It was thought, though, that any civilized people might be persuaded to reject tyranny. Any civilized community might prefer a suitably designed and confining constitution, limiting powers and working at a reliable rule of law.
By the way, that “rule of law” was a value that Mr. Cohn and General McMaster left off of their “most important” list—yet is anything more essential to our way of life?
Aside from the relation with democracy, the other great ideal that any liberal order finds necessary, yet troubling, is the one about community: nationalism.
Consider the case of Poland. For 250 years, Poland has been a great symbol to the rest of Europe. For much of Polish and European history, nationalism was an ally of liberalism. Versus Czarist tyranny, versus aristocratic oligarchs.
But sometimes not. Today, Poland’s governing Law and Justice party is all about being anti-Russian, anti-Communist, and pro-Catholic. They are all about “authority” and “community.” At the expense of…? Poland’s president has just had to intervene when the rule of law itself seemed to be at stake.
We Americans and our friends should define what we stand for. Define it in a way that builds a really big tent.
In 1989, working for the elder President Bush, I was able to get the phrase, “commonwealth of free nations,” into a couple of the president’s speeches. It didn’t stick.
Nearly 20 years later, in 2008, the late Harvard historian Ernest May and I came up with a better formulation. We thought that through human history the most adaptable and successful societies had turned out to be the ones that were “open and civilized.”
Rather than the word, “liberal,” the word “open” seems more useful. It is the essence of liberty. Indian prime minister Narendra Modi uses it in his speeches; Karl Popper puts it at the core of his philosophy; Anne-Marie Slaughter makes it a touchstone in her latest book. That’s a big tent right there.
Also the ideal of being “civilized.” Not such an old-fashioned ideal. It gestures to the yearning for community. Not only a rule of law, also community norms, the norms that reassure society and regulate rulers—whether in a constitution or in holy scripture.
Chinese leaders extol the value of being civilized—naturally, they commingle it with Sinification. Muslims take pride in a heritage that embraces norms of appropriate conduct by rulers. And, of course, in an open society, community norms can be contested and do evolve.
The retired Indian statesman, Shyam Saran, recently lectured on, “Is a China-centric world inevitable?” To Saran, “A stable world order needs a careful balance … between power and legitimacy. Legitimacy is upheld when states, no matter how powerful, observe … norms of state behavior.” India, Saran said, had the “civilizational attributes.”
So that is my first suggestion—to simplify, yet balance, our expressions of core values.