Published: January 26 2007
The single most famous document expressing America's commitment to freedom in the world must surely be President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech of 1941, calling for US resistance to Nazi and Japanese aggression. The freedoms Roosevelt spoke of were freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear, which he defined in terms of the permanent abolition of aggressive war.
This statement is so familiar that few notice an extraordinary omission. The freedom to vote - electoral democracy - is not included. Indeed, all these freedoms can be present under mild and civilised autocracies (though not, of course, totalitarian systems) as well as democracies; and the last two, alas, can be absent in ill-governed, impoverished and chauvinist democracies.
Roosevelt's speech was made during a terrible world war against a Nazi regime elected by a plurality of the German people. Mass support for extremist movements had in turn been largely produced by the economic suffering and political anarchy of the 1920s and 1930s. Roosevelt understood that for a man forced to watch his family starve under an ineffective or indifferent elected government, the right to vote is unlikely to be his most important concern. Hence the absence of the freedom to vote and the presence of freedom from want in his list.
In recent years, by contrast, US official and semi-official rhetoric has too often reduced Freedom with a capital "F" chiefly to the right to vote. Even freedom of expression is usually taken to mean little more than unrestricted private media ownership, even if this leads to oligarchic control of the sources of mass information.
This attitude has survived what should have been the sobering experience of the elections in Iraq and Afghanistan. Loudly touted at the time as critically important signs of progress, two years later they appear to have achieved precisely nothing in terms of the creation of national polities or working states, let alone of peace, progress and security.
These reflections are provoked by the publication last week of "Freedom": the preliminary findings of the annual report on Freedom in the World by Freedom House, the partly government-funded institute. The bipartisan US establishment and media accord these documents some of the quasi-religious authority given in the Soviet Union to the pronouncements of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism on the progress of socialism in the world.
Like those Soviet pronouncements, Freedom House's statements combine ideological rigidity with tactical and moral flexibility. There is a nationalism that treats the US as the embodiment of democracy and support for America as a key index of virtue. The US, of course, invariably gets top marks for political rights and civil liberties. Meanwhile, the "freedom" rating of other countries shows a marked tendency to move up and down according to the degree of their alliance with the US and their commitment to a US version of unrestricted capitalism.
Worse than the hypocrisy is the fanaticism, leading to a world view that is often Soviet in its distance from reality. Thus China's freedom rating today is - grotesquely - barely different from its score in 1972, during themurderous Cultural Revolution. What does it mean for Freedom House to classify India as wholly free and Pakistan as wholly unfree, given that the predatory treatment of poor and powerless people by the police and lower officialdom is largely identical in both countries? What does it mean to give the Congo - a barely existent country racked by monstrous violence and misery - the same marks as Russia?
What will create real freedom for people in such countries will not be a simplistic version of "democracy" based on meaningless elections and a pro-US policy, but economic development leading to education and a real sense of individual rights and personal dignity, accompanied by the development of working state institutions.
We in the west need to remember Roosevelt's Four Freedoms if we are to craft international development strategies that will help lay these foundations for genuine democracy in the long term. Equally important, we need them to help us understand why so many people around the world are willing to support authoritarian systems that appear to guarantee some of these key freedoms better than some of their "democratic" alternatives.
The writer is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and co-author with John Hulsman of Ethical Realism: A Vision of America's Role in the World (Pantheon)