The price of freedom

  • Themes: Geopolitics, Ukraine

The arc of history only bends towards justice when people of goodwill grab hold of it and wrench it in the direction of justice.

The Freedom is Our Religion banner in Maidan Square, Kyiv.
The Freedom is Our Religion banner in Maidan Square, Kyiv. Credit: Ali Kerem Yucel / Alamy Stock Photo

The international order that the US and its allies constructed from the ashes of the Second World War is under strain. The two main challenges to the order are America’s continued ability to uphold it and China’s rise. However, the order is much more durable than the frenzy of concern suggests.

Extrapolating from 40 years of Chinese economic dynamism, Western policies are gearing up for the problems of a rising China. Relying on the metrics of gross domestic product, military expenditure, trade volumes, research and development spending, and manufacturing output, China is indeed formidable. But those are all metrics that exaggerate the effect of large populations, and are poor indicators of national power. China has a per capita GDP of $16,842, which is roughly equivalent to the per capita GDP of Iraq, Botswana, or the Dominican Republic. Tracking, instead, geography (number of dissatisfied neighbours), demography (teetering on a cliff due to the catastrophe of its one-child policy and negligible immigration), political institutions (brittle and its bargain of prosperity for autocracy faltering as prosperity stalls), and soft power (caught stealing, committing genocide, revealing its aggressive ambitions), China is precarious. We may be facing the problems of a stalling China rather than a successful China.

China may prove no less disruptive and dangerous stranded in the middle-income trap than it would have been stampeding towards dominance. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may perceive a closing window of opportunity to wrest the international order out of Western hands before we realise our relative strength, or are prepared to defend the order we created. Hegemons are often not the wealthiest or even strongest powers in the international order – they are the states willing to set and enforce rules. But we in the West shouldn’t doubt that we have the ability to preserve the order. We often lose faith that the truths we hold to be self-evident are universal, but Xi Jinping clearly believes they are, because otherwise he wouldn’t need the architecture of repression. And, fortunately, the CCP appears to have given us the time to prepare, having activated the antibodies against its continued rise.

There is concern over whether the United States still believes the international order it has captained since 1945 is in its interests and worth sustaining. American politics is vituperatively partisan, with loud voices – including that of the former president – openly advocating political violence to prevent the democratic transition of power. Both Republicans and Democrats seem convinced that trade has detracted from American prosperity, Wall Street and Silicon Valley acknowledge no difference between the governments of China and the US, and isolationists range on both the right and left.

And yet, American politics, even in the post-war period, has always been solipsistic and often fraught, because of what it is as a political culture. The best description of Americans was provided by historian Bertha Ann Reuter in 1923: ‘Americans are a people so extreme in politics or religion or both that they could not live in peace anywhere else.’ The characteristic that most makes America diverse from other prosperous and free countries is risk tolerance: it is a country inventive enough to develop Covid-19 vaccines, industrious enough to rush them into mass production, wealthy enough to make them freely available, and also a country in which a third of the population refuses to take them, a country that has suffered a million dead from the pandemic.

Nor is America newly a country full of crazy people run by reckless politicians; that is what it has always been like. Americans have a tendency to mythologise the past into a time when American politicians were statesmen, unhindered by the grubbiness of domestic politics. When they stood like Colossus astride a virtuous country and looked outward to selflessly shape the international order. As a historian, I keep looking for that time and I can’t find it.

Take, for example, the year 1954, possibly the zenith of American hegemonic power. Its economy comprised more than a third of global product, amassed preponderant military power that was used sparingly, constructed alliances across the globe to protect allies still recovering from wartime devastation, elected as president a war hero and committed internationalist, and fostered a culture of almost wilful innocence as it recoiled from the experience of the world at war. At the same time, the American military was forcibly integrating schools in the south, President Eisenhower had sought Senator McCarthy’s support during his campaign, and congressional hearings continued to search for communist sympathisers. Furthermore, support for decolonisation didn’t extend as far as supporting emergent governments that might choose alignment with the Soviet Union, and that same president would, two years later, side against America’s NATO allies during the Suez crisis, threatening to collapse their economies.

It hasn’t just become hard to navigate with Americans at the helm, it’s always been hard. But that shouldn’t cause us to lose sight of the many things the United States has got right: broad and deep capital markets; the rule of law; the revolutionary technological creativity of Silicon Valley; film and music industries that set global style; magnetism drawing hard-working immigrants across the labour market spectrum; the capacity to govern over an ever more inclusive diversity; and a cultural love of failures conjuring up successful second acts. Add to this the truths that Americans hold to be self-evident: that all people are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The US fails often, but it’s legitimately hard for other societies to get right what America has got right.

Possibly the best article written about America and the world was by James Fallows in 2010, titled ‘How America Can Rise Again’. He wrote about all those enduring strengths listed above, but also about the role of the Jeremiad in American foreign policy. Jeremiah, you’ll remember from the Torah, always feared failing God, and that’s why he was beloved of God. Fallows’s simile is that the US gets motivated for international activism only when it believes it’s losing its prominence – so, responding to Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder in the 1950s, countering Japan Inc in the 1970s, and understanding now that China has rejected the ‘responsible stakeholder’ vision of mutually beneficial prosperity and power the US offered.

You can almost feel the gears meshing as the American government begins to acknowledge the nature of the challenge: national security and defence strategies identifying China as the main threat; Congress increasing defence spending far beyond what the administration requests; the FBI opening a new counter-espionage case against China every 10 hours; duelling op-ed pieces in business newspapers by Ray Dalio (pro-China) and George Soros (anti-China); Treasury and Commerce departments cooperating on Chinese investment restrictions. This is what the US government slowly getting serious looks like.

Nor is the US just focused on the China challenge. It’s broadly understood now – and not just in Washington – that the international order requires defending. Americans are more worried about domestic than international challenges, but they’re still worried about, and committed to, an international order. President Biden was elected on returning to traditional post-war American foreign policies; there was almost no opposition to a $40 billion assistance package for Ukraine, and his administration has got its highest marks for orchestrating the allied response to Russia’s invasion.

It’s fashionable to decry Frank Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man as claiming history has ended, but that’s an unserious response to a serious work of philosophy. Fukuyama advances two important arguments in the book: first, that liberal democracy is the political system that best encourages human flourishing – safety, prosperity, and fulfilment; and, second, that the most serious threat to it is the complacency of people long living under that political system. That’s the last man part, and it seems to me devastatingly prescient about the political upheavals we’re experiencing in the domestic politics of free societies right now.

What I worry most about is those of us living in free societies conscioning facile, exculpatory nonsense, the most egregious example of which is the gravely intoned ‘military force can’t solve this problem’. It gets paraded whenever leaders don’t want to resort to force, or when commentators object to force superseding other policy tools. But as Russia’s brutality in Ukraine is demonstrating, force can and does resolve issues. The sovereignty of Ukraine will be determined by force of arms, and whatever is not achieved by military force will not be accomplished by negotiation, economics, or any other means. Force is historically how questions of power and order are determined; it is only in free countries, living in the arc of safety cast by the liberal order, that the belief is indulged that force isn’t the determiner of outcomes. And although we may fecklessly think so, our enemies do not.

Another shibboleth that needs debunking is some beautiful, inspiring rhetoric from Martin Luther King Jr that President Obama and others interpret literally, which is that the arc of history bends towards justice. It has come to be treated as a natural law, like gravitational pull, and therefore requiring nothing of us to produce felicitous outcomes, which is both an intellectual and a moral failing to believe. The arc of history only bends towards justice when people of goodwill grab hold of it and wrench it in the direction of justice. We should not exonerate ourselves from doing the hard work of building just societies and a just international order; if we do, we become Fukuyama’s last man, and the order will collapse around us.

We have been given an important test of the rules-based international order in the form of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin could not be clearer that he considers Ukraine Russian and that its subordination is intended to collapse the foundation of Western dominance of the international order. The West has pulled together admirably but is mostly doing what is easy: sanctions that barely touch our own economies, sending weapons instead of soldiers, providing moral support. These fall far short of President George H W Bush repudiating Iraq’s 1990 challenge to the ordering principle that state borders change only by mutual agreement.

We’re congratulating ourselves on all we’re doing, even though it’s plainly not enough to produce the outcome our policies are ostensibly directed to achieve. We are not giving Ukraine enough support to cut the jugular vein of Russian aggression, nor even enough to assure victory. The consequences of this are being paid in Ukrainian blood. The Pentagon is proud of its logistical feat in rapidly shipping arms to Ukraine, as though input measures were the consequential metric, when they plainly are not. Doing enough to ensure Ukrainian victory and restoration of its sovereignty is not only the right objective, it’s the stated objective of US policy. By such self-congratulation, we become Fukuyama’s last man.

If we are to avoid the fate of allowing the collapse of an international order that has produced our peace and prosperity, we need to close the gaps between our claims and what success requires of us. We need to become serious about the undertaking, and listen to what is required to bend the arc of history towards justice. That will involve strengthening our societies: increasing defence spending; being willing to fight for freedom; not flinching at risks of escalation in conflict; being willing to accept higher prices to impose economic sanctions; and creating incentives for more societies to opt in to the liberal order.

Strengthening our societies will necessarily involve finding ways to use the tools of free societies to protect those societies. We don’t want to become what we are seeking to protect ourselves against – authoritarian governments that utilise force and surveillance technologies to repress their own populations, corrupt other governments, and force unequal terms on weaker states. The openness of free societies has allowed our enemies to reach in and steal, influence, and corrupt. But we are not without numerous tools – extant and potential – to use that openness assertively. Civil society, including businesses, is the superpower of free people.

Historian Ernest May, who was on the 9/11 Commission, told me that he thought the biggest mistake the Bush administration made in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks was calling for passivity by the public while the government dealt with the problem. The administration was concerned about vigilantism (they enabled Saudi Arabia to spirit its prominent citizens out of the US, and repeatedly called for tolerance of Muslims) and skittishness giving terrorists a second victory by producing economic collapse. But the threat also persuaded them to adopt policies of ‘big government conservatism’ that leached initiative from the body politic. May believed American national security would have been better served by the government sharing information and utilising engagement of the public to protect itself – as the passengers on Flight 93 did on 11 September.

Only now, confronted with insidious intrusions by enemies, do we in the West begin to explore how to use our openness as an advantage. The Biden administration defanged Russian propaganda by preemptive declassification and dissemination of disinformation to prepare the public; Western governments developed innovative central bank actions and other financial sanctions. States such as Australia are showing ways to engage citizens and allies by sharing information, taking brave policy decisions (like excluding Huawei from their communication networks and calling for an investigation of Chinese lab experiments that may have been the source of Covid-19), and demonstrating the fortitude of free people when threatened. This is the way. Because Thomas Jefferson’s fundamental insight remains true, that there is no safe repository of power other than the people themselves.


Kori Schake