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America flubs the latest test of freedom
Our country needs a lot of things to get through tough times – an inclusive, cohesive national narrative connected to global fight for freedom is one of them
President Biden’s 2022 State of the Union (SOTU) address was a blip on the country’s crowded status screen this week, with red lights warnings on the Ukraine crisis and its major spillover effects in America and around the world.
Biden gamely did his best to sum up the enormity of the challenges America faces overseas and at home and offer a pathway forward. Alas, fewer Americans were listening than in recent times – the television ratings for Biden’s speech were far below what Barack Obama and Donald Trump received in their first SOTU speeches, and the worst for any U.S. president’s first SOTU address in at least 30 years.
For those who watched the speech, it ran a little flat and sounded like two speeches fused together, one about the Ukraine war and the other a reformulation of Biden’s domestic policy priorities.
A divided America may not be able to absorb Biden’s long list of proposals, in part because there’s still no overarching big idea driving his presidency. There are many reasons why Biden’s ratings are at low levels – about 4 in 10 Americans approve of his job in office, one of the worst approval ratings going into his first SOTU address of any president in the modern polling era.
But one of the key reasons is that Biden has yet to tell a compelling, cohesive story. Tuesday night’s speech was mostly a restatement of things his administration had done in reaction to Russia’s aggressions in Ukraine and a repackaging of his domestic agenda, now stuck in Congress for more than four months with no apparent plan for moving it forward.
What’s missing is a stronger call to purpose that gets Americans to look beyond their own narrow individual or group self-interest and to a renewed sense of national purpose that tackles the challenges we face at home and overseas.
The original Four Freedoms moment
A different SOTU address from a much different era points to way to what America needs now more than ever. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in his January 1941 SOTU address, set forth the Four Freedoms – freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear, and freedom from want – that the nation would fight for in the conflict to come.
Given almost eleven months to the day before America got pulled into World War II, the speech was aimed at inspiring the nation to come together and defend freedom in the world. Like Biden today, FDR and the nation were in a rough patch – the speech came at a time when the United States still coped with the hangover of the Great Depression and faced growing threats from Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan abroad. His speech was aimed at inspiring and unifying the nation under a common purpose of defending freedom in the world.
A few years later and with the United States now in the war, the artist Norman Rockwell depicted these freedoms in four different paintings that portrayed these freedoms as positive ideals, things to fight and strive for as a nation and a world. Freedom from Fear, for instance, depicts a young couple tucking their kids into bed at night with subtle hints of war on the horizon in a folded newspaper held by one of the parents. Looking at that image, one thinks of the Ukrainian, Syrian, or Afghan families who want more than anything else in the world to protect their children and fear they may not be able to do so.
Of course, real life is never like a Norman Rockwell painting, but the images serve as a reminder of a time when more of our great country’s energy and time were focused on moving together towards higher ideals than we see today.
This is now: freedom’s continued decline over two decades
Russia is not Nazi Germany, and Ukraine is not all of Western Europe – this is not yet a repeat of the horrors of that era, nor is it likely to come to that. Back in the early 1940s, America faced much bigger threats and had a leader who used the power of persuasion to unify the country under a common purpose. The challenges America faces today at home and abroad are significant, but they pale in comparison to those it confronted 80 years ago. Today, America is in a much stronger position, with unrivaled economic and military power. But our sharp political divisions at home continue to hold us back – in a sense, the only thing we have to fear is disunity and discord at home today.
But as Russia’s brutal invasion unfolds in real time on the world’s screens, it reinforces the sense that open societies in America and Europe are little more than spectators at a grim play on a global stage. This tragedy has been playing out since the start of the new century, and now it is entering its fourth act.
In the first three acts, America consistently fell far short of the ideals it expresses for itself at home and aboard.
ACT ONE: 9/11 ATTACK AND AFTERMATH (2001-2007). America responds to a devastating terror attack with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq justified, in part, under the banner of a “freedom agenda.” It also takes measures at home that limit civil liberties. National security and foreign policy become hyper-political, partisan wedge issues.
ACT TWO: RECESSIONS AND REVOLUTIONS (2008-2015). A decade in, a series of elections, protests, and uprisings give people hope for change but fizzle out inconclusively or get snuffed out. The 2008 global economic crisis spawned street movements protesting the growing inequality in America and European countries, and the 2011 popular uprisings in parts of the Middle East toppled some dictatorships but also led to civil wars and fierce authoritarian counterrevolutions.
ACT THREE: ILLIBERALISM RISES AND WEAKENS DEMOCRACIES (2016-2021). The Brexit vote in Britain and Donald Trump’s surprise election as president of America accelerated a trend in “us versus them” identity politics that had emerged in open societies during the previous act. Sharp divides between different foreign policy camps in America grew wider even as those camps splintered internally, and America lost its sense of broader purpose.
There’s no intermission in history, but the trendlines in global freedom do not look good, as Freedom House tells us year after year.
Russia’s war against Ukraine moves this play into its fourth act, and we’ve really only seen the opening lines. Credit to the Biden team for seeing this coming and warning everyone, even if many in Europe were in denial. The Biden administration also deserves some acknowledgement for trying to deter Putin by rounding up a diplomatic posse and implementing economic sanctions, but these moves have not been enough to bring Putin’s aggression against Ukraine to a halt.
America’s collective strategic mindset lacks lucidity with a long-term focus. That’s not the fault of just one president, but rather a product of the systemic myopia that prevents most Americans from seeing the world as it is and what’s at stake. Take the summit for democracy the Biden administration organized on the eve of Russia’s invasion: it didn’t do much in practical terms to help Ukraine defend its democracy. Nor is the Biden administration’s focus on democracy versus autocracy stopping the carnage in Ukraine or mitigating the growing spillover effects on the international system. As they have been for years, America and other democracies are caught in a reactive posture, running defensive measures against Putin’s aggression.
For those Americans who take the time to look at the world and focus on foreign policy – especially many of the experts – they too often see it as a blank screen on which to project our own internal political and cultural fights, battles that are mostly internal and come to a head every two years around election time. Other activists and commentators who stick their heads over the parapet when an international crisis arises try to force complicated foreign policy issues into the narrow domestic political and cultural frameworks they know best.
Nonetheless, America and the rest of the free world still have a lot going for it. They have the strongest economies in the world, and they’ve shown willingness to impose major economic costs on Russia. Even if those measures are unlikely to stop the carnage unfolding every day, it will leave a mark on Russia. The free world has an opening to get its act together and strengthen its hand even more.
What’s more, people around the world are still inspired by the call of freedom and those who are fighting for it against tough odds. Just watch the video of the Ukrainian parliament members singing the national anthem in unison – it is quite a contrast to the divided atmosphere in the U.S. Congress Tuesday night, much less the events of last January 6th. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s bravery has rallied millions – clearly, he’s no Ashraf Ghani, the former leader of Afghanistan.
This fourth act of freedom in the twenty-first century is still being written, and the long-term odds are not in Putin’s favor. But unless America and its European partners step even more than they already have, the short-term odds look awful for the Ukrainian people. President Biden may have missed a moment this week to rally the American people and the world towards a higher purpose of defending freedom in the world, but the story can be written differently if we so choose.