How America’s Freedom Alliances Have Lost Their Way

For much of the past century, the United States has oriented its foreign policy around the mission of advancing liberty around the world. Today, for a variety of reasons, that mission has been called into question. For example, some of our traditional allies have dissented from our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would be a mistake, however, to see dissatisfaction with American leadership as a merely recent phenomenon. As Kim Holmes argues in his new book, Liberty’s Best Hope: American Leadership for the 21st Century, tensions with our traditional allies reflect an ideological development with deep roots. Holmes writes: “While America’s allies in parts of Western Europe and in some parts of Asia continue to espouse a rote commitment to the basic principles of freedom and democracy, they no longer believe that these principles are the ideological heart of the free world.”

So what should the United States do? Let the European Union and the United Nations take the lead? On the contrary, says Holmes: America should lead. His book makes the case that U.S. foreign policy needs to reassert leadership in the defense of liberty. Holmes points to former President Ronald Reagan as a leader who knew how to do this. Reagan believed in a strong national defense, engagement with the world, and a refusal to accept less than victory. Most importantly, Reagan made the defense of liberty a central purpose of U.S. foreign policy. These ideas, says Holmes, should be the touchstone of U.S. foreign policy in meeting today’s challenges.

The first step in understanding those challenges is to understand how America’s traditional alliances have become unhinged from the idea of defending liberty. We present below an excerpt from Holmes’s book that describes the ideological roots of the problem. —Editor

FOR MOST OF THE PAST CENTURY, the cause of advancing freedom around the world has relied on American leadership. Whether it was the liberation of France in World War II or keeping Western Europe free during the Cold War, America led a coalition of nations in the common defense of liberty. American Presidents understood that the United States could itself never be entirely free if Europe or Asia or Latin America were dominated by a powerful force hostile to America and the principles of liberty on which it was founded.

By the same token, like-minded countries in Europe and Asia followed America because their liberties were equally threatened by Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union. Lacking sufficient strength on their own, they became strong when allied with the United States and, as a result, were able to secure their freedoms. They were willing to let America take the lead, not only because of its overwhelming power, but also because they trusted America as the defender of liberty. As Lady Thatcher put it in Statecraft, America “is the most reliable force for freedom in the world, because the entrenched values of freedom are what make sense of its whole existence.” Thus, she concluded: “America alone has the moral as well as the material capacity for world leadership; America’s destiny is bound up with global expression of the values of freedom; [and] America’s closest allies … must regard America’s mission as encompassing their own.”

This was the essence of the liberty pacts of the 20th century—America leads while others follow out of trust, conviction, and necessity. This was the only way free allied nations could be assured that their freedom and sovereignty would survive in the face of a common enemy.

That bargain began to falter after the collapse of the Soviet Union. No longer facing a mortal military and ideological threat, many of our allies began to feel less necessity to follow America’s lead. The mutual trust that had held the alliances together began to wane. Through disputes over the Balkans, the Iraq War, North Korea, and other issues, our traditional alliances became tired, frayed, contentious affairs leaping from one crisis to the next without any clear-cut common purpose.

The traditional idea of American leadership, once a given, is now not only questioned by some allies, but often rejected as outdated, unnecessary, and even harmful to their interests.

Many Europeans believe that the United States is not as powerful or as influential as it once was and that its superpower days are coming to a close. A majority of people in France and Germany believe that U.S. leadership is not desirable, and an overwhelming majority of Europeans said that what is desirable is strong leadership not from the United States but from the European Union. This challenge to America’s historic leadership position did not happen overnight. It may have accelerated with the demise of the Cold War, but its roots go deeper. At the core of the challenge to American leadership is the free world’s loss of common ideological purpose. While America’s allies in parts of Western Europe and in some parts of Asia continue to espouse a rote commitment to the basic principles of freedom and democracy, they no longer believe that these principles are the ideological heart of the free world. Gone is the organizing principle of defending democracy and the constitution of liberty from all forms of tyranny. In its place has risen a hybrid ideology of various intellectual and political movements dedicated to redefining the basic tenets of democracy and freedom that were the bedrocks of the freedom alliances in the 20th century.

These movements have been called many things; their leftward-leaning politics are often masked by such academically anodyne terms as post-industrialism and post-materialism. But politically, they are best described as what I call post-liberalism: a set of ideas dedicated to transcending or historically “moving beyond” the democratic and economic philosophies of classical liberalism.

Classical liberalism was essentially the governing ideology of the American Revolution. It was best expressed in the principles and premises of the Declaration of Independence. From these principles evolved the ideas that inspired and guided America’s freedom alliances of the 20th century. The central ideas were freedom of the individual, the right of people to govern themselves, and the belief that free nations so constituted had the right to defend themselves against tyranny and aggression. This can be called the American Creed. While it is true that the idea of freedom can be elastic, it nevertheless is also true that in World War II and the Cold War these narrower, more classic definitions of freedom prevailed over all others in determining the policies of America’s alliances. (Franklin Roosevelt’s four freedoms—freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from hunger, and freedom from fear—strayed beyond the more narrow, classically defined idea of freedom, showing signs of the evolution of the concept to include new assumptions from Europe’s and the Left’s socialist traditions.)

At the same time that the United States and its allies were forging the NATO alliance and other associations to counter Communist expansionism in the Cold War, a new intellectual movement arose that would eventually change the nature of America’s freedom alliances. It arose in the 1950s and 1960s and came to be known as the New Left, and its ideas would eventually echo loudly in newsrooms and the halls of universities, churches, movie houses, European foreign ministries, and the United Nations.

The basic approach was to add new ideological wine to the old bottle of socialism’s feud with capitalism and liberty. Whereas traditional socialists were mainly interested in protecting workers from capitalism, New Leftists focused more on the supposedly evil impact of capitalism on the environment, the Third World poor, and the psychological well-being of middle-class people. Gender inequality, cultural discrimination, and other forms of injustice and repression were identified and lamented, and anti-capitalism morphed into championing them rather than protecting the working class. The very concept of liberation came to mean the “right” of individuals or minority groups to benefits and protections from the state against a whole list of alleged hazards.

By positing ever-new concepts of historical progress and human liberation, the New Left endeavored to discredit the past’s understanding of classical liberalism, which they saw as hopelessly irrelevant, and to deem its present day remnants as unworthy of either moral or political defense. Thus, by modernizing anti-capitalism, anti-clericalism, and anti-Americanism, they sought to create a methodology to “deconstruct” their old ideological enemies.

The new ideologies of post-liberalism eventually became mainstream thinking in foreign ministries across Europe. From there and from academia and Leftist non-governmental organizations operating in both Europe and America, these ideas eventually found a home in the United Nations. They were eagerly adopted by many Third World countries looking for new ways to justify their grievances against the West. The New Left offshoots that took residence in U.N. institutions were legion. They included anti-capitalist versions of the ecological movement, radical feminism, a belief in international wealth transfers through foreign aid, ever-broadening definitions of human rights and security, and a general assault on the idea of national sovereignty. After becoming the dominant political culture in the United Nations, they inspired such judicial and ecological offshoots as the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol.

Post-liberalism has had many international ramifications, but none has been more harmful to the idea of American leadership than questioning the right of free nations to vigorously defend themselves against tyranny and aggression. In the post-liberal mentality, military power is downplayed and viewed as “provocative.” The war against terrorism is seen as little more than a sideshow or an excuse for the United States to throw its weight around. In some circles it is even viewed as a conspiracy to deprive individuals of their civil liberties. Security is no longer about defending free nations (and through that the freedom of individuals). Rather, it is all about empowering the state and international organizations with the capacity to provide “human security” through social and economic services. Its mission is to protect individuals and minorities from the perceived inequalities of advanced industrial economies.

Anti-Americanism as Political Culture

These ideological movements are one of the root causes of anti-Americanism abroad. Anti-Americanism is not new, of course, but it is more widespread and entrenched today than at any time since the deployment of missiles in Europe or the Vietnam War. Its proximate cause is passion released by the Iraq War and the war on terrorism, but there are deeper roots in ideological and geopolitical changes over the past decades. The grand American tradition of defending liberty has become, in the eyes of many in other countries around the world, a cause of derision, and standing up to it is seen as an ideological excuse to challenge U.S. claims to world leadership.

This phenomenon has many variations and many well-known proponents. In each instance, anti-Americanism as an ideological project works hand in glove with foreign policy interests. In the hands of America’s enemies and rivals, it is a tool of hard confrontation. Yet there are also softer versions of anti-Americanism in neutral and even friendly countries that, while not hostile to the United States, nonetheless fuse a critique of American political culture with a questioning of American power. The most notorious example of this attitude among friends is the occasional French blend of advocating a “multi-polar world” with a critique of “Anglo-Saxon”-inspired globalization—a not-so-subtle dig at the United States. Similar attitudes can be found in Germany and even the United Kingdom. Whereas with Venezuela and Iran, anti-Americanism is used to justify and confront American power, among some of America’s friends in Europe and elsewhere, it is a political ploy to create distance and room to maneuver without actually confronting the United States head-on.

The opinions about the United States that underlie these efforts are not just elite phenomena. Anti-Americanism is prevalent in many European publics. As recently as mid-2007, a Harris poll conducted for the Financial Times found that 32 percent of the people surveyed in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Spain thought the United States was a bigger threat than China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Russia, or in fact any other state.

Each country and region of the world may have its own particular anti-Americanism story, but there are common features. One is the role of the media, which often fan the flames of anti-American sentiment. In countries like China and Syria, and increasingly even Russia, state-controlled media outlets spout the government line against U.S. policies. The anti-American bias of Al Jazeera is legendary, stirring up resentment against the United States and Israel in the Middle East. Even Western outlets like BBC International have spouted knee-jerk criticisms and characterizations of U.S. policies that normally would be heard from the media in anti-democratic regimes.

As anti-American sentiment in Western countries has increased, America’s enemies and rivals have became more emboldened in their criticisms of the United States, and the boundaries of what may be permissible to say about America eroded. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez calls President Bush a “devil” from the podium of the U.N. General Assembly, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tells a group of students, “we shall soon experience a world without the United States and Zionism.” Russian President Vladimir Putin compares America to the Third Reich, and Beijing issues a Human Rights in the United States report that blithely asserts: “The U.S. government frequently commits wanton slaughters of innocents in its war efforts and military operations in other countries.”

As the scope of anti-Americanism has expanded, the idea that somehow America is the world’s problem has grown. Though they may not want to say so directly, some in Europe seem to believe that America is more a problem to be managed than a close ally. After all, Jacques Chirac’s idea of a “multi-polar world”—one with many power centers instead of the bipolar world of the Cold War—rested on the assumption that America was essentially no different from other power centers like Russia and China. The implicit neutrality of the idea was sometimes hidden behind protestations of friendship with the United States, but France and Germany’s hostility to the Iraq War was, in fact, a good example of Chirac’s multipolar strategy in action. America’s friends and allies would choose to help America on their own terms, and if their conditions were not met, then the alliance would be essentially off. France had been practicing this form of semi-neutrality for decades, but Germany had not. The new anti-Americanism unleashed by the Iraq War essentially moved Germany out of its historically close connection with the United States, and Angela Merkel notwithstanding, it has never completely come back.

This rise in anti-Americanism, therefore, reflects a rivalry not solely for power or position; it also is an expression of a post-liberal challenge to American culture and policies. Europe in particular is locked in an ideological competition with the United States to prove to the rest of the world which political-cultural model is best for the rest of the world. Will it be the European Union’s approach to dissolving national sovereignty into ever-larger international and supranational institutions? Or will it be America’s more traditional approach of working through nation-states? Will it be the EU’s and Non-Aligned Movement’s check on globalization? Or will it be America’s free-market approach—which some in France deride as Americanization?

In this context, anti-Americanism becomes more than an emotional outcry of outraged publics, intellectuals, or reporters. It also is a political tool, as some of our allied governments have found anti-American sentiment among their publics a useful source of political support for their challenges to U.S. foreign policies. What better way to pressure the United States on the Kyoto Protocol on climate change than for governments to argue that our position on it enflames their publics’ hatred of the United States? Not mentioned is how much of that outrage they stirred up themselves. They play to a choir partly of their own making and, by so doing, anchor their challenges to the substance of U.S. policy in the very politics of their countries.

Anti-Americanism today is not some passing or emotional phenomenon. Yes, it rises and falls with U.S. military interventions; but it also is grounded in the political cultures not only of enemies and rivals, but also of some of our allies and friends. It cannot be understood or challenged until this very basic fact is recognized.

Dr. Holmes is Vice President of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies and Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation. This article is adapted from a chapter in his new book Liberty’s Best Hope: American Leadership for the 21st Century, © 2008 by The Heritage Foundation.