Lennart Meri Lecture 2022 by Ambassador Daniel Fried
Time Flies, as this conference observes. Tempus fugit – time marches on, as the saying goes. So what? Does the march of time have meaning? Does the passage of time tend to bring progress? Are human beings, over time, on an ascendent track, morally and materially? Or is the passage of time without meaning, and time in human history simply a loop or cycle of repetition.
Those who believe in the principal values of the free world, in democracy and the rule of law, liberalism broadly defined, most of those attending this conference – we mostly think that with time comes progress. We mostly assume, without really thinking about it, that the cruelties and bloody habits of past eras fade as human beings ascend a moral ladder toward a better present on their way to a yet better future. We generally accept that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” as Martin Luther King Junior famously said.
It’s a bad time to make such an assumption. We have told ourselves, again and again, without really thinking about it, that the horrors of 20th century Europe, the era of Hitler and Stalin, of war and Holocaust, of Gulag and Holodomor, were in the past and had no place in the 21st century. Putin has other ideas. Those times have returned to Ukraine and to Europe in the form of Russia’s war of national destruction, mass killing of civilians, mass graves, mass rapes, millions of refugees, and threats of more from the tyrant Putin and his ideologists.
Putin draws on the worst traditions of Russia’s history – its tyranny; imperial pretentions; repression of freedom at home and as far as its armies can reach; poverty for many and massive wealth for a few, supported by corruption as a feature of the state – not only to show that power and cruelty are the immutable aspects of the Russian state, but also to show that liberal progress over time, our preferred framework for viewing history, is illusion or cant.
Putin is not alone. Tyrants and absolute rulers from China and the world over exalt in upending our casual assumption of progress over time. They believe that their time, the time of their power, has arrived.
Thirty years ago, when democratic movements overthrew communism in Europe and the Soviet Empire fell apart, we exalted that time of liberal democracy had arrived and was here to stay. Now we wonder whether we were wrong.
Is belief in progress over time mere enthusiasm or self-delusion? Or does it reflect deeper truths about human aspirations and human history? Does it matter?
I think it does matter. I think that the notion of progress over time represents something fundamental in the belief system of liberalism, of the enlightenment, and of values-driven political organization.
The religious traditions that shaped Europe and the United States hold that human beings have progressed from their beginnings, over time, toward realization of a set of values that has been laid out and exists outside of time. According to the Old Testament and the New, human beings discover these values as we ascend a sort of moral ladder. Time matters in this view because people progress over time. In this view, we are not on an endless loop or cycle of repetition but on an ascending path toward a higher good.
The thinkers of the Enlightenment, of which we are the heirs, secularized this view but retained its essence: namely, that humans progress over time toward realization of a set of universal values. The core idea of progress over time toward higher ends remains central to the Enlightenment definition of human ends.
The Enlightenment is hardly the only definition of human ends. It was challenged almost immediately from both the right and left. From the left, Marx transformed the notion of human progress into an economic and social roadmap for organizing society. Look how that turned out. From the right, the counter-enlightenment stressed the irrational and the particular and the national over the universal. Russia’s Tsar Nicholas I ran from the Enlightenment and posited his ideology of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality as its counter and sent his armies to crush liberal revolutions wherever he could.
The United States, on the other hand, embraced the Enlightenment as the basis for its foundation as a new nation, united not by blood but by belief; united by principles, rooted in the Enlightenment: that all are created equal, that all possess inherent rights as individuals that no sovereign can abridge. That new nation was supposed to become “a more perfect union” over time, as the Constitution laid out. Belief in progress made the American nation possible.
America violated our founding principles even as Thomas Jefferson wrote them into the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson wrote those words but he did not live by them. He was an enslaver.
Indeed, 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, and 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. The other view held that Jefferson’s assertion of human equality was nothing more than a misleading abstraction.
My country has struggled with these two views ever since, between Jefferson’s words and Jefferson’s deeds. 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. It is a test of whether progress is possible over time toward that more perfect union based on universal values.
Abraham Lincoln refashioned the United States based on Jefferson’s words and not Jefferson’s deeds. Lincoln believed that the United States could in fact become more like what Jefferson set out. Lincoln believed in the possibility of progress toward universal values. “All honor to Jefferson,” wrote Lincoln in 1859, “to the man who, in the concrete pressure of struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, foresight, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that today, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and stumbling block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”1
The once enslaved Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass also put his hope in progress over time toward universal values. In his most famous speech, in 1851, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Douglass celebrates America’s founding principles, then he excoriates America for its hypocrisy of slavery, then he returns to declare that he nevertheless has faith in America’s founding principles to prevail over America’s practices.
Douglass then 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 the existence of universal, liberal standards and put his faith in progress toward them everywhere, progress that would touch and redeem his own, compromised country.
In the view of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and so many others, America must progress to realize its better values or it will not exist at all. Without advancing in the direction of those, America’s founding values, it mocks its own creation. And Douglass applies this universally. He argues that liberal values, on the rise throughout the world, 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.
One generation after the Civil War, America had become a continental nation and immensely strong. By the 1890s, America started bringing its values-based view to the world, despite America’s abundant inconsistencies and hypocrisies.
The US did not see itself as a nation like those in Europe – a Great Power that competed with other great powers — 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. Its foundation was a belief in progress toward universal values, with America’s role to give history a push.
The strategy outlined in the 14 Points speech became known as Wilsonian idealism. But it really wasn’t idealism. It was a cany 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 US wouldn’t lower itself to commanding a mere sphere of influence; we wanted the liberal, rules-based system to be global. The ambition was breathtaking. The genius of that system, however, is that the US would prosper best, and could only prosper best, when other countries did as well. The US could make or try to make the world a better place and get rich in the process.
Wilson failed. America withdrew from European security. And war came that a better American policy might have prevented. As the folly of isolationism – better thought of as unilateralist transactionalism, became clear, Franklin Roosevelt and his people reached back to Wilson by recommitting to a liberal world order, a free world, rooted in belief in progress. We are in Estonia, so one early sign of this recommitment was the Wells Declaration of 1940, advanced by Sumner Wells, the number two at the State Department, that pledged no recognition of the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and made its arguments on principled grounds. The next year Wells helped draft the Atlantic Charter, like the 14 Points 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. This was the application of the American conviction of that progress toward universal values could be applied throughout the world.
This came too late for Europe’s Eastern third. America’s absence in the 1930s meant that the US and Britain could not defeat Hitler without Stalin’s help. This had consequences and you need no American to tell you what they were: Stalin could reoccupy the Baltics and seize and communize Europe as far as his armies could reach. And he did. Roosevelt seemed to realize this just before he died but did little and perhaps could do little. Truman called out Stalin and Molotov and organized resistance to Stalin in Europe, but too late for this part of Europe.
Truman organized the free world, applying the 14 Points and Atlantic Charter to the part of Europe we could reach but not beyond. When the Soviets crushed Hungary in 1956 the US agonized but did little. When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, we did not even agonize.
This reflected the Doctrine of Cold War Realism, under which I and my generation were educated, the doctrine that dominated US 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.
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 that policy assumed that Eastern Europe was permanently lost and the Soviet Union was permanent reality. The Wells Doctrine, talk about democracy in Eastern Europe, that was all rhetoric not to be taken seriously.
Doctrinal realism of this kind did not accept that progress over time was possible for Eastern Europe. Its adherents focused on immediate power realities in Europe and concluded, on that basis, that the Iron Curtain was forever.
Carter and Brzezinski and especially Ronald Reagan started to change that. The rise of dissidents in Eastern Europe after 1968, Poland’s KSS/KOR, Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, Baltic dissidents, Russian dissidents like Andrey Sakharov and also Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and especially Poland’s Solidarity movement in 1980, recalled Americans to our deeper principles: that values are not ultimately divisible and that human beings will return again and again to them.
The American government 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 machtpolitik. 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 linked to universal values. 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 Kissinger, 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 Atlantic Charter and Wilson’s 14 Points — succeeded after all. America’s non-recognition of Soviet occupation of the Baltic states was regarded for many years, especially in the State Department, as an affectation, empty symbolism. It turned out to be the right policy, more realistic than the Realists.
It is hard to recall how low the expectations were in 1989 and how much Central and Eastern Europe exceeded them. How well it all turned out. 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 to be true in Yugoslavia; elsewhere, however, a liberal vision flourished for a generation and so did societies. Democratic politics, right and left variants, and free market transformation, radically in the Baltics and Poland and more slowly elsewhere, transformed the new democracies. Results followed, GDP more than tripled in the generation following 1989.
That internal progress made possible institutional consequences for Central and Eastern Europe – mainly in the form of NATO and EU enlargements.
The horrors of the 20th century ended with a triumph of progress or, as Adam Michnik once put it, an improbable happy ending like a Hollywood movie. 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. And we see authoritarian actions and nationalist temptations in Central Europe, in Western Europe and, sadly, the United States.
Progress over time is one human truth. So is human imperfectability.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote that the line between good and evil passes through every nation and every human heart. I expect he was right.
In the case of my country, that bad national tradition, our dark side remains 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 racist rhetoric and actions, including, I am sad to report, attempts to degrade our democratic elections by intimidating or stripping authority from elections officials in favor of partisan bodies. The mob that attacked the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, recalls mob violence at the end of Reconstruction in the South, a means through which White Supremacy was restored. This will not succeed, in the end. I am confident and I recall, William Seward, Lincoln’s Secretary of State, once observed, “There was always just enough virtue in this Republic to save it. Sometime none to spare.” But this will do damage along the way.
We are not alone. Other countries have their own versions of this struggle. Though it is not my place to detail them, they follow similar divisions and similar traditions, good and otherwise.
The foreign policy corollary to this bad American tradition includes a return to America First foreign policy tenants which, as in the 1930s, sometimes seem to go hand-in-hand with domestic nativism and sometimes with an extreme version of doctrinal realism that values and progress toward them are mere affection in the face of power.
President Biden, however, has made democracy the center of his foreign policy strategy. He has done so under conditions of economic and social stresses at home and Putin’s war in Ukraine.
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.
Like George W. Bush, Biden puts freedom and democracy front and center. Like George H. W. Bush, Biden turns to Europe as a natural first partner in the world. Like both Roosevelts, Biden sees a connection between American values, American strength, and an international system that reflects both. In that sense, he is the center left version of Ronald Reagan, though, I suppose, parties on both sides would object my lead on that.
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’s war in Ukraine hangs in the balance. So is the faith of Ukraine and of Europe.
What must we conclude? Perhaps that progress is possible but never beyond challenge. From the crooked timber of humanity, as Immanuel Kant put it, no straight thing can ever be made. But Kant tried nevertheless. And so must we all.
Lennart Meri had every reason to look darkly on the very notion of human progress over time. He witnessed, and suffered from, the failure of promises and of hope. And yet his devotion to his country depended on confidence that progress was possible over time; on confidence that tyrants do not have the last word. And this confidence, this faith, was vindicated. Let us take his life as a sign.
- A. Lincoln, “Letter to Henry L Pierce, 1859 ↩