"You too are in danger when your neighbor's house is on fire." Truly wise words by Horace. This principle of solidarity was learned at great cost and is still under challenge, Daniel Fried of the Atlantic Council writes, ahead of this weekend's Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn.
Someone smart once said that small countries cling to principles because that's what they have and big countries cling to power because that's what they have. But America is a case – perhaps the first though hardly the only – of a big country that, at its best, also clings to principles. We do so because that is who we are.
The United States was founded according to a then-radical set of principles: that Americans are not united by blood but by belief; united by principles with religious origins but secular, rooted in the Enlightenment: that all are created equal, all possess inherent rights as individuals that no sovereign can abridge. The U.S. holds these principles to be true for all people in all times.
This, over time, made Americans attuned to Horace's wisdom because a nation founded on principles that it considers universal may see its future bound to the fate of those same principles in other lands. But this understanding did not come at once. Nor evenly. We have struggled with our founding principles and their implications ever since.
Indeed, America violated our founding principles even as they were being written into the Declaration of Independence.
At the time of our founding, there existed another view – the other view of America: that it is a White Man's Republic; a Slave Republic; a nation founded, as the ideologists of the Confederacy put it, on the principle of ethnic supremacy, White Supremacy, not on the founding principle that all are created equal.
One view accepted literally the Declaration's famous assertion that all men are created equal. Another believed it to be a misleading abstraction.
My country has struggled with these two views ever since. American history, it can be argued, is the tale of this struggle for equality, for equal rights, for law and justice, applied and available to all Americans.
America's bloodiest war, our Civil War, was fought over whether that principle of equality was to be taken literally; over whether slavery was consistent with the American Republic as founded. Abraham Lincoln, even before that war, asserted that through belief in the core American credo of equality, immigrants became, in Lincoln's striking phrase, "the blood of the blood and the flesh of the flesh" of all other Americans.
The once enslaved Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, in his famous speech, "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" celebrates America's founding principles, then he excoriates America for its hypocrisy of slavery, then he returns to declare that nevertheless he has faith in America's founding principles to prevail in the end.
But Douglass went farther: at the end of his speech, he argues that a liberal spirit in the world – a world made more interconnected through the advent of steam and electricity ("lightening" as he put it) would put evil institutions such as slavery under greater pressure; they would not stand. Frederick Douglass posited a link between universal, liberal standards to which he appealed and the advance of justice in his own country. That, in 1851.
In the view of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and so many others, America exists through its better values or not at all. Without advancing in the direction of those values, it becomes a mockery of its own creation. Douglass argued that liberal values, on the rise in the world as he saw it, will bend all nations' histories toward justice. Justice and freedom, in this view, is universal in origin, applicable to all and not just the accident of one nation in one time. The generation that defeated the Slave Republic of the South would have understood Horace's point this way: that threats to one may be felt by all and, conversely, that the success of freedom somewhere gives hope for freedom everywhere.
The Statue of Liberty was inspired by this spirit of freedom's solidarity. While we think of it as a welcoming beacon for immigrants, it in fact was conceived as a celebration of the victory of America's freedom over the Southern Slave power. Through that victory, the United States defied the ancient warnings that republics must perish through chaos and end in tyranny. With France at that time under the tyranny of Napoleon III, the French Abolitionist Edouard de Laboulaye, who inspired the Statue, wanted Lady Liberty to light the pathway to freedom for France and for all. And she does.
One generation after the Civil War, America had become a continental nation and immensely strong. By the 1890s, America started bringing its valued-based view to the world, despite America's abundant inconsistencies and hypocrisies.
The U.S. did not see itself as a nation like those in Europe – a Great Power that competed with the others – but as a special nation that applied its rules of equality to its dealings in the world. John Hay, Lincoln's private secretary and Teddy Roosevelt's Secretary of State, brought this view to bear in his famous Open Door policy on China. In Hay's view, China was not to be carved by the European great powers into spheres of influence but should be free and open on an equal basis with all the nations of the world.
Woodrow Wilson – though an even deeper hypocrite on race than Thomas Jefferson – built on this. Wilson's 14 Points speech of 1918 attempted to outline a rules-based order of free nations. It was a rough first draft of American grand strategy in what became known as the American Century. In its sense of solidarity with freedom everywhere, it was true to the tenant that you are in danger when your neighbor's house is on fire.
The strategy outlined in 14 Points speech became known as Wilsonian idealism. But it really wasn't idealism. It was a canny appreciation that a rules-based world that favors freedom fit not only America's values but America's strengths, its massive economic and technological power and the promise of more. Wilson's open world suited American interests, broadly understood. The U.S. wouldn't lower itself to commanding a mere sphere of influence; we wanted the liberal, rules-based system to be global. The ambition is breathtaking. The genius of that system, however, is that U.S. would prosper best, and could only prosper best, when other countries did as well. The U.S. could make the world a better place and get rich in the process.
Wilson failed. In place of his vision, Isolationism took root for a fatal generation. Isolationism, so called, was really unilateralist nationalism. It was rooted in a narrow view of American interests: transactional, rejecting any larger U.S. role in maintaining a world order; anti-communist but indifferent to democracy; and, as it turned out, not terribly interested whether Hitler or the weakened French and British prevailed in Europe. Whatever we may say of Neville Chamberlain at Munich, the U.S. role then was worse. The British and French played a weak hand badly. The United States, with a stronger hand, did not play at all. Of course, Stalin played for the other side.
The American First crowd of that era did not care. And no surprise, they drew on the ethnic definition of America as a White Man's Republic; they were hostile to immigrants – even refugees from Nazism –whom they considered alien to true American ethnic stock. Also no surprise, many of them shared the view that democracy was spent and the future belonged to the fascists.
World War II shattered isolationism. Not the fall of Poland but the fall of France shocked Franklin Roosevelt's foreign policy team back into action. The folly of isolationism became clear and they reached back to Wilson by recommitting to a liberal world order, a free world. One early sign was the Wells Declaration of 1940, advanced by Sumner Wells, the number two at the State Department. The next year Wells helped draft the Atlantic Charter, like the 14 Points speech a declaration of war aims laying out a vision of a free world, a rules-based world, with the United States, along with Britain, its guarantor.
But this came too late for Europe's Eastern third. America's absence in the 1930s meant that the U.S. and Britain could not defeat Hitler without Stalin's help. That had consequences and you need no American to tell you what they were. Walter Lippmann – America's foremost foreign policy journalist in the 20th century, co-author of the 14 Points speech, and, after 1940, a foe of isolationism, retreated from the Atlantic Charter and argued in 1943 for giving Stalin a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. The Yalta Conference of 1945 occurred in the shadow of Stalin's power on the ground and Lippmann's acceptance of its consequences. It wasn't quite betrayal; it was FDR's attempt to salvage what he could of the Atlantic Charter for Eastern Europe. But it wasn't much. Roosevelt knew it before he died but did little and perhaps could do little. Truman found out quick enough what Yalta meant in practice and did more: he called out Stalin and Molotov and organized resistance to Stalin in Europe, but too late for Eastern and Central Europe.
Truman organized the free world and applied the 14 Points and Atlantic Charter but only to the part of Europe we could reach. In his Administration, the U.S. accepted Horace's wisdom but only in part. For decades of Cold War, the fire in our neighbor's house applied only to Europe West of the Iron Curtain. When the Soviets crushed Hungary in 1956, the U.S. agonized but could do little. When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, we did not even agonize.
This was the Doctrine of Cold War Realism, under which I and my generation were educated, the doctrine that dominated U.S. foreign policy thinking for decades and was orthodoxy at the State Department. Under that theory, we might decry Soviet domination of Eastern Europe but accepted it as permanent and satisfied ourselves with the defense of the West. This was the basis of Détente as Nixon and Kissinger understood it. No fire in our neighbor's house affected us if that fire was East of the Elbe.
Nixon's détente had achievements to its credit: it held the line at the Iron Curtain, stabilized relations with Moscow and resisted communism elsewhere in the world, all without general war. But it regarded Eastern Europe as permanently lost and the Soviet Union as permanent reality. The Wells Doctrine, talk about democracy in Eastern Europe, that was all rhetoric not to be taken seriously.
But Carter and Brzezinski and especially Reagan started to change that. The rise of Poland's Solidarity movement in 1980 meant something to Americans more that liberal communism in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Why? Because of détente, ironically enough, Europeans East of the Iron Curtain were more able to speak with us in the West. They could tell their story. Their burning house became real to us. And, in contact with KSS/KOR, Charter 77, Baltic dissidents, and Russian dissidents like Andrey Sakharov and also Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, recalled us to our deeper principles: that values are not ultimately divisible. That our neighbor's house really does exist.
Americans did not see 1989 coming. (I've got stories about that.) The completion of Europe's liberation, our avowed policy since 1945, in which we had long since ceased to believe, was upon us. Values trumped realpolitik. They did so because Communism was both tyrannical and had failed to deliver for people living under it. And because, as it turns out, Frederick Douglass was right: the liberal spirit of the age took root among people seeking an alternative to the tyranny they experienced every day and found it in that great combination of patriotism in democratic form. This time, it was communism rather than American slavery that could not withstand the liberal ideas that rose up.
The Realist school, heirs of Nixon and Walter Lippmann, had a point about tactics during the Cold War but was wrong about strategy. The foundational documents of American Grand Strategy during the American Century – the Wells Doctrine, the Atlantic Charter, and Wilson's 14 Points – succeeded in much more of Europe than they thought possible. America's non-recognition of Soviet occupation of the Baltic States was regarded for many years as an affectation, empty symbolism. It turned out to be the right policy. The Realists were right about American overreach in Vietnam that led to failure. But that failure on one country did not mean general failure, despite the pessimism that followed the collapse of South Vietnam after U.S. withdrawal.
It is hard to recall how low American expectations were in 1989 and how much Central and Eastern Europe exceeded them. The end of the Soviet Empire in Europe, it was predicted in Washington, would be followed by nationalist wars, poverty, chaos, and authoritarianism. This turned out true in Yugoslavia; elsewhere, a liberal vision flourished for a generation and so did societies. Democratic politics and free market transformation, radically in the Baltics and Poland and more slowly elsewhere transformed the new democracies. Results followed, again, most radically In the Baltics and Poland, where per capita GDP more than tripled in the generation after 1989/91.
Doctrinal Realists did not see the fall of communism coming and, after communism fell, astonishingly, struggled to maintain the underpinnings of a divided Europe and Moscow's sphere of influence by resisting NATO enlargement. They did so in the name of stability, which they often defined as recognition of a permanent Russian sphere of domination over Europe's Eastern third. But this would not have been stable because it would have been predicated on the willingness of 100 million Europeans between the Baltic and Black Seas to accept Kremlin domination which, experience shows, means poor and corrupt conditions. It does not strike me as realistic to assume that people will be satisfied with such arrangements, especially after having overthrown communism in the name of democracy, patriotism and in a spirit of European solidarity.
Institutional consequences for Central and Eastern Europe – NATO and EU enlargements – followed domestic transformation; the power of that internal success made those consequences politically possible.
But, as Tolstoy wrote long ago, happy endings are fleeting.
We now face resurgence of aggression from despots – acutely so from Putin's Kremlin and in broad systemic fashion from President Xi's China. We face doubts about liberal democracy from within democracies, nearly as deep as in the 1930s when, challenged from fascism and Stalinism, liberal democracy seemed skidding on history's exit ramp. We face failure in Afghanistan, just as we did in Vietnam. And we see authoritarian actions and nationalist temptations in Central Europe, in Western Europe and, sadly, the United States.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote that the line between good and evil passes through every nation and every human heart. I expect he was right. The problems we see within the democratic world are not new but represent a return to bad national traditions that, buried for a time, return.
In the case of my country, that bad national tradition is white nativism. That was an underpinning of much of former President Trump's rhetoric and some of his policies. At home, it meant a return to racial rhetoric and actions, including, I am sad to report, attempts to degrade the democratic election system by intimidating or stripping authority from elections officials, in favor of partisan bodies. The mob that attacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, recalls mob violence at the end of Reconstruction in the South, a means through while White Supremacy was restored. This will not succeed, in the end. As William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State, observed, "There was always just enough virtue in this Republic to save it. Sometime none to spare." But it will do damage along the way.
Other countries have their own versions of this. Though it is not my place to detail them, they follow similar traditions. In this dark world, Horace's wisdom has no place. My neighbor's house is of no interest to me, except that I may covet it.
The foreign policy corollary to this bad American tradition includes a return to America First foreign policy tenants which, as in the 1930s, seem to go hand-in-hand with domestic nativism. The Trump Administration as a whole did not follow this path. But for Trump himself it was a matter of conviction and much of the energy of his foreign policy team – including many honorable people – was spent on limiting the damage that Trump and his immediate ideological circle could inflict on the U.S., its system of alliances and its value-based foreign policy.
While America was distracted, dangers rose – from tyrants who felt empowered, through un- or poorly-governed cyberspace, and from man-made imbalances in nature that threaten the planet.
It is President Biden's task to grapple with this and, to his credit, he has returned to a 21st century version of that better American Grand Strategy that links U.S. values and interests.
Biden has made democracy the center of his foreign policy strategy. He has done so under conditions of economic and social stresses at home and in the world, and simultaneous challenges from aggressive authoritarians who think that liberal democracy is dead and that they own the future.
The context recalls the 1930s and the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt. Like Roosevelt, Biden seems to believe that democracy's fate at home is tied to its fate abroad. He has called for massive reforms at home to shore up democracy; to fix the problems of prolonged economic stagnation for many and excessive, almost obscene, wealth at the top. He seems to want to use the power of democratic governance to balance private power to advance the national interest. Biden is acting in the tradition of American progressivism – in its original sense – from Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
As a corollary to this, Biden has called for foreign policy that also helps ordinary Americans: foreign policy for the middle class. Again, this recalls FDR in his understanding that prosperity and democracy at home and abroad remain indivisible. It is not protectionism, mercantilism or unilateral advantage that the Biden team seems to have in mind. Instead, Biden wants to strengthen and modernize international rules and norms – for trade, technology, taxation and more – to promote the general welfare at home and abroad. An example of this was the long, technical Business Advisory issued in July warning U.S. companies active in China to avoid being entangled in the Chinese Government's Uighur GuLAG. China seeks to participate in the international system the U.S. that led in creating but not to play by its rules. The Biden Administration wants to strengthen that system and apply it to China.
Like George W. Bush, Biden puts freedom and democracy front and center. Like George H. W. Bush, Biden will turn to Europe as a natural first partner in the world. Like both Roosevelts, Biden will see a connection between American values, American strength, and an international system that reflects both. Biden knows that your neighbor's house on fire is your problem too.
That's the good news.
The bad news is that even the best of strategic frameworks is little protection against error and shortcomings. And adversaries, as the saying goes, get a vote.
Putin, for example, may not recognize the mutual advantage even of the modest Biden Administration ambition of a more stable and predictable relationship with Russia. He is an aggressive tyrant and means it. We must mean what we say as well. The Biden Administration has found it difficult to deal with Nord Stream 2 and, though its policy of seeking to work with Germany is defensible, and the U.S.-German Joint Statement of July 21 gives something to work with, the Biden team handled the issue in a clumsy fashion, alarming Ukraine, Poland, and other countries. Putin will test the commitments in the Joint Statement and the U.S. and Germany will have to meet them.
There are other dangers. Military withdrawal from Afghanistan, understandable after 20 years of our military on the ground there, has led to catastrophe for those we sought to help and for our own interests. China is not likely to accept the U.S. and European view that it should abide by our or any outside rules. Rising and impatient powers, like China, beset by growing challenges, may act out of impatience or arrogance.
Can the U.S. and its allies and other democracies manage these challenges? Will the U.S. learn from its mistakes in Afghanistan? Europe may fairly criticize America's mistakes. Will it advise and step up on the basis of common decisions? Other dangers will emerge, including ones not on anybody's current list. Broad strategy, even good strategy, will not give us answers. American failures in Afghanistan and Vietnam show that nothing can protect against over optimism or a mismatch between resources and objectives. Nothing protects against stupid.
But good strategy can give us a way to organize our thinking. Bad strategy may tell us that China's GuLAG for Uighur or Putin's repression at home is of no concern to the United States or Europe. Another better strategy may tell us that the U.S. and Europe will not prosper in a world in which tyrants take their share and restrict democracy and the rule of law to a shrinking corner of the globe.
Let us take Horace's wisdom seriously and broadly. Let us look out for our neighbor's houses, and through such action, protect our own.
Editor: Marcus Turovski