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Democracy’s Most Dangerous Assumptions

It is tempting to believe the horrors of the past will not haunt our future. Vladimir Putin is proving that we hold such beliefs at our peril. 

June 2022

By Daniel Fried

Those who believe in the principal values of the free world — democracy, the rule of law, and liberalism broadly defined — believe that with time comes progress. The assumption, without really thinking about it, is 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.

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 twentieth-century Europe — the era of Hitler and Stalin, of war and the Holocaust, of the Gulag and the Holodomor — are in the past and have no place in the twenty-first century. Vladimir Putin has other ideas. Such 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 authoritarian rulers from China and the world over, including Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman, exalt in upending our casual assumption of liberal 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 the 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?

It does matter. 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 progress from their beginnings, over time, toward realization of a set of values established and existing outside of time. According to the Old Testament and the New, human beings discover these values while climbing a sort of moral ladder. In this view, people are not trapped in an endless loop or cycle of repetition but are moving along an ascending path toward a higher good.

The thinkers of the Enlightenment, of which today’s champions of democracy are the heirs, secularized this view but retained its essence: namely, that humans progress over time toward the realization of a set of universal values. The core idea of progress over time toward a higher good remains central to the Enlightenment definition of human ends.

The Enlightenment definition of human ends is hardly the only definition, and it was challenged almost immediately from both the left and the right. From the left, Marx transformed the notion of human progress into an economic and social roadmap for organizing society that, through its dismissal of liberal values as mere artifice and scaffolding, generated new horrors when put into practice in Soviet Russia and Communist China. From the right, the counter-Enlightenment stressed the irrational as well as 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 and that all possess inherent rights as individuals which no sovereign can abridge. This new nation was supposed to become “a more perfect union” over time, as its constitution laid out. Belief in progress made the American nation possible.

The United States violated its 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 the United States’ founding, there existed another view of America — that it was a white man’s republic; a slave republic; a nation founded, as the ideologists of the Confederacy put it, on the principle of white supremacy, not on the principle that all are created equal. In this view, Jefferson’s assertion of human equality was nothing more than a misleading abstraction.

The United States has struggled with these two positions ever since, between Jefferson’s words and Jefferson’s deeds. U.S. 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, not on 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, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

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 celebrated the United States’ founding principles, then excoriated his country for the hypocrisy of slavery, and then returned to declare that he nevertheless had faith that America’s founding principles could prevail over its practices.

Douglass went even further: At the end of his speech, he argued 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. 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, the United States must progress to realize its better values, or it will not exist at all. Without advancing in the direction of those founding values, the country mocks its own creation. And Douglass applied this universally. He argued that liberal values, which were on the rise throughout the world, would bend all nations’ histories toward justice. Justice and freedom, in this view, are universal in origin, applicable to all and not just the accident of one nation in one time.

One generation after the Civil War, the United States had become a continental nation and immensely strong. By the 1890s, the country, despite its own abundant inconsistencies and hypocrisies, was bringing its values-based view to the world.

The United States saw itself as different from European nations — not as 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, private secretary to Lincoln and secretary of state under presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, brought this view to bear in his “Open Door” policy on China. According to Hay, China should not be carved up by the European great powers into spheres of influence but instead 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 Jefferson — built on this idea. Wilson’s “Fourteen Points” speech of 1918 attempted to outline a rules-based order of free nations. It was a rough first draft of U.S. grand strategy in what became known as the American Century. The foundation of this strategy was a belief in progress toward universal values, with the United States giving history a push.

The strategy outlined in the “Fourteen Points” speech became known as Wilsonian idealism. But it wasn’t really idealism. It was a canny 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 U.S. interests, broadly understood. The United States would not lower itself to commanding a mere sphere of influence; it wanted the liberal, rules-based system to be global. The ambition was breathtaking. But the genius of the system was that the United States would prosper best when other countries also prospered. The United States could make or try to make the world a better place and get rich in the process.

Wilson failed. The United States withdrew from European security in 1919, when the Senate rejected the Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I and established the League of Nations. Twenty years later, another world war broke out, which a better U.S. policy might have prevented. As the folly of U.S. isolationism became clear, Franklin Roosevelt reached back to Wilson and recommitted to a liberal world order — a free world — rooted in the belief in progress.

For the Baltic states, one early sign of this recommitment was the Welles Declaration of 1940, advanced by Acting Secretary of State Sumner Welles, which pledged that the United States would not recognize the Soviet occupation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and made its arguments on principled grounds. The next year, Welles helped to draft the Atlantic Charter, a declaration of war aims that, like the Fourteen Points, laid out a vision of a free, rules-based world, with the United States, along with Britain, as guarantor. This was the application of the American conviction that progress toward universal values could succeed throughout the world.

One of the great costs of U.S. isolationism during the interwar years was that the United States and Britain could not defeat Hitler without Stalin’s help. This had consequences: Stalin could reoccupy the Baltics and seize and communize Europe as far as Soviet 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 organized resistance against the Soviet leader in Europe, but too late for the tens of millions of people in Europe’s eastern half.

Truman organized the free world, applying the Fourteen Points and Atlantic Charter to the part of Europe that the United States and its allies could reach but not beyond. When the Soviets crushed Hungary in 1956, the United States agonized but did little. When the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, the United States did not even agonize.

This reflected the doctrine of Cold War realism, under which I and my generation were educated, the doctrine that dominated U.S. foreign policy thinking for decades and was orthodoxy at the State Department. Under that theory, the United States might decry Soviet domination of Eastern Europe but accepted it as permanent and satisfied itself with defending the West. This was the basis of détente as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger understood it.

Nixon’s détente has 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 that the Soviet Union was a permanent reality. The Welles Doctrine and 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 would last forever.

Jimmy Carter and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and especially Ronald Reagan, started to change that. The rise of dissidents in Eastern Europe after 1968, including Czechoslovakia’s Charter 77, Russian dissidents such as Andrei Sakharov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and especially Poland’s Solidarity movement in 1980, recalled Americans to their deeper principles: that values are not ultimately divisible and that human beings will return again and again to them.

The U.S. government did not see 1989 coming. The completion of Europe’s liberation, the avowed policy since 1945, in which the United States had long since ceased to believe, was upon it. 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 in it 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, home to heirs of Nixon and Kissinger, had a point about tactics during the Cold War but was wrong about strategy. The foundational documents of U.S. grand strategy during the American Century — Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the Atlantic Charter — succeeded after all. The United States’ refusal to recognize the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states was regarded for many years, especially in the State Department, as an affectation, empty symbolism. But 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. 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, and GDP in the region more than tripled in the generation after 1989.

That internal progress made possible inclusion in international institutions for Central and Eastern Europe — mainly in the form of NATO and EU enlargements.

The world now faces the resurgence of aggression from despots — acutely so from Putin’s Kremlin and in broad systemic fashion from Xi’s China. We face doubts about liberal democracy from within democracies, nearly as deep as in the 1930s when, challenged by fascism and Stalinism, liberal democracy seemed to be skidding on history’s exit ramp. And we see authoritarian actions and nationalist temptations in Central Europe, in Western Europe, and, sadly, in the United States.

The good news is, like George W. Bush before him, President Joseph Biden has put freedom and democracy front and center. And like George H.W. Bush, who was president when Soviet communism collapsed, Biden looks 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.

The bad news is that even the best strategic frameworks offer 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.

This essay is drawn from the 2022 Lennart Meri Lecture, delivered at the Lennart Meri Conference on 14 May 2022 in Tallinn, Estonia.

Daniel Fried, the former U.S. ambassador to Poland, is currently a Weiser Family Distinguished Fellow at the Atlantic Council. He is on the Board of Directors of the National Endowment for Democracy and a visiting professor at Warsaw University.


Copyright © 2022 National Endowment for Democracy

Image Credit: Imperial War Museums via Getty Images




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