By Harlan Ullman
Seemingly a long time ago, the United States could rightly be called the leader of the free world. In two world wars, America finally responded to help the allies win both. With the drawing of an iron curtain across Europe in 1946, the United States rallied friendly states to halt the spread of Soviet influence and encroachment by what was euphemistically called “the free world” of like-minded nations.
From Truman to Reagan, “the free world” was a coalition designed to counter both the Soviet Union and China. But “free” was loosely defined to mean that opposing Moscow was the key criterion for membership irrespective of the liberal or non-democratic character of the governments involved. Autocratic rule in NATO allies Portugal under Salazar and Turkey under the generals and similarly in Pakistan was ignored. South Korea took decades to become a functioning democracy. And friends on both sides of the Arabian/Persian Gulf from Tehran to Riyadh were anything but “free.”
Despite the lack of clarity and porousness of what “free world” meant, the concept was cynically underpinned by this expedient view of containing Communism rather than adherence to the democratic principles enshrined in the Magna Carta and later in America’s Declaration of Independence and Constitution. I remember vividly South Vietnam in 1967 when then Vice President Hubert Humphrey was crisscrossing that country encouraging locals to vote in their presidential elections. That some 95 percent reportedly did so made little difference to the government, which remained highly autocratic and ineffective.
Now, more than a quarter of a century since the Soviet Union imploded, the fiction of the free world is still maintained. Part of this fiction was that the United States maintained sole leadership of this structure. Yet, under Donald Trump, so far, the United States is turning inward, renouncing the Paris Climate Accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and questioning the relevance of NAFTA and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action that prevents Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons with a policy of “America first.” British exit from the EU along with the shift of NATO allies such as Hungary, Poland and Turkey to less democratic and more authoritarian rule amplifies a diminished American international posture and the further demise of the fiction of the free world.
The key question is whether any of this matters. The Westphalian system of state-dominated international politics created in 1648 has been buckled and challenged by a combination of the diffusion of power and globalization. Individuals, non-state actors and international organizations have accrued power at the expense of traditional states, accelerated by the information revolution that has connected the globe instantaneously. These interconnections and interrelationships also mean that events even in distant parts of the world such as Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa are no longer isolated.
While in absolute measures, the United States is the strongest and largest economic and military power in the world, on a relative scale these advantages have been overtaken even by adversaries who lack an organized army or navy such as the Islamic State and al-Qaida. And technology has also leveled the playing fields in which economic and military power operate. Hence, both the terms “leader” and “free world” no longer have the same meaning they once did during the Cold War.
Concurrently, the structure that has been the basis for international security including the U.N., World Bank, IMF, NATO, G20, GATT and other organizations and groups basically were creations of the end of World War II and the Cold War. Those eras are gone. Yet, the scheme for assuring international security, prosperity and stability has never been fully revised, updated or amended for the 21st century. Nor has sufficient political and intellectual capital been spent so far to offer alternative structures.
For the United States, it is urgent that this failure to think through the meaning of security and America’s role as the leading global power be rectified. One glaring example of this deficiency is the absence of even a semblance of a strategy and policy to deal with cyber on which the entire global enterprise is dependent and vulnerable. As containment and deterrence were cornerstones of the Cold War, advancing peace, prosperity and security through partnerships must be today’s watch words.
It is only through mobilizing the broad international community that includes states with less democratic forms of government organized along lines of mutual interest whether to deal with climate change and environmental catastrophe, terrorism or economic instability can the United States be kept secure. A good first step would be for Trump to change his mantra from “Make America Great Again” to “Make America Global Again!”