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A pivotal time: Does the 'free world' care about the freedom of others?

This is a pivotal time not just for those yearning and fighting for freedom, but also for those who have the freedom others long for. There is, on the one hand, the worldwide rise of authoritarianism and the routinization of human rights abuses, leading to an epidemic of oppression and suffering. On the other hand, Ukraine’s courageous resistance to Russia’s genocidal war, and brave protests in Iran, China, Cuba and other hotspots show that brutality does not destroy the human spirit.

The Free World should see the urgency and the opportunity in this moment. With both impassioned pleas for liberty and crackdowns on civil society intensifying, free people should show they care about the freedom of others. 

Current geopolitical trends do not favor freedom. The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance reports that the number of countries moving toward authoritarianism is more than double those moving toward democracy and that authoritarian countries have deepened their repression.

Freedom House finds that in recent years countries in every region of the world have experienced worsening abuses. Humanity reels from dictators doubling down in China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Myanmar and elsewhere. Although they have their differences, China, Russia and Iran comprise an anti-American front that includes military cooperation and disinformation.

In backing the Syrian butcher Bashar Assad, and supporting anti-democratic forces across the Middle East, Russia and Iran pushed the region backward. In the meantime, the United States precipitously withdrew from Iraq, ignored atrocities in Syria, abandoned Afghanistan to the Taliban and failed to build on the Abraham Accords.

Nature abhors a vacuum.

A dismal indicator of freedom’s trajectory came this month when China’s President Xi Jinping met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The two countries strengthened partnerships on energy and defense, and signed massive investment agreements in infrastructure and technology. Especially bad for human rights, Saudi-led Arab league states agreed to a statement endorsing China’s “efforts” and “position” in Hong Kong and “rejecting Taiwan’s independence in all its forms.”

In spite of all this, people across the world pine and strive for freedom.

Although multilateralists justify generous economic deals and enabling strategic compromises with brutal regimes as only befitting an enlightened world that accepts cultural differences, they have to ignore human nature and human longing to do so. For, regardless of the culture one lives in — regardless of race, nationality, or religion — no one wants their family and friends subjected to the cruel dictates and methods of authoritarianism or totalitarianism. Those who overlook human rights for the sake of “international relations” flout the idea inherent in the American founding that rights are God-given and universal, that governments cannot grant them nor take them away.  

As freedom movements reveal that the emperor of multilateralism has no clothes, will those who assumed other peoples and regions weren’t “ready” for freedom rise to the challenge — or will they cling to a worldview that allows them to ignore the suffering of others?

Will the Free World show it cares about the rest?

Will the United States prove worthy of the trust of protesters who cry out for political systems inspired by its own?

Given the post-Cold War mindset and post-Cold War policies, it is by no means certain that democracies in America, Europe and Asia will meet this moment: The moral relativism, economic globalism, isolationist tendencies and identity politics of our time provide excuses for inertia. They allow us to view indifference and silence as “tolerance” and selfishness as empowerment. They place a premium on domestic comfort and global harmony, and suggest we can have them if only we stop insulting other countries with our “values.” That dismissal of values makes the reason for standing up for universal rights elusive. The idea that there is no better or worse beyond each person’s or group’s definition of these things runs counter to the idea that we must, in order to be good as well as free, consider the plight of our fellow human beings.

As repose regarding our own security and our own prosperity reinforced our amorality, threats to the way of life we took for granted grew. It turns out that neither a philosophy of “co-existence” nor a narrow focus on our own comfort are enough to ward off the problems of good and evil we thought we’d left behind.

When America and American allies fail to condemn, sanction and deter escalating hostilities and atrocities, they compound the harm. Take Ukraine, where the West responded too timidly to Russia’s threat of invasion — and armed Kyiv too incrementally as genocidal war unfurled. Or Iran, where the Biden administration expressed minimal support for the people, while making naïve diplomatic gestures to the ruthless regime.

It will take reevaluation of post-Cold War assumptions and a return to lessons of World War II to respond successfully to this moment, which, while full of peril, is also full of promise.

It is true that encompassing indoctrination and relentless intimidation within Russia and China have been alarmingly successful. Yet that is all the more reason for democracies to model and advocate an alternative, especially given the crimes against humanity these powers are committing, and the current simmering discontent among Russian and Chinese people. 

Hitler’s subterfuge and conquests taught that moral, strategic and military lethargy comes back to haunt us. We learned that totalitarians use diplomacy to buy time and to lull the Free World into complacency. They use democratic tolerance to evade consequences and judgement. Conversely, when we expose and counter the crimes, lies and expansionist designs of malign regimes, dictators are put on the defensive. Why, otherwise, would they expend massive resources on disinformation? They know that truth about their rule is the biggest threat to their rule.

While hoping the Free World doesn’t get serious about deterrence, enemies of freedom also hope we remain as quiet and prevaricating as we have been since the Cold War ended. It is time to rediscover our voice and our principles; to show for what and for whom we stand — and why.

Anne R. Pierce is an author of books and articles in the areas of American foreign policy, American presidents and American society. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, is an appointed member of Princeton University’s James Madison Society and was a political science series editor for Transaction Publishers. Follow her @AnneRPierce

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