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Free For All

Last week, the United Nations hosted a debate on the meaning of freedom. George W. Bush, in town for the opening of the General Assembly, made his usual pitch: The United States wants a world "where ordinary men and women are free to determine their own destiny."

Then Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took the podium and insisted that the United States wants no such thing. What the United States calls freedom, he insisted, is really "domination." Most of the world's problems, he argued, resulted "from the powerful, not being contented with their own rights, striving to devour the rights of others." He went on to talk endlessly about "justice" (using variations of the word 35 times)--one nation's right not to be dominated by others.

Then came Venezuela's Hugo ChAvez, who also accused Bush of "domination." What the United States calls democracy, he insisted, is really "world dictatorship." "What a strange democracy," he exclaimed. "Aristotle might not recognize it."

Funny that he should mention Aristotle. In 1991, the sociologist Orlando Patterson published a book titled Freedom in the Making of Western Culture. Our understanding of freedom, he argued, comes from the Greeks. But, for many Greeks, freedom was intimately connected to slavery: Unless you dominated others, you weren't really free. (Southern slaveholders made a similar argument. ) Patterson called this "sovereignal freedom," which he defined as "the power to act as one pleases, regardless of the wishes of others." And he contrasted it with "personal freedom"--the right to act as one pleases while respecting the rights of others to do the same.

Patterson is an eminent social scientist; Ahmadinejad and Chavez are populist thugs. But, without realizing it, they are playing on his distinction. Bush, they claim, defines freedom as America's right to impose its wishes on others, and, if people resist that imposition, they are therefore resisting freedom and democracy. "For some powers," Ahmadinejad declared, "claims of promotion of human rights and democracy can only last as long as they can be used as instruments of pressure and intimidation against other nations."

It would be nice to dismiss Ahmadinejad and Chavez as irrelevant, but their arguments have deep resonance. When the Council on Foreign Relations sponsored focus groups in Egypt, Morocco, and Indonesia, average citizens said that the United States "acts like a dictator," wants to "rule the world," and would "dominate the world by any means." A poll taken by the Pew Research Center in 2005 found that majorities in Indonesia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Turkey, Russia, Lebanon, Jordan, and Kuwait feared U.S. military action against their countries. As the poll put it, "People abroad are more likely to believe that the U.S.- led war on terror has been about controlling Mideast oil and dominating the world than they are to take at face value America's stated objectives of self-defense and global democratization."

Are these views the product of paranoia? Sure. But they are also the product of experience. For twenty-first-century Americans, Patterson's argument about the interconnection of freedom and oppression seems bizarre. (For nineteenth- century Americans, it would have seemed much less so.) For people whose countries were recently colonized, however, the argument is more intuitive. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Patterson himself hails from Jamaica.) French, Spanish, and British imperialists also spoke, in varying ways, about bringing Christianity, civilization, and, yes, freedom to the dark corners of the globe. And yet, to many of their subjects--who saw Europe's political, cultural, and economic progress in the age of empire--Western freedom seemed dependent on non- Western subjugation. Ahmadinejad and Chavez are hardly the first Middle Eastern and Latin American nationalists to suggest that what the West calls freedom is really a zero-sum game.

Sixty years ago, when the United States supplanted Great Britain as the greatest power on earth, American leaders argued that the age of imperialism was ending. Freedom meant selfdetermination for formerly subjugated peoples (including peoples subjugated by the ussr). And self-determination for the weak meant limits on the power of the strong. As Harry Truman said in a speech to the then-fledgling United Nations, "All of us must recognize--it doesn't matter how great our strength is--that we must deny ourselves the license to always do whatever we want."

This sentiment, to be sure, was sometimes honored in the breach. But it disposed the United States to a generally positive view of international institutions and international law. When the United States embraced civil rights at home, it rejected the argument for sovereignal freedom that white Southerners had been making since slavery. And, when the United States committed itself to international standards on human rights, it rejected the argument for sovereignal freedom implicit in the imperialism of the past.

Did that prevent Third World nationalists from calling the United States a neo-empire that purchased its growing freedom and prosperity at the expense of others? Not at all. But it furnished Americans with counterarguments. Human rights and self-determination, leaders like Truman insisted, were not merely masks for U.S. domination; they were principles that restrained the United States as well.

That argument never convinced everyone. But it convinced many more people than it does today. In the Bush era, as even a thoughtful neoconservative like Robert Kagan has acknowledged, "America, for the first time since World War II, is suffering a crisis of international legitimacy." And it is that crisis on which men like Ahmadinejad and ChAvez feed.

Combating Ahmadinejad and ChAvez does not require abandoning the language of freedom. To the contrary, it requires rescuing it--by recognizing that, unless freedom imposes restraints on the United States as well as on other nations, it will sound to many in the postcolonial world like domination.

If the interdependence of freedom and subjugation constitutes the West's cultural heritage, argued Patterson, the delinking of freedom from subjugation constitutes the West's great achievement. And, in a world where many have come to doubt and fear the United States, America must now achieve it again.

This article originally ran in the October 9, 2006, issue of the magazine.