FPI Bulletin: President Trump and the Cause of Freedom

January 24, 2017

In his inaugural address, President Donald Trump mentioned freedom on just one occasion, when he said that all Americans, regardless of color, “enjoy the same glorious freedoms and we all salute the same great American Flag.” While this statement expressed a worthy sentiment, it is striking that Mr. Trump never again never again referred to the idea of freedom or to the Constitution and the rights of American citizens. The material well-being of the American people should be a primary concern for every chief executive, yet the president and his advisers would do well to recall the inaugural remarks of his predecessors, who articulated how the strength and security of Americans, both at home and abroad, depend on our commitment to freedom.

Lessons from the Founders

Inaugural addresses look ahead to new policies and programs, yet to guide the way forward, they have almost all look back to the lessons of our Founding. As John F. Kennedy said in 1961, “We dare not forget that we are the heirs of that first revolution,” which our ancestors fought to defend “the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.” By reflecting on the past, Kennedy and other presidents arrived at the conclusion that the chief executive has a profound responsibility to preserve our country’s exceptional heritage. In 1985, Ronald Reagan expressed his hope that history would say of his tenure, “These were golden years—when the American Revolution was reborn, when freedom gained new life, and America reached for her best.” Just four years ago, Barack Obama said, “Let us answer the call of history and carry into an uncertain future that precious light of freedom.”

By looking only forward and never back, Donald Trump’s inaugural address stands in stark contrast to its predecessors. Untethered from the past, Trump’s address never articulated any sense of responsibility for the traditions of freedom and constitutional self-government. The president did assert forcefully that “a nation exists to serve its citizens” and that he will fight for the American people until his last breath. This is commendable, yet Trump’s notion of how to serve the people consists almost entirely of promoting their material well-being. Justifiably, Americans want better roads, better jobs, and better schools. Yet what has made our country unique – indeed, great – is its thirst for freedom.

Freedom and National Security

In the past, inaugural addresses have also drawn an explicit connection between the principles of freedom and U.S. national security. In his first inaugural address, at a time when Americans’ self-confidence was at low tide, Ronald Reagan asserted without hesitation that “no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women.” He added, “It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have.” What the courage of free men and women depends on is the belief that they are fighting for a noble cause. At no point in his inaugural address did Trump articulate such a cause. While he has branded Islamic terrorism as evil, the president draws no moral distinctions when comparing the U.S. to Russia, China, or other dictatorships. His rhetoric leaves the impression that Americans should care only about their bottom line, not their higher calling.

Donald Trump’s predecessors have recognized that freedom creates an invaluable bond between the United States and its allies. Dwight Eisenhower delivered his first inaugural address at the height of the Cold War and in the midst of hot and bloody war on the Korean peninsula. “Freedom is pitted against slavery,” he declared, and “the faith we hold belongs not to us alone but to the free of all the world.” Since the Founding, Americans have described their creed as the heritage of all those who are free and all those who yearn to be free. The rights we enjoy are endowed by our creator, not by the fact of being American.

This notion of rights that transcends citizenship leads naturally to a more positive appraisal of democratic allies. As Eisenhower said, “we are persuaded by necessity and by belief that the strength of all free peoples lies in unity; their danger, in discord.” He extended this point to economic relations, asserting, “We are linked to all free peoples not merely by a noble idea but by a simple need. No free people can for long cling to any privilege or enjoy any safety in economic solitude.”

In contrast, Trump promised in his inaugural that “protection will lead to great prosperity,” and appraises even our most enduring alliances in terms of financial cost and the balance of investments in military strength. Although at odds with more than 60 years of American diplomacy, this mercantile approach is consistent with a view of alliances as purely transactional matters, based on material interests rather than shared values.

Promoting Democracy and Human Rights

Well before Donald Trump declared his intention to run for president, there was a diminished appetite for idealism in the conduct of American foreign relations. The most common criticism of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that they were naïve exercises in nation-building. Since 2004, when John Kerry denounced George W. Bush for building firehouses in Baghdad while they were shut down at home, presidential candidates have sought to leverage the feeling that neglect at home is the cost of wars in the Middle East. In this regard, Trump is only building on the precedents set by Kerry and Obama. Thus, a generation may pass before any president echoes the aspiration of Bush’s 2005 inaugural address, in which he pledged “to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”

Nonetheless, a commitment to realism in no way necessitates the devaluation of freedom as a strategic asset. This point becomes most clear when one compares Bush’s 2005 inaugural to both his father’s address in 1989 as well as his own words from 2001, not long after he had run for president as an opponent of Bill Clinton’s nation-building in Bosnia. In 2001, the younger Bush observed, “If our country does not lead the cause of freedom, it will not be led.” “The enemies of liberty and our country should make no mistake,” he warned, since “America remains engaged in the world, by history and by choice, shaping a balance of power that favors freedom.” Bush’s language deliberately avoided any suggestion that America should play an active role in promoting democratic change. Instead, our faith in democracy would be “a seed upon the wind, taking root in many nations”—without our interference.

Deservedly, George H.W. Bush has a reputation for being the most insistent realist of the postwar era, matched only by Richard Nixon. Yet in his inaugural address, Bush offered one of the most striking affirmations of freedom of any chief executive. Speaking just 10 months before the Berlin Wall came down,  he said: “We know what works: Freedom works. We know what's right: Freedom is right. We know how to secure a more just and prosperous life for man on Earth: through free markets, free speech, free elections, and the exercise of free will unhampered by the state.”

By no means did the elder Bush intend his words as an encomium to democracy promotion. In a brief passage on national security he offered traditional realist advice, pledging to keep our alliances strong while observing that “Great nations like great men must keep their word. When America says something, America means it, whether a treaty or an agreement or a vow made on marble steps.” Nonetheless, Bush’s strategic realism did not preclude his recognition that freedom is essential to our way of life at home as well as a source of influence.

Beyond the Inaugural Address

In hindsight, the achievements of our presidents often pale in comparison to the soaring rhetoric of their first remarks. In some instances, the best-laid plans were not enough to realize good intentions. In others, one may suspect that a new president was simply paying lip service to tradition. What remains clear is that inaugural addresses do not chart an administration’s destiny. Opportunities abound for adjustment and reconsideration. One can only hope that President Trump will invest the effort necessary to think through the relationship between our country’s exceptional democratic heritage and his plans for the next four years. If he learns the language of freedom, he has the potential to find many new allies, both at home and abroad. If he does not, then his pursuit of “America First” may come at the expense of what makes us truly American.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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