasing support in many countries around the world.

In the most extreme cases, this has been manifested by diminishing freedoms: across almost every index, societies have become less ‘free’ in recent years, with authoritarianism, restrictions, and crackdowns not only increasingly common but also increasingly popular. Ironically, this is the case, too, in states with long traditions of democracy, where political debates have become measurably more polarised, institutions challenged, and media and social media have created antagonisms that present significant problems for centrist politics.

This creates ambiguities in high income, liberal democracies in which freedom forms a central concept, not only of national identities, but of nationhood itself. The United States, after all, is the Land of the Free (as well as home of the brave); its constitution states that the purpose of the government is to ‘establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for common defence [and] promote the general welfare,’ as well as ‘secure the blessings of liberty.’ If the simple rallying cry of France, ‘Liberté, Egalité et Fraternité,’ leaves little to the imagination as to the importance of freedom, then the same can be said in Britain, where perhaps the most striking line in the patriotic Rule Britannia (composed in the eighteenth century) is that ‘Britons never will be slaves.’

In the case of the latter, there is an obvious and painful irony in the fact that the benefits of freedom from bondage owed much to the enslavement of peoples in other parts of the world, and from the requisitioning of raw materials, goods and labour that helped to build not only a fleet that ruled the waves, but an empire to boot.

That should serve as a reminder that freedom is usually in the eye of the beholder. Take, for instance, the constitution of one country that declares: ‘Man, his rights and freedoms shall be the supreme value. The recognition, observance and protection of human and civil rights and freedoms shall be an obligation of the State.’ Few, other than Vladimir Putin and the circle around him, would seriously think that any of these protections were real or meaningful. And yet, such is how the Russian Federation presents itself to its own citizens, not only as an aspiration, but as a key duty of the state.

Likewise, guarantees that citizens of the People’s Republic of China have the right to ‘enjoy the freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly and of demonstration,’ show the mismatch between intention and reality — but also underline how states of all political persuasions and structures at least claim to defend freedoms as a central right for all citizens. In this case, too, that is further articulated by the constitutional commitment that ‘the freedom of the citizens of the PRC is inviolable,’ something that might cause eyebrows to rise both in China itself and beyond.

The key question, then, is what freedom really is, and who gets to decide. In 2022, this was put into sharp focus by Putin, because of his actions in invading Ukraine in what he claimed was a ‘special operation’ rather than an invasion, and because he has often taken to mulling over his views in public about history, including in a series of turgid essays written in July 2021 and the summer of 2022.

States were either sovereign or they were not, he opined in June 2022: ‘There is no middle way between being a sovereign country and a colony.’ In other words, one is either free or one is not free.’ Russia, by Putin’s formulation, was a sovereign power, like the United States and China, that could act independently and, additionally, could not be coerced. This was not true, to judge from his statements, about other states — such as Ukraine, but also members of the European Union, which were dependent on energy, raw materials and more from Russia, and, as such, were vulnerable, dependent and effectively unfree.

While this throws up a great many questions, not least about Putin himself, for the current purposes of this essay, the most important one is whether he is right. In a world that has seen profound globalisation, accelerated over the last three decades, has the harmonisation of markets reduced independence and freedom because of the gamble that supplies of all kinds — energy, foods, materials and so on — would always be available? Or has globalisation served to increase risk by introducing points of failure that can be exploited intentionally (in the case of Russia, for example) or otherwise (such as in the case of the pandemic)? Has the international legal order become a cipher, in other words, for mutual dependencies that serve to create fewer ‘sovereigns’ and more ‘colonies,’ to use Putin’s formulation?

Economists might argue markets solve problems better than political dogma, and provide sanguine reminders that what seem to be reckless actions (such as war) can also strengthen resilience and lead to supply-side gains, by triggering reforms that can have positive long-term impacts.

A historian might look at this in a slightly different way and focus on the age of the Enlightenment when liberty and freedom were topics of almost obsessive interest for scholars and philosophers in western Europe. The concepts of freedom were set in a context not only of rationalism, scientific advancement and wider engagements with other parts of the world, but also that of sharply rising personal and public wealth.

It was important, too, that these ideas about liberty were framed in a specific set of assumptions and built on hard realities that enabled ideas about freedom to look better to those who talked about them than to the world at large. This was clear, for example, when it came to suffrage; it is easy to forget, or never learn, that women in what are now Uzbekistan and Azerbaijan were given the right to vote before women in Britain. And universal voting rights for all adults in what are now proud liberal democracies are still an extremely recent phenomenon in historical terms — in most cases, less than a century old.

That is because those who wrote about freedom and expressed strong opinions about how important it was were direct or indirect beneficiaries of the lack of freedom of others. That was evidently the case when it came to slavery, especially in the Caribbean and the Americas; but those freedoms were not limited to coerced labour and the fruits (and profits) it generated in lucrative industries, such as sugar, cotton and tobacco.

The key to staying free — or at least talking about it — was the acquisition and accumulation of resources from other parts of the world at the lowest cost. These did not just produce financial dividends, but calorie benefits too: sugar imports between 1600-1850 are estimated to have improved living standards in England by almost ten per cent, an astonishing amount, in other words.

The flow of benefits shifted in more recent centuries, with accusations being made 30 years ago, at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, that the parts of the world that had industrialised first were now guilty of neo-colonialism. Richer countries parked dirty industrial production on low-income countries, while taking advantage of the lower costs of labour and the lack of responsibility for land, air and water pollution that have significant knock-on effects on everything, from cognitive development to suicide rates.

In this sense, then, the single most important aspect of the meaning and practice of freedom is institutional development — that is to say, political structures that not only preserve independence, but prevent the accumulation of authority, power and decision making from what early modern scholars called tyrants.

As one Middle Eastern minister put it in the early twentieth century, freedom is never given, it is always taken. This is how liberal democracies evolved: not by the consensus that liberty was a good in itself, but because mercantile elites were able to take powers always from autocrats, and to build institutions that protected and enhanced their independence. The rewards of such developments owed little to conceptual ideas about whether freedom was good in itself — self-evidently the case, given how jealously participation in political life was guarded.

What elites did successfully in countries that later transitioned into fully functional democracies (at least in so far as all adults have a right to vote) was to force the introduction of controls on poor decisions that could lead to enhanced risks. One way that worked in Great Britain, for example, was for parliament to insist on meeting regularly, and, in doing so, restrict unilateral decisions made by the monarch. Curiously, it seems that a major part of the success in ensuring political stability, as well as sound investment in the army and the navy, was the insistence of parliament to raise taxes — and thus underline what lay at stake by making the population (including those not allowed to vote) at least partially invested in the success of the country abroad.

It is perhaps no coincidence, therefore, that while much attention is paid by commentators to individual countries and the threats that they pose, both real and imagined, the most significant development in the first two decades of the twenty-first century has been the degradation and undermining of global institutions, most notably the United Nations, but also the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation.

Despite appearances, this has not just been done by nefarious actors but by liberal democracies that have chosen to act unilaterally and, in some cases, even unlawfully. In doing so, it is not just the metaphysical pillars of freedom that have been weakened, but the international legal order too. The decision by the US and its coalition allies to effectively bypass the United Nations over interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria has proved to have significant implications when others, too, have sought to take matters into their own hands through the use of force, most notably Russia.

The withdrawal of the United States from major climate agreements, from the Trans-Pacific Partnership as well as from UN agencies such as UNESCO, or the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union (and the intentional breaches of international law regarding the Northern Ireland agreement), all have their own logic — especially for the champions of such decisions. Nevertheless, taken individually and collectively, they represent cases of unilateral actions that benefit the few in the place of the many. As such, while they might offer additional freedoms for the beneficiaries, they limit those for others.

Not surprisingly, then, other actors have proved adept at exposing disunity, in playing on vulnerabilities that promise new solutions to old problems, and which further undermine local, regional and global institutions. We are living in a post-Enlightenment age, where powers are progressively being harvested by leaders with autocratic tendencies and authoritarian political structures, who present themselves as guardians of their citizens’ interests, in much the same way as medieval kings did.

That is self-evident in countries such as Russia, China, Turkey, Hungary and others, where the apparatus of the state, as well as the media, is either in government or friendly hands. It is increasingly true in liberal democracies, too, however, where chaotic domestic politics — from the merry-go-round in Britain to the 6 January 2021 storming of the Capitol in Washington — suggest there are serious problems in states that have long prided themselves on being stable, and able to avoid the personality cults that characterise autocratic rule.

It is hard to predict the impact on freedom of current economic pressures — with the financial implications of the pandemic dovetailing with inflationary headwinds, the exclusion of Russia from many international markets, sudden shifts by central banks to change money supply, and climatic stresses.

Historians, however, would point to the past to underline the strong correlation between downturns and reduced freedoms. What the coming years and decades have to offer is unclear. But few would bet that our world will be freer than it has been for the past 30 years, and a wiser gambler would put money on the chances that the opposite trend — of restrictions, exclusions, centralisation of power — will rise sharply. That prospect should concern us all.


Peter Frankopan