Not All Freedom Is Made in America
from The New York Times -- April 13 2003

The war in Iraq seems to be heading for a successful conclusion. But the United States fought for more than military victory; it promised to bring freedom to the Iraqi people. This may prove more complicated than the Bush administration suspects. It may force us to think in new ways about what freedom is, and whether Americans have exclusive access to its meaning.

Freedom lies at the heart of our sense of ourselves as individuals and as a nation. The Declaration of Independence lists liberty among mankind's inalienable rights. The Civil War, which began as a struggle to save the Union, became a crusade to extend freedom to four million slaves. The United States fought World War II for the Four Freedoms, the cold war to defend the free world. After a false start in which he gave the war in Afghanistan the theological title Infinite Justice, President Bush rechristened it Enduring Freedom. And we are now engaged in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Freedom quickly emerged as the official explanation for the war against terrorism. "Freedom itself is under attack," President Bush announced in his speech to Congress of Sept. 21, 2001. The National Security Strategy issued last fall begins not with a discussion of global politics or the doctrine of preemptive war, but with an invocation of freedom, defined as political democracy, freedom of expression, religious toleration and free enterprise. These, the document proclaims, "are right and true for every person, in every society."

The Bush administration did not originate the conviction that American freedom is universally applicable. Deeply embedded in our culture is the idea that the United States has a mission to demonstrate the superiority of free institutions and to spread freedom throughout the world. Colonial Puritans thought they were establishing a "city upon a hill," a model to be adopted by the rest of mankind. Thomas Jefferson described the United States as an "empire of liberty," whose territorial expansion should not be compared with Europe's imperial aggrandizement. During World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised a global New Deal based on the Four Freedoms.

Foreign observers have often been bemused, to put it politely, by Americans' refusal to consider that other people may have thought about freedom and arrived at conclusions that might be worthy of consideration. When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in the 1830's, he was struck by Americans' conviction that "they are the only religious, enlightened, and free people," and "form a species apart from the rest of the human race."

Desire for freedom certainly seems to be universal. Even those who wish it had been accomplished without weakening international institutions cannot lament the fall of Saddam Hussein's bloody dictatorship. But as the United States embarks on the project of bringing freedom to Iraq, history suggests two notes of caution.

One is that far from being timeless and universal, our own definition of freedom has changed many times. The story of freedom is one of debates, disagreements and struggles rather than fixed definitions or uninterrupted progress toward a preordained goal.

Nineteenth-century Americans, for example, defined freedom in part as economic autonomy, achieved through owning a farm or small business. This was perfectly compatible with lack of freedom for those dependent on the male head of household, including the women in a family and, in the South, slaves. For much of the 20th century, many Americans thought economic security for ordinary citizens essential to freedom. In the 1960's, the civil rights and feminist movements redefined freedom as equality for those long held down by the larger society, and the counterculture called for freedom in lifestyle and culture.

In the last 20 years, in a kind of marriage of 60's personal liberation and free-market economics, the dominant meanings of freedom have centered on political democracy, unregulated free enterprise, low taxes, limited government and individual choice in matters like dress, leisure activities and sexual orientation. Rather than a set of universal principles, this constellation of values is the product of a particular moment and a specific historical experience.

A second point to remember is that freedom is more than a set of ideas. It must be embodied in institutions, popular values, and the law, and these only develop over time.

"How is it," asked Dr. Samuel Johnson during the American Revolution, "that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?" Despite all the paeans to American freedom, equality before the law regardless of race is a recent and still fragile accomplishment. So too are strong legal and cultural supports for civil liberties, and these have been significantly weakened since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Current American ideas about freedom certainly resonate abroad. Eastern Europeans embraced them after the collapse of Communist rule. Indeed, the years since 1989 have witnessed an unprecedented internationalization of current American concepts of freedom. The "free world" triumphed over its Communist rival, the "free market" over the idea of a planned economy, and the "free individual" over the ethic of social citizenship.

The prevailing ideology of global free enterprise -- one element of freedom identified as timeless and universal in the National Security Strategy -- assumes that the economic life of all countries can and should be refashioned in the American image. This is the latest version of the nation's self-definition as a model for the entire world.

Nonetheless, other societies have their own historically developed definitions of freedom and ways of thinking about the social order, which may not exactly match ours. The unregulated free market, for example, can be profoundly destabilizing in societies organized on traditional lines of kinship, ethnicity or community.

At the height of the cold war, in his brilliant and sardonic survey of American political thought, "The Liberal Tradition in America," Louis Hartz observed that despite its deepened worldwide involvement, the United States was becoming more isolated intellectually. Prevailing ideas of freedom in the United States, he noted, had become so rigid that Americans could no longer appreciate definitions of freedom, common in other countries, related to social justice and economic equality, "and hence are baffled by their use."

Today, if Americans hope to cultivate the growth of liberty in Iraq, Hartz's call for them to engage in a dialogue with the rest of the world about the meaning of freedom seems more relevant than ever.