As war rages in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin grows more and more isolated from the West, President Biden has consistently defined the growing crisis as a “battle between democracy and autocracy.” Officials in Washington are increasingly eager to block Russian attempts to influence other parts of the world. Last month, for instance, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen traveled to several countries in Africa as part of an effort to strengthen ties with the continent.
According to Biden’s narrative, authoritarian movements pose the gravest threat to global stability by countering the spread of democracy. Biden reiterated this belief in a speech to African leaders late last year in which he encouraged them to “strengthen democracy and the core values that unite our people — all our people, especially young people — freedom, opportunity, transparency, good governance.”
Although this dichotomy between “democracy” and “autocracy” captures an element of American strategic competition, it does not tell the whole story. And, more importantly, it fails to appeal to the leaders of nondemocratic countries that the United States needs as allies to succeed in outcompeting our rivals. Biden needs to develop a more compelling narrative about the meaning of freedom and how we can protect it.
In foreign affairs, America’s comparative advantage is our dedication to freedom. Our founding principles have inspired people all over the world to strive for freedom and throw off tyranny. But as Abraham Lincoln once said, “The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty.” Ideas like “democracy” or “freedom” are incredibly slippery, and we need to work hard to clearly define what we mean.
During the Cold War, conservative thinkers and writers worked hard to recover the meaning of American freedom. They knew that the milquetoast defenses of “democracy” on offer from New Deal liberals could not withstand the ideological threat posed by the Soviet Union. The left-wing establishment had a natural tendency to accommodate and appease the Soviets because its egalitarian commitments and faith in centralized bureaucracy were simply too similar to communism.
One of the most vocal anticommunist voices was Whittaker Chambers. His memoir, Witness, is a neglected classic of American literature. It recounts his youthful embrace of communism, induction into the Soviet espionage underground, and eventual break with the Communist Party.
Chambers was initially attracted to communism out of disgust for bourgeois society. He came to see revolution “as a reflex of human suffering and desperation, a perpetual insurgence of that instinct for justice and truth that lay within the human soul, from which a new vision of truth and justice was continually issuing to meet the new needs of the soul in new ages of the world.” He joined the Communist Party itself and, eventually, the Soviet underground in the hope that the world’s great Marxist-Leninist power would bring about a new birth of freedom.
He especially admired the apparent strength of communism. “The Communist Party presents itself as the one organization of the will to survive the crisis in a civilization where that will is elsewhere divided, wavering, or absent,” he said. “The revolution is never stronger than the failure of civilization. Communism is never stronger than the failure of other faiths.”
In the end, though, two things convinced Chambers to break with the Party.
The first was the screams. In the introduction to Witness, Chambers recounts an anecdote from a communist-sympathizing German diplomat walking through Moscow one night. In the cold air, “he heard screams.” For the first time, his eyes were opened to the immense human suffering caused by the Soviet regime. In their attempt to impose an abstract equality on all people, the communists carried out crime after crime against the concrete dignity of actual persons. For Chambers, this ideological commitment to revolution was embodied in the gulag camps and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact – the political event which inspired him to begin informing on former Party associates.
The second was a quiet moment of contemplation. Sitting in a Baltimore apartment with his baby daughter, Chambers realized that her life was a miracle. Looking at the intricacies of her ear, he suddenly understood that human beings “could have been created only by immense design.” Communism, however, completely rejects the notion of God. Communists suppose that man is the measure of all things; therefore, man has a responsibility to revolutionize the world and remake it in his own image. In a world without God, man must become as gods. But in a world with God, such an attitude is foolish rebellion.
In the agony of his break with the Party, Chambers discovered an important truth – perfect freedom can only be found in service to God:
“Freedom is a need of the soul, and nothing else. It is in striving toward God that the soul strives continually after a condition of freedom. God alone is the inciter and guarantor of freedom. He is the only guarantor. External freedom is only an aspect of interior freedom. Political freedom, as the Western world has known it, is only a political reading of the Bible. Religion and freedom are indivisible. Without freedom the soul dies. Without the soul there is no justification for freedom… A Communist breaks because he must choose at last between irreconcilable opposites — God or Man, Soul or Mind, Freedom or Communism.”
Chambers believed the New Deal liberalism which dominated Washington in the early days of the Cold War was a threat to this godly freedom. He came to despise the notion that certain “experts” have special knowledge which they can deploy through bureaucratic regulation. Chambers believed that the common people’s right to rule themselves was essential to the preservation of human dignity. The traditions of American self-government – divided sovereignty, constitutionalism, a virtuous citizenry – were, for Chambers, a great source of faith in the struggle against totalitarianism.
Chambers’s vision of freedom, stemming from his belief in the equal dignity of every human being, is far more attractive than President Biden’s simplistic dichotomy between “democracy” and “autocracy.” It nothing to do with faddish liberal notions of progress, but rather a fuller account of human nature’s truly universal aspects. And it can do far more to appeal to traditionalist societies in the Global South than any of the White House’s empty rhetoric.